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How to run during the winter months

Updated on April 3, 2013

Running is fun and healthy but if you live up north it can be a challenge during the winter months. It’s dark, cold and slippery. It’s hard enough to walk without falling down so running may seem like an insurmountable task. But with the right gear and right attitude you can learn to enjoy winter running. Running in cold will give you a special feeling because you can hear the snow under your feet and smell the freezing but fresh air. It can make you feel more alive than what you would feel if you run in the gym or just during the summer.

The Right Gear

First of all you need the right gear. During the winter it's not enough to pull out your summer sweatpants and a t-shirt and head outside.

Let's start from your head because when it's cold, you can lose 10% of your heat from your head. I would recommend a wool hat because it breaths and it's light. Other good option would be a fleece hat. If you start feeling hot, you can simply take them off and tuck them into your pants.

You should also protect your neck and face and for that I recommend a neck gaiter or a scarf. A neck gaiter is better because it's designed to protect both your neck and face and it stays where it’s supposed to stay. A scarf is a good option too but you should be careful how you put it. It’s no use if it has slipped off from your face or neck.

I would also advise you to buy some Vaseline. You can use it on your lips, nose and cheek to protect you against windburn or chapping. If you opt to use other kind of cream, be sure that it doesn't contain water. You don't want it to freeze on your face.

The Upper body

Next we are going to talk about your upper body. The key word here is layering. If you have chosen right layers, they will allow sweat to move from your skin to outer layers while still keeping your body heat trapped.

The layer that should be closest to your skin is called a wicking base layer (also known as a first layer or performance underwear). This can be made out of synthetic materials such as DryFit, Thinsulate, Thermax, CoolMax or polypropolene. Or it can be made out of natural materials like merino wool and silk. The only really important thing about choosing the wicking layer is that it shouldn’t be made of cotton. Because once cotton gets wet, it will stay wet and then you will naturally feel wet and cold.

The next layer is the insulating layer or middle layer. This is needed if the weather gets really cold (below 10 degrees F or -10 degrees C). This layer should continue wicking the moisture away from your skin while still trapping some air to keep you warm. Some suggested materials include Akwatek, Dryline, Polartec, polyester fleece, Microfleece, Thermafleece and Thermax.

The final layer is the wind- and waterproof outer layer. As the name suggests this is the layer that is going to protect you from wind and moisture. But it still has to be breathable so the moisture from your body can escape. It’s a good idea to get a jacket with a zipper so you can open your jacket if you feel too hot. I advise you to get a jacket made out of ClimaFit, Gore-Tex, Microsuplex, nylon, Supplex, or Windstopper.

You shouldn’t forget to protect your hands! Gloves work fine but if it’s extremely cold you should use mittens so your fingers would all share their body heat.

The Lower Body and Feet

For your lower part you need some running tights or pants. Your legs generate so much heat that you don’t really need so many layers on your lower body. So if it’s not extremely cold you should be fine with running pants made out of synthetic materials like Thermion, Thinsulate, Thermax, polypropolene, Coolmax, or natural material like silk. Just remember to avoid cotton because it gets wet and makes you feel cold. If it’s below 10 degrees F or -10 degrees C, you should consider using two layers on your lower half: a wicking layer of tights, and a wind-proof layer such as track pants.

Example of running shoes with superior traction. Shoes: Nike Zoom Structure Triax+ 13 GTX
Example of running shoes with superior traction. Shoes: Nike Zoom Structure Triax+ 13 GTX

Your feet should say warm as long as you keep moving and don’t get them wet. Try to avoid shoes with mesh because the water can seep through the mesh and make your feet wet and cold. If you run in a city and the streets are free of snow, you can just use the same running shoes you use during the summer. If there is a little snow or ice you should find shoes that offer superior traction.

Detachable spikes for shoes
Detachable spikes for shoes

If you are running in snowy and icy conditions, you could consider of buying detachable spikes for your shoes. They allow you to run even when it's icy without the fear of slipping. Some running shoes that are meant to be used during the winter also come with spikes. These spikes are not detachable so they can only be used during winter when there is snow.

Remember that you should never wear cotton socks but you should use a pair of wicking socks which can be made out of acrylic, CoolMax, or wool.

The Run

Now that you have your winter running gear, you are ready to burst out of the door for your run. If you haven’t run during the winter time before, you should begin easily. Take your time to warm up properly so you don’t hurt yourself. The air is cold and it might take longer for your muscles to warm up than it would normally do. A good advice is to walk fast at least 5 minutes before starting to run.

When you run, you breathe deeper than you would otherwise and cold air can be harmful for your lungs. So if you feel any kind of pain in your throat or lungs, you should slow down and walk for a while. In nature, winter is time for resting and so you shouldn’t be hard for yourself if you don’t feel running as often as you did before. Also if the weather is really bad or if there is snow up to your knees, it is better that you skip the running for the day and either rest or do some other kind of workout. It’s no use to go out for a run if you end up hurting yourself.

If you live somewhere up north where the days are short and the nights too long, you should be extremely careful about your running route. Try to find a route that is well lit of if there is no such routes near you, you should buy a powerful headlamp. This is especially important if you run in your normal running shoes that don’t offer superior traction or which don’t have detachable spikes. Light allows you to see icy spots or any uneven terrain so you will be able to slow down or go around them.

Running in a well-lit street may help you to see around you but you should remember that you too want to be seen. Wearing a reflector is a good idea if you run near a road. Then drivers are able to see you from far away and they have time to avoid you.

Hopefully this article has helped you to find out what you need for your winter run. It can be a fun and exciting hobby which will keep you healthier and happier during the long winter nights.


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    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 4 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      Very informative and useful hub Lumitare. I haven't really run in the cold but can appreciate the reasons outlined in the hub. Thanks.

    • number2son profile image

      number2son 4 years ago

      I was just telling you how I do it. I run almost every day, so I am very used to it.

    • Lumitare profile image

      Lumitare 4 years ago from Helsinki

      It's true that you don't necessarily need all this clothing. I remember reading an article about a running group where men run without a shirt and they only had shorts. And they were running during winter when it was below -10 degrees. But it was pretty obvious that they have been running for a long time and they were in good shape. It was really cool but I don't think that I am going to join them very soon.

    • number2son profile image

      number2son 4 years ago

      This winter, I ran in around 15 degree weather, with an around 0 degree wind chill. I wore a t-shirt, track pants, and (most of the days at those temperatures) workman's gloves (they don't keep you very warm, but they're better than nothing). I find lean muscle to be one of the best ways to stay warm. I don't recommend this for most people, and would definitely recommend what you say to do, over what I do. I just figured I'd share my own experiences.