Bringing the heat in the cold — outdoor running in winter

When it's this cold and snowy, I'd rather be warm than stylish!

York County’s average daily temperature has hovered around somewhere 30-ish degrees throughout the month of January. Exercising can be hard enough when the weather is fine, but when it’s this cold and windy, getting out the door can be that much harder.

A lot of runners, especially new runners, are challenged by the idea of leaving a warm, toasty home to hit the streets or the trails for a run. Another problem that even experienced runners often face is difficulty breathing in the cold air. The lungs can feel like they’re not getting the same amount of oxygen, inhaling can be painful and the threat of bronchial problems can make even the most dedicated runners want to stay indoors. Winter weather doesn’t have to banish you to a treadmill or mean skipping a workout. With a few tweaks to your winter workout wardrobe, your outdoor runs can go from freezing to breezing.

Dress for Success

Dressing appropriately can make or break your workout. In the cold, it’s important to keep your core and extremities warm, but as a runner, you also don’t want to feel too bulky or too hot once you get started. “If you’re warm at the start, you’re going to be too hot at the finish,” is some solid advice from my dad, who’s been running for about 45 years. Once your heart rate begins to climb and your muscles are warmed up, your core temperature will likely rise between 5-10 degrees— so while that extra hoodie might seem like a good idea when you first step outside, after a half mile it might feel way too hot or cumbersome.

If you’re new to running or exercising, maintaining a higher heart rate or core temperature during your entire workout might be too challenging at first. If you’re taking a “run some, walk some” approach to your training, you want to make sure you’re comfortable throughout your workout.  Dressing in layers is a must. It makes it easy to quickly adjust your temperature by either adding or removing extra clothing. Zippered sweatshirts or jackets are especially great if you expect your workout intensity to fluctuate, like from walking or running intervals. You can quickly unzip to allow your body to cool down without having to remove your entire outer layer.

Personally, I’d rather be too warm than too cold, so on my easy workout days, I try to dress so I’m comfortable during the easiest part of my workout.

What I wear when it’s 30-ish degrees:

When I’m feeling slow– Insulated wind pants or sweatpants, undershirt T-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, hoodie, thermal headband/ear warmer

Usually my slow days are the days that I really do not want to go out and run. Sometimes I can bribe myself into going by allowing myself to bring some of the indoor warmth and coziness outside. I’ll put on my warmest pair of sweatpants and hoodie so I’ll know that I’ll feel warm and comfortable when I’m outside. This makes it harder for me to tell myself that it’s just too cold to run. It’s just not a good enough excuse anymore!

When I’m feeling fast– Long running tights, sleeveless undershirt, long-sleeved shirt, form-fitting running jacket, headband/ear warmer

The tights and jacket hug my body, so they don’t feel bulky or slow me down when I’m on a long or fast run. Also, the jacket has a zipper that allows me to cool off or warm up easily without having to stop to take off a layer. The undershirt keeps my core (torso, heart and lungs) warm, which is important because I have asthma and breathing in the cold can sometimes make my chest hurt. The headband/ear warmer is another must because sometimes I get earaches when it’s cold or windy and I’m outside for a while. This style by Athleta is very lightweight and even has a loop for my ponytail!

What I wear when it’s even colder:

As the temperature drops, it becomes important to add an extra or layer or so, especially around your core. Try to stick to breathable fabrics that will wick moisture away from your body while retaining heat. Wearing a hat and gloves is always a good idea when it’s really cold. They’re easy to take on or off, and they’re small enough to carry easily. An old runner’s trick is to wear a pair of socks on your hands, instead of gloves. They keep your fingers together, like mittens, so they’re warmer than gloves, and they’re easy to wash if they get sweaty, dirty, or—let’s be honest—a little snotty. (I mean, who doesn’t get a runny nose in the cold?)

Breathe easy— even in the cold.

During my sophomore year of college, I was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma, which never bothered me until I began training seriously during cold, dry weather. My doctor recommended using my albuterol inhaler 15 minutes before a run. If, however, you don’t have asthma but still have trouble breathing in the cold, there are still steps you can take to breathe easy.

When it’s cold and dry, wearing a face mask during your run will create a barrier of warm, humid air around your mouth, which can be easier to breathe in and feel like less of a shock to your throat and chest. If you don’t have a ski mask or a face mask (available on Amazon), you can wrap a scarf around your neck and mouth. Make sure the fabric is thin enough that air can flow through it easily and won’t totally obstruct your breathing. Some runners also recommend trying to breathe through your nose instead of your mouth when the air is cold.

The harder you’re exercising, the harder you’re breathing, and when it’s cold, breathing can be hard enough. Give your body time to adjust to the cold air— if you’re still struggling to breathe, back off your intensity level and try to gradually build to the point where you feel comfortable. It might be no problem for you to breeze through your usual workout when you’re indoors or during nice weather, but when it’s cold, respect that your body might need more time to adjust to the elements.

Even after ten years of running, it can still be a struggle for me to get moving and get my workout in. But when I do, I know that it’s well worth the effort.

What gets you out the door when it’s cold?

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4 Responses

  1. Noreen says:

    After reading the article I do want to exercise. Thanks!

  2. Noreen Lazarus says:

    After reading article I want to exercise! Thanks!

  3. Guy Montag says:

    Great Article! I almost wish I hadn’t read it because it took my one excuse, for not running, away. But it’s great motivation.

    I will definitively adhere to these tips. As a former twice daily runner, I’ve forgotten a lot of the tricks to beating the winter, some of these I never thought about before. I wish I had this to read when I was in High School; waiting for Track season to start wouldn’t have been so painful.

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