Running in Cold Weather – The Basics

Days are freshening. Leaves are turning. road-1072823_1280As that cold north wind begins to blow, it’s time to get the mental toolkit and the gear ready for running in cold weather – before the real weather arrives. And, hey, with a few basics under your belt you can turn winter from the dreaded darkness to a season to embrace.

Basic #1 – Don’t Overdress

You may have heard of the Ohio farmer who, for every winter of his adult life, shoveled the snow between his house and the barn to keep a path open. All he wore to do this were boots, gloves and an athletic supporter. He swore he felt perfectly fine for the 45 minutes or so it took him to finish the job.

Maybe you’ll need a little more than that for decorum, but you just don’t need as much as you think.

If you wear too much you’re going to sweat. Plain and simple.sweat-1576382_1280

And if you sweat too much, you’re inviting problems when it’s cold outside.

Nothing quite like having to stop in the freezing cold when you’re in a lather and experiencing the remarkable cooling properties of sweat first hand – from all your soaked clothes turning to ice.

Teeth chatter.

Parts turn blue.

It takes a half hour of a steaming hot shower to raise your core temperature back to normal.

And it dehydrates you – completely unnecessarily – but a little more on that later.

So, don’t overdress. Instead…

Use Multiple Thin Layers of Natural Material

Natural material, cotton and wool, are the best at getting moisture away from your skin. lamb-1306604_1280

Yes, there are materials specifically designed to get sweat away from your body – but none are as cheap or readily available as a simple cotton tee-shirt or long-sleeved tee.

You don’t need sweatshirts or hoodies or Thinsulate or eiderdown.

What you need are a few old cotton t-shirts (or if you need to go all downtown, merino wool) under your shell and you’ll be just fine.

If you find you’re overdressed, you can easily stop, take off a layer, and either carry it with you or stash it to pick it up later. They will keep you as dry as you want to be, without tempting hypothermia.

Keep the Core Warm

I’ve never worn a second set of socks in my running shoes to protect against the cold. And I’ve run in some cold, cold temperatures. The reason – I keep my core warm.

A warm core, interestingly, will do a lot to keep the rest of you warm.

In World War II, pilots flying at high altitude in unheated cabins suffered frozen hands and feet. bomber-429985_1280This not only caused extreme discomfort, but significant loss of life. To remedy it, the air force outfitted crews with suits wired with heating wires for the hands and feet, but the suits didn’t do the job.

In another stab at the problem, they gave the crews suits that heated torsos, arms and legs – but not the hands and feet. To many people’s surprise, these suits worked. No more frozen appendages. Pilots and crews could fly in (relative) comfort. And most importantly, it reduced the number of crashes.

The core of your body, it it gets a bit too much heat, will try to shed that heat by increasing circulation to the extremities – using your hands and feet as blood coolers. If that works, problem solved. If it doesn’t, you’ll also start to sweat.

So, keeping your core warm will help keep circulation going to the fingers and toes as well – and keep them toasty.

Wear a Hat

According to the latest findings, you lose from 7 – 10% of your body’s heat through your head. Considering you make most, perhaps not all, of life’s decisions with the old bean, it probably makes some sense to cover it up for more than just thermal-loss reasons.

For guys, I offer this additional cautionary tale from the terrific little book “The Hibernation Response”:

In December 1812, Napoleon retreated from Russia, having lost some 469,000 of his 500,000 troops. Many had died of the cold, and according to Napoleon biographer Nigel Nicholson, “Baron Larrey, chief surgeon to the army, noticed that the bald died first.”

So if, like me, you’re beginning to thin out up there, a hat’s a historically proven good idea.

Just saying.

Basic #2 – Be Seen

If you’re in what’s known as the temperate zone (or even further north) in the Norther Hemisphere it becomes readily apparent around the first of October that we’re headed back into the darkness. It’s darker longer. And it’s going to keep going in that direction until just before Christmas.

Which is bound to force some of your running into darker periods of the day.

So, you need to be seen.

Reflective material on your jacket, socks, shoes, tights, hat, everywhere, is a must.

Most gear now has a good trim, at least, of reflective material. If you plan to run along roads or busy streets, get hold of a reflective vest for additional visibility.

Get at least one light – headlamps are the best. And a spare is never a bad idea.

And have a flashing rear-facing light as well if you’re running along roads.

Don’t be shy. christmas-1336773_1280The more you’re lit up, the more LEDs pulsating on you, the greater the likelihood drivers will also see you.

Be a living lit-up Christmas tree until spring and you’ll be in great shape come spring.

Basic #3 – Take on Water

A study at the University of Birmingham concluded that at cold temperatures, dehydration (of all things, right?) can be a problem.drops-of-water-578897_1280The author lists a number of factors for this, including the fact that your body needs to evacuate more often by a process called cold-induced diuresis. (Causing the unfortunate double whammy of not only needing to pee more, but in a season where there are few leaves for cover and you have to negotiate your way through more layers of clothes.) In addition, you lose more body moisture through your breath because of the decreased humidity of cold air.

Adding on the fact that it’s cool outside – so why does anyone need water? – the fact that people tend to ignore point #1 above and sweat profusely, and the fact that drinking water is actually solid at sub-zero temperatures, and the conditions are ripe for the uninitiated to be dehydrated.

Fortunately, that won’t be you.

You’ll take on water.

Keep it Basic

These are the basics I’ve come across – through many (many) freeze/thaw cycles myself , some good, some not so good – for running in cold weather.

Just a few simple things. Don’t overdress, be seen, and take on water.

That’s about it.

And you’ll be good right through winter.

I’ll get into more specifics in another post about what to actually wear when you’re out there in the cold.

I’d love to hear your experiences with running in cold weather, and any comments you’d like to share, in the comments area below.

See you out there!







  1. Amberlee

    What a shame that this article was written a few months ago as I would have loved the insight when I was running through the Australian winter. I am happy to say that the weather is warming up now, as it’s the beginning of our Spring. However, I am going to take on your advice. Especially what you said about clothing. You see, I always end up wearing too much bulky clothing when I run to keep myself warm and then when I start to sweat I get extremely frustrated as I have to stop running to peel the layers off. But not anymore as I will be only wearing thin layers made from cotton and wool! So thank you, for making me a happy runner again.

    1. Larry (Post author)

      Thanks Amberlee. Sorry I couldn’t have posted a few months ago – we’re just getting the cold weather here now. My mind wasn’t quite in that seasonal space a few months ago!

      I hope the change of season isn’t that severe in the part of Australia you’re from. We’re right near the mountains (Calgary) so the cold weather pretty much comes when it wants. We pretty much have to stay ready!

      Have fun out there, don’t overdress (shouldn’t be difficult for you with summer coming on), and no matter what season, keep on keeping on!

      Take care, and thanks again!

  2. Matt's Mom

    What, what great tips for running in the cold. I have always worn a hat. I have always been under the impression that your head lets out all the heat and if I stay warm there, the rest of me will. I never thought about just wearing cotton t-shirts when running. I have always thought that I needed to go to the sports store for the under armour. Great ideas you have listed, thank you!

    1. Larry (Post author)

      Thanks for the comment Matt’s Mom! 🙂

      It’s a great idea to wear a hat when the temperature drops. I’d always thought somehow that we lost 25% of body heat out the top of our heads, but apparently it’s only 7-10%. Still, good to keep it warm!

      Hope you’re enjoying your running and you’re staying healthy – that’s the big thing. All the best!

  3. Joe

    So many useful tips! All though I do not really run any more since getting out of the military, I know that sweat is definitely the last thing you want in cold weather. Are you going to have tips on running through all of the seasons? Thanks again for some awesome pointers, and keep up the good work!

    1. Larry (Post author)

      Joe, thanks for your comment! And underlining how important it is to try to stay reasonably dry when it gets very cold out.

      Sorry to hear you’re not running much since the service, but walking can be terrific too – I’m a fan of any exercise and so much the better if you can get outdoors to do it. Which makes dressing kind of important.

      And yes, that’s a great idea Joe, I’ll post more on what tends to work outdoors as the seasons change.

      All the best Joe. Hope you’re doing well!

  4. Scott G.

    Hi Larry, thanks for the reminder that the cold weather is coming, LOL!. I am enjoying the fall here in upstate NY but the winter is right around the corner.

    These are some great tips for running in the cold weather. I made the mistake once of overdressing and was a soaking mess at the end!

    I’ve always known the importance of a hat but not the core, good info there. Thanks for the read.

    1. Larry (Post author)

      Thanks Scott.

      Yup. The weather’s right around the corner. In fact, where I am (Calgary) we got 4 cm (almost 2 inches) this morning. First snowfall of the year. It should be gone tomorrow, but, it’s still psychologically way too early. Two years ago we had a heavy snowfall in mid September – which melted quickly, but still… When you’re this close to the mountains, stuff like this happens.

      I’m imagining it’s probably starting to look gorgeous in upstate NY – leaves just getting going. No snow for a while yet. Beautiful. Hope you’re able to get out and enjoy it!

      Thanks for the comment Scott.

      We’ll see you out there!


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