How to cope with running in the cold

What running in cooler temperature does to your body and mind - and how to make the most of it

running in snow

by Nick Hallissey |

The mercury is plummeting and you're hunting around for the hat and gloves you haven't seen for nine months. However, aside from wearing more clothes, have you ever thought about what's really happening when you run in the cold? What exactly does it do to your body and mind? We asked some experts, whose insights can help offer tips on dealing with running in winter and why it may be a blessing rather than a course.

Winter and your body

When the weather’s warm, your body has a lot more work to do in order to regulate its temperature. In a sense, the air is working against you.

Not so now, as the mercury drops. Fair enough, cold air can be challenging. But let’s have a look at how it affects some of your key systems.

We’ll start with blood flow. Look at many advice websites and you’ll read a prevailing wisdom that cold air makes your heart beat faster, because your blood vessels contract as the body seeks to warm itself, and your heart has to work harder to push the blood through those narrowing channels so it can get to where it’s needed. That sounds like a problem. But runners can bear two things in mind here.

Firstly, running is a cardiovascular activity: we’re already raising our heart rate, which means we are pretty good at opening up those narrowing blood vessels. And with a good warm-up, we can even get them open and prepped for the cold before we start running.

Secondly, the heart has to work just as hard – if not harder – in summer.

Here to explain more is John Brewer, Professor of Applied Sports Science at Buckinghamshire New University.

“Winter running has distinct physiological advantages over summer running,” he explains. “Our bodies experience less strain as a result of having to deal with hot and possibly humid conditions, and as a result running simply ‘feels’ easier.”

How so?

“One of the main challenges faced by runners is to control the increase in body temperature that occurs as a result of energy production,” says John.

“In winter, it’s easier to do this since the external temperature is cooler, so the body loses heat into the air more easily, and is less reliant on sweating to maintain temperature. Consequently there is less likelihood of dehydration, and less need for the heart to beat faster and divert warm blood to the skin.”

Next stop, muscles. Cold air can cause your muscles to lose heat and contract, causing tightness throughout the body. Joints get tighter and muscles can lose their range of motion. But there again, runners have a distinct advantage: we know how to warm up our muscles before we start running. The simple act of stretching the quads, calves, arms, shoulders and torso helps the muscles stock up on heat, ready for the start of the run – at which point they will, in short order, be supplied with all the heat they need.

The lungs are an interesting case. If you’ve ever felt a sort of ‘cold burning’ sensation in your chest while running in winter, you may have assumed it was your lungs taking a pounding from the cold air. Not so, says Dr Steven T Devor, Director of Performance Physiology for Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The air that you are breathing in, while very cold in the atmosphere, is not cold at all by the time it reaches your lungs,” he insists.

“By the time the air reaches the bottom of your trachea (windpipe), it’s warmed to body temperature and is 100% humidified. The burning sensation you experience is caused by the dehydration and subsequent irritation of the cells that line the trachea.

“The relative humidity of cold air tends to be very low, so the cells in your trachea give up their water supply to humidify the air entering your lungs.”

This is one reason why it’s still really important to drink water on a winter run: you are resupplying those hard-working cells with the valuable hydration they’ve sacrificed.

And try to pant less, adds Steven. Short, quick breaths irritate a dried-out trachea more than longer, calmer ones.

One specific caveat: winter may pose more risks if you’re asthmatic, points out fellrunner and former Olympian Sarah Rowell: “If the air is damp and chilly, it has the potential to impact asthmatics more, so make sure you use your inhaler as recommended.”

And finally, the extremities. As the furthest areas away from the heart, these areas – the fingers, toes, scalp, pelvic extremities – are usually the last areas to get nice, warm blood sent to them. Therefore they’re often the first areas to feel the cold.

Cold weather can make running harder mentally, so it's important to think about the positives
Cold weather can make running harder mentally, so it's important to think about the positives

As Sarah Rowell explains: “You will most likely have a degree of vasoconstriction, ie, the blood pools centrally in the body to assist with warmth, which is why feet and hands often get cold. Gloves and a hat or ruff will help keep the feeling of warmth.”

There are some proven ways to improve your circulation and thus increase the speed of blood flow to these needy zones: exercise (Pilates and yoga can be especially helpful), regular fluid intake, massage, and (pay attention, office staff) not sitting still for too long.

But even the fastest, healthiest runners struggle with their extremities in winter. Take champion trail racer and skyrunner Ricky Lightfoot.

“My fingers are always the first things to feel the cold,” he complains.

“These days I usually carry extra gloves in a dry bag and a Zippo hand warmer when it’s really cold. It’s a small metal case the size of the palm of your hand filled with lighter fuel. Light the burner, stick it in its pouch and it sorts them right out.”

Winter and your brain

Winter can give your brain some trouble. We’re talking, essentially, about motivation. The combination of shorter days and harsher conditions can be demoralising, especially if we’re prone to psychological issues such as winter blues, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or a lack of self-confidence in trickier conditions.

So how do we fight that? Good news again: as a runner, you’re already hard-wired to do just that. Mental health charity Mind says that exercising – even just making the decision to go outside and exercise – is key to tackling those issues. NHS advice recommends varying your exercise routine or developing a new interest, which in running terms could be a new discipline or distance: something that refreshes your perspective.

But if you’re still struggling to find motivation, the answer lies in adjusting your expectations and emphasising the things that are great about winter running. Here are a few things you can tell your brain:

I’ll see more. Bare trees mean bigger views, especially in hill country. You’ll encounter winter migrant birds overhead or on lakes or coastlines (waxwings, oystercatchers, and brent geese look and sound amazing). And with less ground foliage, you’re more likely to spot incredible rock formations or archaeological remains as you pass.

I’ll maximise my daylight. If you don’t fancy running through dark mornings and evenings, you can really boost your lunchtimes. Order an Ordnance Survey Select map centred on your workplace and find the green lines (rights of way) – the hidden trails on your doorstep. Or track down popular local routes via apps like OS Maps, Strava or Garmin Connect. If post-run hygiene is a concern (ie, your workplace doesn’t have showers), just make it a brisk walk; it’s all good physical and mental groundwork for bigger exertions at the weekend. You could even turn the school run into a literal run: a gentle jog while your kid rides the bike; that’s great for both of you.

I’ll light up the night. Dark mornings and evenings aren’t a problem if you’ve a good headtorch. By night, landscapes that you know by daylight look very different, and incredibly vivid. It’s great for meeting nocturnal animals, too: barn owls have a strange but wonderful liking for flying beside runners. Try a head torch that has a red light: it feels weird at first but it’ll improve your night vision and you’ll see more of the landscape.

I’ll take a friend. Chances are there’s someone you know who feels down when the winter hits. Give them a call and suggest a run/gentle jog. Many wonderful friendships started this way.

I’ll meet new people. A local running group can help give you motivation and confidence, especially if you have concerns about running alone at night. They’re also great for advice, banter and simple companionship. (And check out #Run1000Miles the world’s friendliest and most supportive running group, with 6000 runners of all interests and abilities ready to share their experiences and celebrate yours.)

Maybe I’ll get a dog. Without doubt, the simplest way to ensure you have a reason to run through the winter. And maybe you could train for a canicross event in the spring...

For some runners, it’s about mind games too. Over to you, Ricky Lightfoot.

“It’s never easy motivating yourself to get up early when the wind is hammering on the window and daylight won’t be seen for another two hours, but I always tell myself the guy who beat me last week will be out training and if I want to beat him next time, I’ve got to get out, too.

“So there’s an element of tricking the mind, but at the end of the day if you want something badly enough, you’ll just get out there and do it.”

Winter and the trail

What happens to our footpaths in winter, and how can we respond to it?

Here again, the news is better than it might first appear. Yes, the ground may be less predictable, potentially slippier. But those factors force us to engage our brains, exercise more of our muscle groups and improve our stamina.

“The trick is to think four or five steps ahead,” says ultra runner Lee Procter.

“Think like snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan. He’s not thinking of his next shot, he’s thinking of the following five: the angles, the consequences. Shorten your stride, look ahead, and look for the firmest line through whatever’s coming up.”

If speed is your priority, it may be best to stay low.

“The weather often dictates whether I’ll stay at home along the coast or head out onto the fells,” says Lakeland-based Ricky Lightfoot.

“If I’m planning a harder session and the weather is wet or it’s been snowing on the fells, I’ll stick to local roads and trails. Heading to a muddy trail or three feet of snow defeats the object for me.”

But for some, the high, wild stuff of winter can be a joy.

“I love running through snow because it’s so exhilarating, especially downhill,” says Lee Procter.

“Sometimes it’s more like surfing than running. Lean back for braking and let the surface snow move with you, like a scree run. It’s ace if you’ve reliable grip on your shoes.”

Fellow ultra runner Marcus Scotney agrees: “Running in the snow can be an amazing experience. Seeing the hills covered in snow completely changes your whole perspective, especially if you are blessed with blue skies.”

That comes with some warnings, of course. You should avoid terrain that’s obviously iced up (or invest in spiked shoes or snow chains) and definitely avoid cornices: piled-up snow at the edge of a hillside or crag which may look stable but actually has no ground underneath it at all.

Winter thrills

And so, back to our opening thought: when the air is cool and the breeze is up, and if you’re on relatively firm and even terrain, it is scientifically sound to say you’re likely to run faster, and possibly even happier, than you do in summer. And if you’re in tougher terrain, although you might be a little slower, the workout and the sense of achievement can be even more beneficial than a quick time.

So we thought we’d end with a few testimonials from our experts on the joy of winter running.

“I prefer it,” says Ricky Lightfoot. “I like pushing my limits, and being out in the fells in a storm or a snow blizzard is a great way to test myself.”

Marcus Scotney agrees: “It’s very special and spectacular to be able to run over a snow-covered Bleaklow with frozen peat hags and tussocks. It feels even more remote and peaceful. You get a real sense of solitude, not seeing a soul for miles.”

And finally, Sarah Rowell: “If you have the right kit – ie, can keep warm and upright – there is no reason not to enjoy winter running. On a snowy day, nothing beats running past a line of stuck and struggling cars.

“The fun, the challenge and that feeling of achievement when you get back: it’s just fantastic.”

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