Winter Running: How To Run Outside When It’s Cold

how to run outside in the winter

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The crunch of freshly fallen snow beneath your shoes. The way your breath hangs in the crisp morning air. A crisp—OK, maybe a little frigid—breeze against your face. There are lovely things about running in the winter. For most folks, the hardest part is getting out the door.

Running on roads and trails is growing in popularity. Approximately 20% of the US population participates in running, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Running provides myriad health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease, improving sleep, and boosting mood.  Still, even the most enthusiastic runners struggle with motivation during the winter, when plummeting temps and limited daylight can make it easy to want to hibernate rather than hit the trails. Not to worry. Here’s everything you need to know to run outside this winter, including how to prepare, what to wear, and how to warm up when your workout is complete.

Is It Safe to Run Outside in Cold Weather?

Photo by Jenny Hill on Unsplash

The short answer is “yes,” it is absolutely safe to run in cold weather. A recent study icon-trusted-source PubMed Central “Why is it easier to run in the cold?” View Source found that endurance athletes like runners may even perform better at lower temperatures (between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit) as opposed to temps greater than 77 degrees. This could be because it’s easier for your body to maintain its core temperature when conditions are cool. That said, it’s a good idea to ease into your colder runs—the temperature may feel like a shock to the system, but starting with a slower, shorter run can help.

The right running clothing can also help you regulate your body temperature and prevent you from losing heat through your extremities. To set yourself up for success, check the weather and dress appropriately, says Catherine Mooney-Myers, a Seattle-based doctor of physical therapy and running coach. If the forecast calls for clear, dry conditions, prioritize insulating layers to keep you warm and dry as you perspire. Likewise, if there’s a chance of rain, reach for a water-resistant jacket that will prevent your clothing from soaking through.

How To Stay Comfortable During an Outdoor Winter Run

Resist the urge to run in your favorite T-shirt, as cotton absorbs water, which can make you feel chilled as soon as you begin to sweat. And, if conditions are slick, consider traction devices that can mitigate against slippery ice and snow. (More info about how to gear up for a winter run is below.)

It’s great to plan ahead, but don’t be afraid to change up your winter running routine. If the weather makes you feel uncomfortable, head inside for a treadmill workout or take a rest day. Or switch it up: Perhaps you’d planned a road run but wake up to icy, slippery sidewalks. Rather than running on the road, head to a local park where a grass field or gravel loop may offer more traction than pavement.

Of course, there are times when the weather is just too stormy to go out. Consider cross-training indoors or taking a rest day when visibility is poor, or you’re concerned about standing out to vehicles on your route. If you find yourself stuck in deliberation mode, focus on the following questions: 

  1. Can I keep myself dry?
  2. Can I keep myself warm? 
  3. Do I have good visibility? 

If the answer is “no” to even one of those questions, consider an indoor workout, says Mooney-Myers. 

No matter what, take care to listen to your body and pay attention to your surroundings throughout the whole run. If you start to feel more uncomfortable than you usually do—say, your hands are so numb you can’t feel them or the ground is more slippery than you anticipated—it’s OK to turn back sooner than you expected. 

What to Wear for Outdoor Running in the Winter

Runners like to brag about the simplicity of the sport. We like to say, “All you need is a pair of shoes and some socks!” But that’s inaccurate for a variety of reasons. This is particularly true when it comes to running in winter. The proper gear and a smart layering system can help you tackle winter temps with confidence. Here are some items to consider adding to your winter running kit: 

  1. Winter Running Shoes: It’s a good idea to invest in a dedicated pair of running shoes, regardless of the time of year. Running shoes are specially designed for forward motion, according to the American Podiatric Medical Association. You should replace them every six to eight months. If you have a pair of running shoes you like, you don’t need to swap them out just because temps are cooler. However, if you consistently run through frigid, wet conditions, you might be interested in a Gore-Tex running shoe. Nearly every brand makes a version; some popular ones are Brooks and HOKA. These shoes feature a waterproof liner, sometimes called a “bootie,” to help keep moisture out. Just keep in mind that shoes made with Gore-Tex are a little less breathable than regular sneakers, so they aren’t ideal for settings where your feet are likely to sweat.
  1. Winter Running Jacket: It’s a good idea to throw on a light sweatshirt-type layer that you can take off and tie around your waist if needed. But not all winter runs require a heavy jacket. It’s OK to feel chilly when you head out, knowing that your body will warm up as you begin your workout. A running jacket is a good idea when a base or mid layer alone won’t provide enough warmth or protection on your run. If conditions are snowy and wet, for example, you may want a wind-breaking outer layer with a water-repellent finish—something like the Patagonia Houdini Jacket or Arc’teryx Squamish Hoody. For truly inclement weather, reach for a waterproof, breathable shell. As with waterproof shoes, a waterproof jacket will make you super warm (and possibly clammy) when you’re really working up a sweat. Be sure to layer appropriately and only reach for waterproof garb when it’s truly stormy outside.
  1. Wicking Mid Layer – Picture this: You head inside after a satisfying run and, instead of warming up in the shower, you spend a few minutes relaxing on the couch. Before you know it, you’re shivering from all the sweat that collected under your clothes during your workout.

    Feeling chilled is no biggie when a shower is in sight, but moisture (that includes sweat) on your skin can be an issue when running in winter. That’s because it’s harder for your body to regulate its temperature when your skin is wet, according to Mooney-Myers. Reach for an insulating base or mid layer. It should be made from a synthetic material designed to keep you warm while drawing sweat away from your skin. Wool can work, but according to Mooney-Myers, it tends to be more absorbent, so synthetic materials are really best for keeping your skin dry in winter. Check out brands like Brooks, Nike, and New Balance for ventilating mid layer options. If you’re set on a natural fabric, Tracksmith makes a good merino wool option.
  1. Winter Running Pants: Yes, there will always be those people who insist on wearing shorts in sub-zero temps. But as with an insulating, ventilating mid layer, long pants are a must for keeping your core temperature warm during winter workouts. Most running apparel brands make sweatpants or leggings to fit most types of runners. Some brands even make an insulated fleece option for really chilly days. Nike has a good option, and Amazon reviewers love this budget-friendly Baleaf pair (with pockets!).  
  1. Traction Devices: There’s nothing quite like having spikes or “teeth” on the bottoms of your shoes when conditions are slippery. A couple brands make traction devices that you can slide over your sneakers to help you grip icy, snowy trails and sidewalks, like Yaktrax and Kahtoola. Traction devices may take some getting used to. Plan to slow down and adjust your gait the first time you wear your spikes—sometimes called cleats—on a snowy run. (And make sure to take them off before you head inside to avoid scuffing up your floors.)
  1. Running Headlamp: A lightweight running headlamp is a great way to improve your visibility when running at dawn and dusk—and a must when days get shorter. Not only does the light allow you to make out obstacles in your path, but it can help you show up to cars. Top running options include models from Petzl and Black Diamond. A handheld light is a nice substitute.
  1. Reflective Gear: These days, many running jackets, tights, and even shoes come equipped with reflective details. To really stand out to traffic, though, you’ll want to add some reflective gear to your kit. Consider a vest and/or bands for winter runs in limited daylight. Amphipod offers several options in fun, creative colors.
  1. Hat and Gloves: When you’re cold, your body sends blood to your core icon-trusted-source Mayo Clinic “Cold hands” View Source , where your heart and other vital organs are located. Avoid frosty ears and fingers by adding a hat (like this insulated baseball cap or this beanie) and/or running gloves (Lululemon makes some great ones) to your winter running getup.
  1. Wicking Socks: Classic cotton socks are no match for a sub-zero winter run. (Though we do love our Bombas Performance Socks.) Opt for something made from a wicking material. Natural materials like wool are your friend here, like the Run Quarter socks from Darn Tough or the Run Cold socks from Smartwool to keep your tootsies happy and dry. 

How to Prepare for an Outdoor Winter Run

You’ve made a plan and you’ve invested in the gear—you’re ready to run! Before heading out, be sure to tell a loved one the route you intend to follow and the time you plan to return from your effort. (It’s a good idea to do this any time you head out on an adventure, regardless of the season.) Make sure your phone is fully charged, too. 

Before sprinting out the door, take a few minutes to warm up. Research icon-trusted-source PubMed Central “Practicing Sport in Cold Environments: Practical Recommendations to Improve Sport Performance and Reduce Negative Health Outcomes” View Source shows that, for every one degree Celsius you warm up, you can improve your performance by three to five percent. “It doesn’t need to be something super complex,” says Mooney-Myers. “As long as your body feels warm, you’ve totally succeeded.”

Aim for a warmup that includes a combination of static and dynamic stretching like the following from Mooney-Myers: 

  • 10 squats
  • 20 forward lunges (10 on the right side, then 10 on the left)
  • 20 lateral lunges (10 on the right side, then 10 on the left)
  • 1-minute plank (if indoors)
  • 1-minute high knees (if outdoors)
  • 20 forward leg swings (10 on the right side, then 10 on the left)
  • 20 lateral leg swings (10 on the right side, then 10 on the left)

In addition to helping you perform your best, taking time to properly warm up can reduce your rate of perceived exertion icon-trusted-source PubMed Central “The Effect of Static and Dynamic Stretching during Warm-Up on Running Economy and Perception of Effort in Recreational Endurance Runners” View Source , or how hard the workout feels.

What do Do After an Outdoor Winter Run

Congratulations! You made it out for your winter run. As with any type of workout, consistency is key. Now that you’ve got this run under your belt the next one should be a teensy bit easier. 

Whether you’re headed straight indoors, or you’ve got a drive home from the trailhead, you can help your body begin to thermoregulate by removing your wet clothing. If you do have a drive, it’s a good idea to change into dry clothes before hitting the highway. 

Finally, don’t forget to snack! Drink plenty of water and eat a meal or a snack that combines a protein and a carbohydrate within an hour or two of your workout. This helps aid the recovery process icon-trusted-source Mayo Clinic “Nutrition and healthy eating” View Source so you’ll be ready for your next winter workout.

Sources

  1. A recent study found that endurance athletes like runners may even perform better at lower temperatures (between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit) as opposed to temps greater than 77 degrees: “Why is it easier to run in the cold?Temperature (2016).
  2. When you’re cold, your body sends blood to your core , where your heart and other vital organs are located: “Cold hands.” Mayo Clinic (June 2022).
  3. For every one degree Celsius you warm up, you can improve your performance by three to five percent: “Practicing Sport in Cold Environments: Practical Recommendations to Improve Sport Performance and Reduce Negative Health Outcomes.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (September 2021).
  4. In addition to helping you perform your best, taking time to properly warm up can reduce your rate of perceived exertion, or how hard the workout feels: “The Effect of Static and Dynamic Stretching during Warm-Up on Running Economy and Perception of Effort in Recreational Endurance Runners.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (August 2021).
  5. Drink plenty of water and eat a meal or a snack that combines a protein and a carbohydrate within an hour or two of your workout. This helps aid the recovery process so you’ll be ready for your next winter workout: “Nutrition rules that will fuel your workout.” Mayo Clinic (February 2021).
  6. Interview with Catherine Mooney-Myers, DPT (November 2022)

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