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How to Run Outside When It’s Dark and Cold

Use These Tips to Keep Your Running Going!

How To Run when it's Cold and Dark

Well, the days are short and even when the sun is out, it may be cloudy and make you wonder if the sun will ever come out again. 

But instead of hibernating until Spring, don’t lose fitness! It can be done because I’ve trained for and completed full marathons in Antarctica and Siberia – and regularly run outdoors in the Great Lakes region, where it can at times look and feel like the Arctic!

So here are some tips on how to run outside even when it’s cold and dark:

First, learn how to dress for running in the cold 

Naturally, it helps you get out there if you aren’t so cold while running outside! 

One adage is, if you feel cool when you start running, you’ve probably dressed right because you heat up as you run. Because of this, you can dress as if it’s 15-20 degrees warmer than it is. And this holds true if you don’t like removing layers as you run. 

However, you may want to turn this saying around!! I know there are people out there that REALLY HATE feeling cold. If you are one who genuinely dislikes feeling cold, you may find that first portion of the run demotivating to get out there. 

So, you may want to wear an extra layer such as a light jacket so you don’t feel cold initially – but you can take it off and tie it around your waist as you start to warm up. 

The other advantage of this latter method is that sometimes the sun can go behind clouds, or the wind can pick up, and you can take this extra layer and put it on if needed. 

How to dress for cold trail runs

Removing or adding layers can also be helpful if you are trail running, and so you sometimes run with the trees blocking the wind (and sun!) and sometimes run out in an exposed area. 

Switching layers can also help if you are running up long, steep hills, which may block the wind and warm you up with the increased intensity and difficulty of the uphill running… but then expose you to a bone-chilling wind when your intensity is lower as you run across the top, or are running down, which may chill you. 

Be extra careful when there is wind, rain, or clouds 

Also in the colder seasons, the wind and/or rain can make you feel chillier than the temperature alone. Plus, overcast days without the radiant heat from the sun can add to the cold feel. 

Cotton absorbs moisture and holds it against your body, so you should avoid it because that will make you colder if you sweat or get wet from rain. 

Use synthetic, wicking polyester-type fabrics or wool. Wool or Smartwool also absorb moisture, but unlike cotton has properties that will keep you warm. Smartwool uses Merino wool to make it more of a performance fabric with a softer feel. 

Wool socks can be like gold in frigid conditions.

Depending on how cold your winter gets, you will most likely need: 

  • Running tights/pants
  • Long sleeved tech shirts:
    • A thinner base layer that sits close to your body to lock in heat and wick away sweat
    • A medium-weight or even heavyweight shirt to layer over
  • A hat (visors can be good to keep rain or snow off your face)
  • Running gloves – or mittens for when it’s very cold
  • A wind/rainproof jacket
  • Thicker running socks (again from a synthetic fabric or wool) 
  • Balaclava, buff, or scarf to cover your nose and/or mouth
  • You can use Vaseline on your face (YES!) to cut the effect of wind hitting your face. 

How can I stop my lungs from hurting when I run in the cold? 

Cold dry air can irritate the respiratory passages leading to discomfort. A straightforward way to avoid this is to wrap a scarf around your nose and mouth, or even get a running “buff” (which is like a large, elasticized band) to wrap around your nose and mouth. 

You can also use a neoprene face mask made for exercising in the cold when it’s frigid. This will warm and humidify the air as you breathe it in. 

If lung irritation is a persistent problem, especially if you have coughing after your runs, it may not be a bad idea to go to the doctor and make sure you don’t have exercise induced asthma, which can also be irritated by cold, dry air. 

Try to do regular runs, especially if you’ve planned a race in the cold. 

You may find running in the winter easier than summer because the body doesn’t need to work as hard to regulate the temperature if it is not dramatically cold outside. 

Or, you may find winter running more difficult, if you don’t enjoy the cold!

In either case, it can be best to run outside regularly so you aren’t adapted to running in a warmer temperature and then suddenly running in deep cold for a race, which can be a mental shock.

Running indoors also doesn’t prepare you for the slowing effect of running into the wind, which can have a great impact on your pace and can be fatiguing. 

If you feel it’s torturous to run in the cold, you don’t have to go out in it every day to stay mentally tough. You may want to allocate 20% of your runs for rougher (but not dangerous) weather. 

This way you don’t lose your mental edge, but also are not taking your enjoyment of running away by wearing yourself out running in tough conditions day in and day out. 

Also, speedwork can be safer on a treadmill versus slipping around on ice. 

Then again, some people hate the treadmill or “dreadmill” so much they would rather run in an Artic blizzard before using one. You’ll have to see which option keeps you going the most!

You’ll have to see how snowy runs work for you personally as a recovery run. Running across snow can be more taxing on your body, like running across sand. 

Also, if doing a slower recovery run, remember to add an extra layer due to the lowered overall intensity of your run generating less body heat. 

How to fuel your freezing weather runs

As if figuring out your run fueling isn’t hard enough… now you have to deal with the cold!

Yes, even in winter if you are running longer than around 75 minutes, you’ll need to fuel your run. If you run low on fuel during your run, it can add to the cold you feel from the environment. 

It’s a consideration in Winter because some fuels will freeze, leaving you with a hard block of ice that is either inedible or could crack a tooth if you tried.

You can try carrying a pouch close to your body with your run fuel. Your body heat can keep the fuel warm enough, so it doesn’t freeze.

Also, think about where you will put your pouch beforehand. You don’t want to be out in the cold having to stop and fiddle around for a long time trying to get out your energy gel or bar from under multiple layers of clothing!

If you are carrying hydration, be aware that it too may freeze! 

(And yes, you need to hydrate even when it’s cold.)

The biggest culprit is often the hydration tube in backpacks. You can often run it on the inside of your clothing to keep it warmer and blow the fluid back into your backpack when you are done drinking it, so there isn’t much left to freeze in the tube. 

You can also get products that will insulate the pack and tube for frigid weather.

You can also start out with a warm liquid (such as adding warm coffee or hot chocolate to a homemade hydration mix – but not boiling hot!)

Adding electrolytes can help stop your hydration from freezing. It lowers the freezing point of water, in a comparable way that salt thrown on sidewalks melts ice.

Be careful if your run normally includes drinking from public foundations, many cities shut these off in winter. 

You can also run laps in a route around your house and keep your fuel and hydration just inside your front door.

What shoes to wear for winter running

Wait what – MORE running shoes? Haha. But there can be a difference between shoes you wear in summer and winter. 

For running over snow, ice, slush or any combination, some runners like a hybrid trail and road shoe, like the Brooks Divide 2, while some will prefer a pure trail shoe. 

If your winters are mild and don’t involve a lot of snow, a road shoe would still work for road runs. You can add a traction device to it, as described below. 

Some winter running shoes such as the Saucony Peregrine Ice+, have added grip, deep tread, and the uppers are water resistant for days when you need to run in a pile of slush. 

Other shoes have Gore-Tex, which is a waterproof material made to keep water out. This is a personal choice, some like it because it can also be warmer. 

Others hate it because once water gets in, it can’t get out, leaving a wet soggy shoe for the entire run. 

Also, while some feel their feet can’t warm up during a run, others feel their feet get too hot. If you’re in the latter crowd, a Gore-Tex shoe may be too warm for you. 

For short term stints you can even get away with covering the “vents” of your running shoes with duct tape. It looks funny but can also block bitterly frigid wind in harsh conditions.

How can I avoid falling when running on ice or snow? 

If it is icy, you can use traction devices on your running shoes, such as deep ice cleats or Yaktrax depending on your surface.

You can also install short sheet metal screws on your running shoe soles for more traction!

Try to find areas cleared of snow and ice for pedestrians, and slow down to avoid slipping or falling.

Universities can be a good place to run for this reason, as well as some public parks, even though you may need to lap. 

You can also do speedwork on an indoor track if you don’t have an outdoor track or similar that has been cleared of snow and ice.

How do I warm up if it’s freezing outside? 

It can also be good to warm up indoors, even if that means jogging around your living room and doing your dynamic stretches there, and then take the run outside afterwards. 

That way you aren’t stopping and feeling the wind-chill and cold temps while trying to simultaneously warm up your muscles. 

If you can’t warm-up indoors, consider slowing the first part of your run to be part of your warm-up, then find somewhere shielded from the wind to do your dynamic stretches. 

Learn about lighting gear

When it’s dark, it’s safest to run in a well-lit area where others are also out running or walking. But you may not have that available or be able to run at a time in which that’s possible. 

If that’s you, it could be a good idea to invest in lighting gear, such as a good headlamp. Some are made for running, while others prefer a headlamp made for biking because they often light up a wider area. 

This can also make you more visible to cars, other runners, or cyclists in the dark. 

Just like there is lighting gear you can wear on your forehead, you can strap others around your chest. There are also lights you can wear on your shoes, but these can have limited capability when running in deep snow. 

Forehead lights can make a wide area bright, but you can lose your sense of depth perception. Some find chest lights uncomfortable, but because it’s lower to the ground, it can create more shadows and regain your sense of depth perception. 

And yes, you can wear both a headlamp and a chest mounted light. 

The best thing to do is to try it in your running environment and find out which is best for your situation. 

How can I stay safe when it’s dark outside? 

It’s up to your own “safety threshold” if you personally do or do not want to run alone when it is dark, icy and snowy out. 

While some people don’t mind, others prefer to stay indoors due to the risk of falls while by yourself or, let’s be honest, potential crime. 

Go with how you feel – and don’t let anyone else tell you you’re wrong!

But, running outside when it’s dark can also depend on the type of workout you want to achieve.

As mentioned, while plodding through the dark, snow and ice might be OK for a slower endurance workout, it could be dangerous to do a faster workout in the same conditions.

Also, some say there is no “too cold” if a person dresses correctly, however, again the danger of frostbite or falls can exist when running alone in tough conditions. 

At a minimum, tell someone where you will be running and for how long, but also remember that the cold can zap cell phone batteries, leaving you unreachable.

For this reason, it can also be better to do shorter loops or laps around your home or car rather than going far out in one direction when conditions are sketchy. 

Other safety tips you can use when you run in the cold:

Carry a cell phone close to your body so the battery won’t drain as quickly, and you can use it if needed. 

Try to run with someone else or let someone else know where you will be running and for how long. 

Wear reflective clothing/gear so cars can see you on the road. 

Slow down, because visibility may be poor, and you could cross over black ice.

Run indoors if you personally do not feel comfortable in the situation; turn around/end your run sooner than planned if you feel unsafe. 

Overall, you don’t have to give up your fitness routine when the temperatures drop, and the sun hides away. Be prepared so that you can keep your fitness up so that when Spring comes, you won’t have lost a step.

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