You’ve seen them out there: winter runners bundled up in layers, jumping over snow banks and slush piles, faces swaddled in balaclavas and you’ve wondered: why? Why would anyone want to go for a run in the winter?
The answer? Because it’s fun. In fact, as many runners will tell you, winter running can be some of the best kind of running there is. The air is crisp, the paths are clear, and the scenery is terrific.
If your New Year’s resolution is to exercise more this year, there’s no easier sport to learn than running, and no better time to start than right now. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
Running in winter is rewarding
Lacing up shoes to run over snow-packed sidewalks or trails might seem crazy, but Kim Lavender, the national director of team training at GoodLife Fitness, says she loves it.
“For me, running outside in the winter is a lot better than running in the heat of the summer,” she told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview.
“And there’s something so rewarding about it. it’s like your own inner battle. It’s a rage against the storm. You overcome obstacles, which then gives you evidence that you can overcome any obstacles.”
Don’t let the thermometer intimidate you, she says. As boarders, snowshoers and cross-country skiers already know: there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad preparation. In fact, the influential American College of Sports Medicine says “exercise can be performed safely in almost all cold-weather environments without the risk of injury” — and that includes running.
The trick is simple: keep moving, dress well, and protect exposed skin from wind burn or frostbite.
Learn how to layer
Lavender says the biggest mistake new winter runners make is overdressing. Many assume they need to bundle up in the cold, but it really doesn’t take long to heat up when you’re running, and all that sweat could be disastrous.
“Water can get trapped next to your skin, which actually increases your risk for hypothermia,” says Lavender, who notes that wet skin transfers heat out of your body a lot faster than dry skin.
Lavender and the ACSM recommend three layers: a base layer of synthetic fabric; a middle layer such as fleece or light wool; and a wind- and water-resistant light jacket over top. Depending on the temperature you might even be able to skip Layer 2 or 3.
Ideally, you should feel cool when you start out. That’s okay, as you will warm up within minutes. In fact, if you step outside the door and you are comfortably warm, you’re probably overdressed.
Don’t worry if you have trouble figuring out what to wear at first; everybody does. But if you’re unsure, it might a good idea to plan a route that loops back past your home so you can drop off or add on layers as needed.
As for the rest of your body, running tights made for the winter are ideal as they are light and warm. Wool or wool-blend socks are best for your feet, while a hat or fleece headband that covers your ears are a must to keep your ears protected from frostbite.
Your fingers will feel cold as first while your body sends blood to your core, so running gloves are also a must. Lavender says she prefers mittens since they allow her to move her fingers around and keep them circulated.
Some runners like to use a fleece scarf or balaclava to keep their faces warm, while others can’t stand them. Find what works for you in which kind of weather and stick with that.
Warm up before heading out
There’s no way around it: those first few minutes of a run are not the most comfortable — even with the right layering. So to make the best of them, warm up inside first.
Lavender recommends what’s called a dynamic warm-up: not pull-and-hold stretching, but a few minutes of knee lifts, squats and lunges — anything that gets the blood flowing for 10 minutes or so.
You could then start with a walk, then take it up to a brisk walk, and then finally a jog. If you’re new to running, there’s no reason why the run has to be continuous, Lavender says. She recommends trying a 10:1 routine, in which you run for 10 minutes and walk for one. Or, just tell yourself you’re going to run past two hydro poles, walk to the next one, then run again.
Choose a route you love
“Set yourself up for success by planning a great route that inspires you,” advises Lavender, whether it’s past snow-covered trees or beautiful houses on your block.
Loading up a great podcast, playlist or audiobook onto your phone or iPod can also help make the run more enjoyable
On some icy days, it might be best to stick to main streets that have cleared their sidewalks, rather than trails and quiet side streets.
And if you think you might have a hard time sticking to your running route, plan to do an "out-and-back" in which you run in a single direction, turn around and then come back. If you aren’t circling past your home block, you’re going to be less tempted to end the run early.
Set your intention
Some people, Lavender says, see an exciting challenge when they look out on a snowy morning. Others see it as an excuse to curl back under the covers. If you’re in the latter group, she suggests a few tips:
- Set your shoes by the door and your outfit at the end of the bed so you have no excuses in the morning.
- Toss your outfit into the dryer beforehand to warm it up.
- Run with a friend or group, to give yourself motivation.
- Remind yourself of all the rewards of completing the run: the feeling of a mission accomplished, with the oxygen flowing through your lungs and your mind cleared of cobwebs. And maybe a hot cup of coffee too.
“Let your run represent something else you’re having a challenge with, so that you can build on that confidence,” advises Lavender. “The more you identify those wins, the more apt you’ll be to keep doing it.”