A winter cold snap with some heavy precipitation hit us here in Tucson, Arizona yesterday and is predicted to last a few days more. I must confess that I’m not accustomed to shivering much here in Tucson, but the aberrant winter cold made its biting impression the moment I opened my front door to begin my pre-run stretches this morning. I shouldn’t complain too much, though. My cold weather discomfort must sound definitely wimpish compared to those who run in Chicago, Buffalo, or Minneapolis this time of year. We have fireplaces in the house I’ve never used.
Really cold winter weather here in the desert Southwest means daily highs in the upper ‘40s that dip down into the mid or upper ‘20s overnight. I know that’s downright balmy compared to colder climes in winter. Adding insult to injury, the snow-capped Catalina mountains present a breathtakingly beautiful diversion from the cold. Regardless of where you live, running in winter cold weather means taking precautions to avoid cold-related illnesses like hypothermia, or even frostbite in extreme conditions.
The first rule for a safe winter run is dressing appropriately. Unlike any winter in more than a century, the nation is in the midst of a full-blown pandemic. Wearing a mask not only helps you avoid catching or spreading COVID-19, but it will also keep your face warm on a cold winter run.
Regarding the rest of your body, remember that you’ll heat up quickly once you start running. If you’re over-bundled your body may overheat. Dressing in onion-like layers will keep you comfortable, regardless how low the thermometer goes. As your body warms during your run, you simply shed the unneeded layers by tying your jacket, sweatshirt, or excess shirts around your waist. If you’re running a loop, you could even drop the unneeded clothing at your house or car.
The key to proper layering is your base layer. Your legs will warm the quickest, so lower body layering may not be necessary. The best choice for your upper base layer is a long-sleeve tech shirt. Choosing the weight of this bottom layer is also dependent upon how cold it will get on the day you run.
If you’re new to winter running, the best advice for achieving your optimal running comfort is to add 10 to 20 degrees to the outside temp at the time of your run. This number will fluctuate depending upon your running pace and the length of your planned run. For instance, if you’re planning a short run, you won’t heat up nearly as much as you would over the course of a longer excursion, so layer accordingly. Another important consideration is wind chill. If the actual temperature is 30 degrees but the wind chill makes it feels like 20 degrees, then you should layer for the colder temperature.
To complete your wardrobe selection, don’t ignore your extremities. Regardless of your planned distance, you won’t be comfortable if you ears, nose, hands, and feet are freezing cold. Warm socks and gloves and a stocking cap or earmuffs will be the perfect accents to your COVID face mask. And despite their heftier price, technical fabrics and socks that wick away wetness will keep you drier and avoid the chilling effects of heavy, sweat-laden clothing.
Another point of consideration, and one that should always be on your mind regardless of the temperature, is personal safety. Whenever it’s below freezing, pay careful attention of local weather forecasts and warnings. Icy conditions and ‘black ice’ are serious cold weather dangers that can lead to nasty falls, painful bruises, torn ligaments, and even broken bones. If you run in early morning or late evening hours, you might want to carry a flashlight to properly discern ice and other obstacles. Tall snowbanks will also limit driver visibility, so be sure to wear brightly colored or fluorescent gear.
Your overall health is another important consideration. Cold temperatures and dry air can aggravate certain preexisting health conditions. Runners with asthma and arthritis might want to take special precautions, such as carrying a rescue inhaler or applying a topical pain reliever to the affected joints before heading out. Another serious danger in extremely cold conditions is frostbite. Be sure to properly cover your extremities to prevent freezing fingers and toes. Products such as petroleum jelly applied to the cheeks and nose can also help prevent moisture buildup that can lead to frostbite.
Finally, regardless of when or where you run, staying well hydrated is an absolute must. Even in bitter cold, strenuous exercise makes you sweat, and you will sweat profusely when running longer distances. Remember to always carry sufficient water for your planned distance. Dehydration is a year-round danger, and especially insidious in the drier winter months.
Running in the cold winter months can be uniquely invigorating, but don’t push yourself if the weather is too threatening. Missing a day’s run is far better than missing an entire season due to injuries. As always, plan for your run ahead of time and make your personal well-being the priority. Stay safe and stay healthy!