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3 Keys to Keep Running in Winter

Despise running in cold weather? These three key components can help bear the shivers.

Whether an untried new year’s resolution is staring you down or you’re developing early symptoms of cabin fever, here’s a tried-and-true guide to get you out and running no matter the weather this winter. 

Mindset 

Cold-weather running isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, so it all starts with your mindset. First off, it’s time to redefine the “perfect” weather for a run. A study of marathon finishing times across ability levels found that the ideal temperature range for running performance is a surprisingly brisk 38 to 49 degrees Fahrenheit. If it’s warm enough to sit outside comfortably, you will likely feel fatigued more quickly during exercise because your body is fighting an uphill battle just trying to stay cool. So, instead of seeing the winter as a foe to be overcome, consider it a friend doing half the work for you. 

Gear

While you can’t change the weather, you can at least change your attitude about the weather. You can also change your clothes. As an old Scandinavian saying goes, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” Your winter gear doesn’t need to be extensive — just start with a few staple pieces: running tights (not yoga pants, not jeggings — I mean a proper pair of running tights), a long-sleeved base layer, and some decent gloves.   

I’ve been running year-round for many seasons but only recently discovered the magic of modern merino wool. It’s impossibly lightweight while still being warm, naturally odor-resistant, and it isn’t scratchy. Sure, science can probably explain how wool actually works, but for now my wife and I have taken to just calling the stuff “unicorn fur.”

Two other points on clothing: Layer up instead of wearing a t-shirt under a thick jacket or sweatshirt. Layers breathe more easily and set you up to make mid-run adjustments if needed. And second, don’t panic if you’re cold when you first step out of the house. If you’re cozy warm before you make it down your block, you’ll be a puddle of cold sweat by the time you get back. Start cold and embrace all the literalism of the initial “warm up” stage. 

Technique 

Once you get your winter game face on and embrace the mythical properties of merino wool, the final thing to do is develop an awareness of the technical challenges winter can throw at you. 

In making a plug for winter running, I want to be clear about the limits of the sneaker: ice is treacherous, and deep, fresh snow is a recipe for a trudgefest. They invented skates, snowshoes, and skis for a reason. So give it a day or two after a big snowfall for sidewalks and trails to get packed down a bit. It may seem counterintuitive, but I opt for the snowy stretches of sidewalk rather than clear patches that could turn out to hold ice lurking underfoot. 

Winter running follows some of the same basic rules as winter driving: be especially careful when turning and stopping, and daylight is always safer. Use shorter strides than usual, keeping your feet closer to the ground. Biomechanically, this reduces the force with which you push off and strike the ground, thus lowering your risk of slipping. When stopping or cornering, gradually slow down by taking short, even strides.

Winter running can spell a liberating break from the limiting metrics we measure ourselves against. It isn’t about pace and it’s not about the number of miles we’ve logged. It’s about waking up all your senses and enjoying the different rhythms of the year. True, winter running isn’t for everyone. But the solitude and quiet as you hear the crisp crunch of each footfall is part of the magic. And if you’re wearing your merino wool, who knows — you might even see a unicorn out there. 

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