Running in the Cold: How to Exercise Outdoors When It’s Frigid As Hell

running in the cold
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Your body’s cardiovascular fitness doesn’t care if it’s cold out there, mister. If you run outdoors as your chosen aerobic exercise and you want to stay in shape, you need to keep on running even when it’s cold as hell in the darkest depths of winter.

According to Dante’s account of hell from Inferno, hell is pretty damn cold, at least in the ninth circle, so spare us the literary criticism or take it up with him. While it might not be quite Ninth Circle of Hell-level cold out there this winter, it has been close. Remember that bomb cyclone thing when there was snow everywhere from Maine to Florida? Yeah? Well, I still went running during that epic cold snap and let me tell you this … it was miserable. In fact, it was so little fun, I got to researching tips — and gear — for running in the cold.

Change Your Approach

Your body performs differently in the cold than it does when it’s warm out. You need to accept that in order to have safe, enjoyable, and productive winter runs. Even if you don’t usually do warm-up exercises, take the time to do some jumping jacks and stretching before you get out into the cold (or whatever your preferred warm-up may be). If you usually do a five-mile run in the summer, know it might be four in the winter, even though you run for the same amount of time. Find new winter running routes, avoiding steeper hills that cause excess exertion when possible.

Also consider going for a couple of two- or three-mile runs per day instead of doing one longer route. You will feel warmer when you first start running, but your body temperature will eventually drop during longer runs, so don’t go too far afield. And don’t go too fast — overexerting yourself in the winter will cause you to suck more frigid air into your lungs, which can be painful (even injurious) and makes your body work harder to keep itself warm.

Start from the Ground Up

You have to keep your feet warm and dry to have a good cold weather run. To do so, get yourself some running shoes (or trail runners) that have waterproof uppers. You also need to be ready for rain, snow, slush, and ice, so make sure said shoes have some decent grip. To accomplish both of these, I recommend the Adidas Kanadia, an excellent choice for any run that covers varied terrain. (Though not a great choice for runs exclusively on cement or pavement; the soles are too rigid for that and the lugs provide more grip than you need on such surfaces.)

As for socks, go with wool or a synthetic material like PrimaLoft, and look for a pair that will keep you warm without adding too much bulk. Such fabrics have the benefit of maintaining insulating properties even when wet, and will wick sweat aways from your feet to help maintain dryness and comfort. Avoid cotton, as it loses insulation properties once wet and can cause rubbing and irritation.

running legs shoes

Two Layers for the Legs

As a general rule of thumb, you can add about 15 degrees to the ambient temperature when planning your cold weather running gear vs. what you would wear out casually during the winter. For example, you can run in the same level of cold weather apparel you would need for a stroll in 40 degree Fahrenheit weather when it’s actually 25 degrees out. Your body heat will quickly fill the gap. To keep your legs warm when it’s nice and chilly outside, wear a thermal base layer that grips your legs snugly and a looser outer layer that can resist wind chill and moisture. The air trapped between these layers will keep you nice and warm, and you can always remove the outer layer if you start to get too toasty downstairs. (It probably goes without saying that you’re wearing a snug, non-cotton pair of briefs or boxers, right?)

Keep the Core Warm

You already know this, but we’re going to say it, just in case: You have to keep your core warm to keep the rest of your body warm. Start with a T-shirt (long sleeve is ideal, or short sleeve if your arms don’t tend to get cold) made from a synthetic fabric. Again, avoid cotton! This garment will be coming off if you sweat heavily, so make sure you have a thermal shirt underneath that can wick moisture and is comfortable enough to wear against your skin.

Unless it’s extremely cold out, you should only need one more layer: a shell that breaks the wind and resists moisture. If it is extremely cold, try not to add additional layers; instead simply make this outer layer a well-insulated jacket. Adding too many layers will reduce your ability to release excess heat, which will leave you overly warm, sweaty, and — eventually — chilled to the bone.

For longer runs during which you’ll likely shed a layer or two, you should have a small backpack so you aren’t left holding a shirt and/or a pair of running pants in your hands.

running gear

Fight Frigid Fingers

Once your hands are cold, it’s hard to get them warm again. On bitterly cold days, I’ll find my fingers chilled to the point of discomfort even when wearing a pair of running gloves — and even when my core is toasty and my head sweating. My solution is to wear two pairs of gloves: my regular running gloves with a wind- and waterproof shell over them. But, frankly, nothing keeps hands warmer than mittens. You might feel a bit silly running in a big pair of winter mittens, but you will be grateful when you can still use your fingers to operate the lock to get back into your home post-run.

Another option is to carry hand warmers or tuck a set of warmers into your thinner running gloves. The disposable kind work well enough, but the costs can add up. The USB-rechargeable options are less pricey but a bit bulky, so your call there.

Use Your Head

What’s the best way to keep your head warm? A hat, right. That’s not a trick question. But when you’re exercising in the cold, the answer can be a bit different. A warm hat can trap in sweat, making you colder, or trap in too much heat, making you uncomfortable.

The best choice for cold weather running headgear is often a headband, as this keeps your ears warm and blocks sweat from dripping down your face and neck. Another option to consider is earmuffs if sweat is not much of an issue for you.

Thanks to the placement of your carotid arteries, your neck is responsible for a lot of heat loss. A neck warmer will prevent that, and pairing a running scarf with a headband or earmuffs can be all you need to stay warm up top. I generally avoid actual face masks or balaclavas, as they restrict breathing and get kind of gross (what with the mucous and the breath and all).

Stay Hydrated

When it’s cold outside, you won’t notice your thirst as acutely as you do when sweating away in hot weather. However, your body is still losing lots of liquid as you exercise, and you need to replenish it to help keep yourself warm (not to mention all the other purposes that whole hydration thing serves for overall … life). Whether you use a hydration belt or a backpack, try to start off with water that’s warm so you won’t be sipping an icy slurry once you’re into the run.

As a final note, once your run is done, get into a warm place ASAP. Even though you won’t feel all that cold immediately after exercising, your temperature will drop quickly and any moisture clinging to your body will quickly cause a chill.

When you’re ready to push yourself on your next outing, check out our tips for improving your running. Or, better yet, participate in a Beer Mile.

Feature image by Scott Olson/Getty Images.