When winter rolls around, chilly temps typically inspire some pretty standard behavior, like snuggling up in front of the fireplace with a mug of steaming hot cocoa, or tucking into a giant-sized bowl of baked mac and cheese. As for burning off those extra calories? Lacing up your sneakers and heading outside for a cold-weather jog doesn’t normally make the list.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Despite having the ability to throw on cozy sweaters that mask the extra bulge, staying active during the winter months is still important—if for no other reason than to make bikini bootcamp a little less strenuous come spring. And according to a 2013 New York Times article, even when the temperature is barely above freezing, there are tangible benefits to exercising outdoors, including higher enthusiasm and self-esteem, and a more effective workout.
But running in the cold isn’t for the faint of heart—or the unprepared. Approaching a January jog with the same laissez-fare attitude of the summer months can lead to frustration and injury. Read on for tips on how to stay safe and make the most of your winter workouts.
#1 Dress the part.
“Dressing appropriately for running outside is important during any season, but in the harsher, colder weather of winter it’s important to prevent windburn, frostbite and hypothermia,” says Joan Scrivanich, a triathlon and running coach. “By dressing appropriately, you will be happier on your run and be able to focus on your workout instead of only thinking about trying to be warm and rushing back home.”
That may seem obvious, but dressing for cold weather isn’t as simple as adding on a couple of long-sleeved tops. Layering is important, as it makes it easy to remove clothing should you get too warm while running, but, says Scrivanich, all layers aren’t created equal.
“Technical clothing will draw sweat way from your body, keeping you drier and more comfortable while you run,” she says. “If you wear something like a cotton shirt as your first layer against your skin, that will hold on to sweat, keeping your skin wet, which will make you cold and uncomfortable.” She also recommends a windproof jacket as opposed to a fleece one that will allow cold air in, as well as thin gloves that can be easily removed as you warm up.
And, reminds Dr. Scott Weiss, a board certified athletic trainer and exercise physiologist who was part of the 2004 US Olympic sports medicine team in Athens, Greece, you can’t forget eyewear.
“Wear eyewear to protect against precipitation and objects blowing around from getting in your eyes,” says Weiss. “They can help in deflecting cold air from hitting your eyes and face, and special or tinted lenses can help with glare and depth perception when running. With precipitation—especially snow—on the ground, it is difficult to foresee dips, downgrades or upgrades on the running surface. You don’t want to find yourself face down in the snow and not know how it happened.”
#2 Don’t skip the warm-up.
Dressing for winter weather can prevent your skin from turning icy cold, but the frigid temps don’t just affect your external body. Muscles are slower to react when the weather is chilly, which makes a good warm-up super important. “It takes more time to get loosened up during cold months, so make sure you get a longer warm-up so you don’t pull a muscle,” says Dr. Tate Hancock, a Wichita, Kansas-based chiropractor.
There are no special warm-up exercises necessary, says Hancock. The key is to do it indoors, while your body temperature is still high, and to do it long enough to ensure that your muscles are thoroughly loose before heading outside.
#3 Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
Drinking enough water while running is always important, even in the winter. But don’t expect the same dry panting and heaving you experience in hotter temps to signal impending dehydration.
“Fluid loss does not trigger the same thirst response when it is colder out, which means people are less likely to drink enough water,” says Stratten Waldt, founder of Bia, manufacturer of a whey protein formulated specifically for women. “Additionally, cold weather cases vasoconstriction in the extremities—leading to a larger volume of water in the core—and can confuse your body as to how hydrated it actually is.
If you want to avoid cramping and muscle fatigue when running, Waldt’s advice is simple: “Drink before you feel thirsty when it’s cold out.”
#4 Seek warmth immediately.
We’ve already discussed the importance of drinking enough water while running, and that certainly applies once you’re finished as well. But there’s also another aspect of recovery that can’t be overlooked.
“It would be best if you can take a shower immediately, but as soon as you stop moving, head indoors or change into dry clothing,” says Waldt. “Any sweat on your clothes will rapidly cool, and it’s even harder to run with a cold. Even though there isn’t any empirical evidence to support the idea that being cold will make you sick, you are more prone to chills because you’re going to sweat.”
It’s also important to moisturize your skin, too, says Waldt.
“Your face and any exposed skin is likely raw and dry,” she says. “When the temperature drops, the humidity level does too, meaning that your skin will lose moisture more quickly. And heaters usually strip moisture from the air, so you should be moisturizing anyway if you are experiencing any dry skin.”
#5 Proceed with caution.
Kudos to you for having the willpower and tenacity to be willing to brave the cold for the sake of a good run. You’ll maintain your athletic capabilities over the winter and give yourself a little breathing room to hit the Christmas buffet table with abandon. But as with all things, moderation is everything.
“How long and how hard you run should change according to weather conditions, says Weiss. “If temperatures drop below freezing or weather conditions outside are too harsh, conditions might be dangerous. It is smart to cut intensity and duration as needed or to split-up the running program and perform some of the run indoors on a treadmill. Taking this into consideration can help you continue your running program throughout the winter without getting sick or getting injured.”
Bottom line? Just because temps are plummeting doesn’t mean your running shoes should gather dust. With these tips in your arsenal, you’ll be weathering the elements like a champ—and will be even fitter come springtime.