A cold weather run can be invigorating. During the summer, the heat and humidity can wear you down before you get started, but the cool, dry air of winter feels refreshing. Plus, familiar trails have a new look, as the bare trees expand your view of the wide-open forest.
But there are also different challenges that come with running in cold weather. If you’re new to trail running, or your dislike of the cold keeps you out of the winter woods, check out these seven tips to help you stay safe and comfortable as you tackle the trails this winter.
1. Dress in Layers
The advice passed down to you as a kid is still relevant—you should dress in layers—just don’t overdo it. It’s okay to be a little cold when you get started since you will heat up substantially after your first mile or two. A good general rule is to dress like it’s 15 to 20 degrees warmer than the actual temperature.
Your base layer should be made of moisture-wicking materials. A pair of windproof tights for your legs and a long-sleeve top make a solid base to start. From there, add a middle layer that fits loosely over the base layer and has a zipper for ventilation if needed. You can go with running pants or shorts over the tights, depending on your comfort level and the temperature. Then, add a final outer layer that resists wind and moisture and can be removed easily if needed.
As much as you want to channel your inner Rocky Balboa, this is not the time to throw on an old pair of gray cotton sweats and hit the trail. Stay away from cotton clothing, because it absorbs and holds sweat, which will make your clothes heavy and pulls heat from your body. It’s best to stick with clothes made of synthetic fabrics, wool, or a mix of the two.
2. Gain Some Traction
The ground will be harder in winter, and you might run into patches of ice during early morning runs when temperatures are near or below freezing. You can get away with regular running shoes for some light trail runs in the summer, but winter calls for an investment in a pair of shoes made specifically for trail running.
For ice or snow conditions, there are devices you can pull over shoes, such as Yaktrax or MICROspikes, that act like snow chains for tires and ensure you have a stable grip on slippery terrain.
3. Cover Your Extremities
Your head and hands will be the first things to lose heat on a run. On extremely cold days you’ll need a heavy beanie for your head, but a light hat or headband will do the trick most days. If your hands are fully exposed on a cold day, it will make your run uncomfortable and potentially dangerous if it’s below freezing. A pair of gloves and wind-resistant mittens will keep your hands safe and warm. For those windy days, a neck gaiter or mask will keep your face free from wind burn.
Also, don’t forget to take care of your feet. Proper socks are critical for keeping your toes and feet comfortable. Skip the cotton socks and wear a good pair of wool or synthetic socks to keep your feet warm and dry.
4. Light it Up
While many trails will close early in the winter before it gets dark, it’s still wise to wear a headlamp or at least have one handy—along with an extra set of batteries—on the trail. It will get darker earlier than expected, especially if you’re on the backside of a mountain. Also, bring a reflective vest or wear a jacket that has reflective properties.
5. Stay Hydrated
Often overlooked in winter, it is still important to drink water before and after your run. And bring a water bottle or energy gels if you plan on running for more than an hour. You will sweat and expend more energy in the cold than you think, and you don’t want to run into any issues on the trail.
Also, if temperatures are below freezing on an extended run, the water in your bottle could freeze. To avoid dealing with a block of ice instead of a refreshing sip of water, pick up an insulated bottle or vacuum bottle.
6. Be Prepared
Cold weather running poses unique risks, especially long-distance runs in temperatures below freezing. Two of the most dangerous risks are frostbite and hypothermia, but you can avoid them easily by taking certain precautions.
If your skin and extremities are exposed to the cold too long, your skin can freeze, which is known as frostbite. Frostbite doesn’t hurt at first, but the area will turn red and then white before it goes numb. If you suspect an area is becoming frostbitten, get indoors quickly and wrap the affected area or use a blow dryer to warm it up. Do not use hot water to warm the area. Begin with lukewarm or cool water and slowly advance to warmer water.
When your body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, you will enter hypothermia. A major symptom is uncontrollable shivering, followed by slowed reaction time and slurring of speech. If any of these symptoms appear, get inside immediately. And, if you can’t get indoors, put on as many layers of clothing as you have, get off the ground and move your body in any way possible to generate heat.
7. Let it Snow
Everything is more fun in the snow, including a trail run. While it doesn’t snow too much in Alabama, don’t pass up the few opportunities we get each year. When you do decide to lay tracks in the snow, it’s important to stay focused. Shorter strides and a slower pace must be maintained to avoid slipping, especially if you’re the first person on the snow and there’s the potential to hit some ice. This engages your core more than a regular pace, making even a short run worthwhile.
Written by Hap Pruitt for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL.