Exercising in Cold Weather


For many of us cold weather is a normal part of our lives so we have to adapt to the conditions when exercises (running or walking) outside.   Here are some tips you might find useful for exercising outside in the cold weather.




Dress for Cold Weather – as a rule of thumb, you should dress for the outside as if the temperature were approximately 20 degrees warmer than it actually is.  For example, if it is 25 degrees outside, you should dress as if the weather is 45 degrees.   This is because your body temperature rises during exercise so you don’t want to overdress when your body starts to heat up during exercise (which usually happens within a few minutes of exercising).   When mom would tell you to put on a hat because you lose over 50% of your body heat through your head, she was partially correct.  Because our bodies are a source for heat, keeping as much covered as possible will help us retain more heat.  You will lose just as much heat through your leg if it were not covered, but mom knows best so let’s keep the hat on when it is cold outside.   Also, it is important to remember to cover other extremities like your hands and ears, especially when it outside temperature is below freezing.   The real key to dressing is to dress in layers, which helps keep out the colder air because no two pieces of fabric are sewn in the same pattern, making it difficult for air to easily flow through each layer.  Plus, layering allows the sweat to move through layers of clothing more easily and away from your skin, especially if you are wearing wicking base as a layer.  At all costs, avoid cotton in colder weather since cotton absorbs moisture and can become cold very quickly.   Since technical clothing (moisture wicking and non-cotton fabric) is readily available, there is no need to ever wear cotton when exercising, during any type of weather.


Here are some things to consideration when running in the cold weather:


Thermal hat: A fleece or wool hat is perfect and should cover your ears on cold days.


Neck Gaiter: A neck gaiter can be extremely valuable on frigid days to warm the air you breathe in.


Chapstick/Vaseline:  Good protection to prevent windburn and chapping on nose and cheeks.


Wicking Base Layer: The layer closest to your body should be made from a synthetic wicking material, such as DryFit, Thinsulate, Thermax, CoolMax, polypropylene, or silk. If it is over 40 degree F, you can usually wear just a long-sleeve base layer.


Second (Insulating) Layer: Consider for very cold weather (below freezing).  Should be an insulating material, such as fleece (polyester, micro or Therma), Thermax, Akwatek, Dryline or Polartec work well for this layer.


Wind- and Water-proof Outer Layer: This layer should protect you against wind and moisture (rain, sleet, snow), but at the same time allow both heat and moisture to escape to prevent both overheating and chilling. A zipper jacket works well and you can regulate your temperature by zipping it up and down. Suggested outer layers include: ClimaFit, Gore-Tex, Microsuplex, nylon, Supplex, and Windstopper.


Gloves/Mittens: On cold days, wear gloves that wick away moisture. Mittens are warmer on colder days because your fingers will share their body heat.


Tights/Running Pants: Your legs generate a lot of heat so you don’t need as many layers on your lower body. You can usually wear just a pair of tights or running pants made of synthetic material such as Thermion, Thinsulate, Thermax, Coolmax, polypropylene, and/or silk. If it’s below 10 degrees F (temperature or wind chill), you may want to consider two layers on your lower body: a wicking layer of tights, and a wind-proof layer such as track pants.


Shoes: Your feet also stay pretty warm, as long as you keep them moving and dry. Try to avoid puddles, slush, and snow. Look for a running shoe with as little mesh as possible, since that’s where the water will seep through to your feet. Or, if you can’t avoid running in the snow, you may want to think about buying trail running shoes, which are somewhat water-proof and will give you a little more traction in the snow.


Socks: Never wear cotton socks (in cold or warm weather) when running because they won’t wick away the moisture, leaving your feet wet and prone to blisters. Instead, be sure to wear a good pair of wicking socks made of fabrics such as acrylic, CoolMax, or wool (in the winter).


Extremely Cold Weather (below 10 degrees): I have run in weather with a wind chill factor of -35 degrees using only 3 layers and I am sure others have similar stories.  The best advice I can give is to use your best judgment for running in very cold weather (below 10 degrees).  If you are uncomfortable running outside in extreme cold temperatures, then I would suggest running inside on the treadmill.


NO COTTON – Remember, cotton absorbs moisture very quickly, and if you’re sweating during cold weather, you will become cold very quickly!  Ideally you should try to wear products that touch your skin that are breathable, and that “wick” moisture away from the body like the materials listed above.


Again, it’s all about LAYERING!  I would suggest 3 layers on your upper body, a thermal hat (fleece or wool), neck gaiter that can be pulled up over your face will help a lot, and a good pair of warm gloves.  As mentioned above, stay away from cotton, especially against your skin. Women should also consider a non-cotton sports bra.


And, keep in mind that these are tried and true GUIDELINES.   Modify, adjust, and experiment ACCORDING TO THE TEMPERATURE and your comfort level.  Sometimes, only one or two of the three layers will be needed so experiment and find what works best for you.





Cold Weather Hydration – There is a misconception that you don’t need to take in water since you may not feel as thirsty during cold weather exercising.  Cold weather studies at the University of New Hampshire (2005 study) actually show there is an increased risk for dehydration in colder weather.   So YES, you want to maintain the same level of water intact, and in fact, you may want slightly more when running during cold weather running.   We lose a great deal of water from our bodies in the winter due to respiratory fluid loss through breathing. Our bodies also are working harder under the weight of extra clothing, and sweat evaporates quickly in cold, dry air.   Yet the loss of fluid from our bodies, which triggers thirst in warmer weather, does not elicit the same response when the temperatures dip.  Another study in the Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, shows that cold actually alters thirst sensation (which is why we often times are not as thirsty as in warmer weather).


In summary, following the tips above will help you get the most out of your outside exercises and hopefully make it a positive experience.   I run outside year round as a way to stay fit and you can too.  Layering, staying away from cotton, and drinking plenty of fluids when it is cold is the key to enjoying your outside activity.   Now, let’s have a cup of hot chocolate and hit the roads.


Happy Trails.


Coach Dan

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