The Complete Guide to Running in Winter

Winter can be one of the most challenging yet rewarding times to run. Cold temperatures, shorter days, snow, ice, and freezing winds make winter running difficult. However, with the proper preparation and gear, you can safely enjoy running through the winter months. This comprehensive guide will provide you with tips and advice for embracing winter running.

Key Takeaways

  • Invest in quality winter running gear to stay safe and comfortable.
  • Adjust your training plan with more base building and less intense workouts.
  • Run slower and focus on effort over pace in cold conditions.
  • Stay fueled and hydrated even on shorter winter runs.
  • Incorporate strength training and cross-training for injury prevention.
  • Listen to your body and be flexible; opt for the treadmill if needed.
  • Maintain motivation with running partners, races, rewards, and gear upgrades.

Benefits of Running in Winter

While running in winter may seem daunting, there are several advantages that make heading out in the cold worth it:

Improves mental toughnessPushing through tough winter conditions builds grit and resilience.
Burns more caloriesYour body works harder to keep you warm, burning extra calories.
Enhances base trainingThe aerobic focus of winter running builds your base for spring racing.
Strengthens the immune systemFacing the cold enhances the immune response over time.
Allows for reflectionThe serenity of winter fosters introspection and clarity.
Feels like an accomplishmentCompleting runs in harsh elements gives a great sense of achievement.

Embracing the challenge of winter running can help build physical and mental strength to make you a better athlete year-round.

Drawbacks of Winter Running

While the benefits are plentiful, it’s important to be realistic about the downsides of running through winter:

Increased injury riskIcy trails, cold muscles, and high mileage increase injury potential.
Difficulty staying motivatedShorter days and dreary weather can sap motivation.
Potentially dangerous conditionsSnow, ice, and low visibility create hazards.
Decreased performanceThe cold hampers speed, power, and coordination.
Logistical complicationsLayering, traction control, and hydration require planning.
Not for everyoneSome runners dislike running in cold weather conditions.

Being aware of the drawbacks and challenges can help you take precautions to stay healthy and consistent with your training.

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Essential Winter Running Gear

Having the proper winter running gear is vital for safety and comfort when running in the cold. Here are some key items every winter runner needs:

Base layers

Synthetic or wool long sleeve tops and tights provide insulation while wicking away sweat. Look for light, breathable, moisture-wicking fabrics like polyester or merino wool. Depending on the temperature, opt for light, mid, or heavy weight base layers. For extremely cold conditions, wear both top and bottom base layers to retain body heat.

Jackets and pants

Waterproof, windproof, breathable outer layers prevent cold air and precipitation from sapping body heat. Look for jackets and pants designed for active use, with features like underarm zips for ventilation and adjustable hems and cuffs to seal out the elements. Depending on conditions, lightweight windproof shells or heavy insulated jackets are suitable. If precipitation is expected, choose a waterproof hard shell jacket.

Hats, gloves, and socks

A substantial portion of body heat is lost through the head and extremities. Beanies, ear warmers, and balaclavas maintain warmth and protect exposed skin. Look for gloves that are windproof yet breathable for temperature regulation. Merino wool socks help insulate feet and wick away moisture.

Traction devices

Attachments like Kahtoola MICROspikes or YakTrax fit over your shoes to provide stability and traction on snow and ice. This prevents slips and falls that can lead to serious injury. Traction devices also allow you to confidently run more pavement miles through icy conditions.

Reflective and bright outer layers

Being visible is crucial with fewer daylight hours and fast changing weather conditions. Look for jackets, vests, hats and gloves with built-in reflective elements or wear stand alone reflective strips. Bright colors also help you stand out to traffic. LED lights offer another visibility option.

Hydration vest/belt and handhelds

When hitting the trails in freezing conditions, maintaining access to liquid water is crucial. Opt for an insulated hydration vest, belt, or handheld bottle to keep your water from freezing. These options leverage your core body heat to prevent ice formation. Insulated hydration systems are especially designed for cold weather, featuring insulated reservoirs, tubes, and nozzles to ensure your fluid intake isn't interrupted by freeze-ups. Hydration vests and belts also offer the added benefit of carrying extra winter gear. Remember that external water bottles are prone to freezing, so keep your water close and insulated.

  • Use deep insulated bottle pouches close to body for maximum insulation
  • Wrap hydration reservoirs in insulating jackets or covers
  • Use thermal or vacuum sealed hydration systems to prevent freezing
  • Insulate the tube with neoprene, foam, or fabric wraps
  • Blow back or suck water through the tube after each sip to avoid freeze up
  • Bring extra thawed bottles to swap out as others freeze

Buffs, balaclavas, and gaiters

Protect the nose, neck, face, and ankles from frostbite in extreme cold. Buffs, balaclavas, and neck gaiters seal out frigid air from entering around neck openings. Ankle gaiters prevent snow from entering shoes. Look for windproof materials with moisture wicking properties when choosing your accessories.

Sunglasses or clear glasses

Shield eyes from sun, wind, snow glare and cold. Lenses should be dark enough for sunny days yet light enough for low light conditions. Green or yellow tinted lenses enhance contrast on snowy trails. Invest in quality winter running eyewear as fogging lenses or blown-out contacts can jeopardize safety.

Added Tip for Mid-Run Warmth

Chemical hand and toe warmers can provide portable heat when extremities get painfully cold. Tear open a packet and the chemicals inside react exothermically to provide several hours of warming relief.

Invest in quality winter running apparel made with insulating and weatherproof materials. Avoid cotton which absorbs sweat and retains moisture. The cost is well worth avoiding misery and injury out on the trails.

Essential Winter Running Gear Checklist

Winter Running Tips and Precautions

Here are some key tips to help you run safely and successfully through the cold months:

Keep intensity low

Back off your pace by about 30 seconds per mile slower than your summer paces to account for weather resistance and decreased power. 

Watch your footing

Slow down, shorten your stride, and run flat-footed on snow or icy sections to avoid slipping. 

Dress in layers

Base layer, mid layer, outer shell plus hats, gloves, socks. You want to feel slightly chilled when you first go out and can shed layers as you warm up. 

Cover your extremities

Hands, head, and feet lose heat rapidly. Don’t forget warm socks too! 

Warm up properly

Jog easily for 10-15 minutes before a winter workout to raise your core body temperature and prep muscles. 

Hydrate and fuel

Dehydration comes quicker in winter. Drink before, during and after runs. Consume gels and food even on shorter efforts. 

Run facing traffic

This allows you to see potential hazards like ice patches or vehicles. 

Avoid cotton and denim

Stick to synthetic and wool to wick moisture away from your skin. 

Be prepared to cut runs short

Skip runs or end early if conditions are dangerous like during storms or bitter windchills. 

Have contingency plans

Be ready to hop on a treadmill if outdoor conditions are prohibitive. Or swap a track workout for hills/trail running if they are icy. 

Use thinner lubes/gels

Chafing increases in winter. Use winter specific, low viscosity gels to prevent rubbing issues. Reapply frequently. 

Replace shoes promptly

Cold weather accelerates midsole breakdown. Cold temperatures can stiffen the foam in the midsole and insole of running shoes, altering their cushioning properties. This is because most running shoes are made from ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), a synthetic foam that provides a balance between cushioning and energy return. Cold temperatures can make this foam stiffer, which can cause more localized pressure on the sole of your foot when running. This is similar to how shoes age, as they also get stiffer as their EVA foam wears out. Monitor for cushioning loss and swap shoes earlier if needed.

Pick the Right Shoes

For winter running in dry, cold conditions on paved surfaces or packed trails, bulky, waterproof shoes often feel like concrete blocks and can sap energy. Opt for lighter, breathable models with wool socks for warmth. 

However, for muddy winter conditions, waterproof shoes make more sense to keep your feet dry and warm. Some key considerations for wet/muddy runs:

  • Opt for waterproof trail running shoes with a grippy tread pattern to prevent slipping in mud. Brands like Salomon, La Sportiva, and Inov-8 make good options.
  • Look for shoes with Gore-Tex or other waterproof membranes to keep water out while allowing vapor to escape.
  • Try a shoe with a gaiter attachment like the Salomon Speedcross to keep mud and debris from getting inside the shoe.
  • Avoid low cut running shoes in sloppy conditions. Higher ankles and gaiter attachments prevent water and mud from flowing into the shoe.
  • Expect waterproof shoes to feel heavier, especially when muddy. Slow your pace a bit to adjust.
  • Wash waterproof shoes thoroughly after muddy runs and allow them to dry fully inside and out to prevent damage from trapped moisture.

So in summary, while lightweight shoes work best for cold and dry conditions, the extra weight and protection of waterproof trail shoes pay off when slogging through winter mud and slop. 

Do strength training

Weightlifting builds power and helps prevent winter injuries related to reduced mobility. Pay close attention to your body when running in winter. Know when to cut a run short, modify a workout, or opt for the treadmill. Patience and flexibility will keep you healthy.

Indoor Alternatives for Cold and Icy Days

While winter running opens new challenges, heading indoors allows you to maintain your training on the most frigid and hazardous days:

  • Treadmills - An obvious choice, but can get monotonous. Vary the pace and elevation for varied training stimulus.
  • Indoor tracks - Many colleges open up their tracks to the community. Change directions frequently to balance work each leg.
  • Spin classes - A tough cardio workout without the pounding. Targets different muscle groups.
  • Yoga/Pilates - Strength, flexibility, and balance. Accentuate your running-specific training.
  • Rowing machines - Low-impact cardio session. Works the upper body unlike running.
  • Ellipticals/Arc trainers - Gentler on the body than running but maintain aerobic fitness.

Two weekly indoor sessions help supplement your winter running and build strength through cross-training.

Winter Running Training Plans and Workouts

Changing your training focus and workouts will help you rack up winter miles safely and efficiently:

Focus on aerobic base

Decrease interval training for now and emphasize building your aerobic base with mid-distance runs at your aerobic threshold pace. 

Do hill repeats

Improve strength and form running hill repeats. Check for ice first. Easier to control than speedwork. 

Include fartlek workouts

Unstructured speedplay on trails integrates aerobic and anaerobic systems. Add surges for 10-60 seconds during mid-distance runs. 

Run less mileage more frequently

Divide your weekly mileage into 1-2 additional days. Prevent injury from repeatedly running on icy surfaces. 

Run loops or out and backs

This allows you to more conveniently shed layers if you get too hot and avoids extra miles trekking back to your car. 

Stick to lower risk surfaces

Focus long runs on paved greenway trails or clear sidewalks. Use Yaktrax if needed on snow. Save muddy and technical trails for spring. 

Do strength training 2-3x per week

Squats, lunges, and core exercises prevent injuries and keep leg muscles supple in the cold. Adjusting your training plan and modifying certain workouts will keep your winter running on track. Listen to your body and be flexible.

Sample Winter Running Workouts

Here are some examples of key workouts adapted for winter training:

  • Long Runs: Reduce pace by 30+ sec/mile. Run loops or out/backs. Carry fuel and hydration. Add hills for strength. Finish by 9am before it gets too slick.
  • Tempo Runs: Lower tempo pace by 30 sec/mile. Do tempo intervals on treadmill or clear paths. Wear traction devices if needed. Keep effort based on feel vs. pace.
  • Track Repeats: Opt for 200s or 300s over 400s for better form and turnover in cold. Jog in lanes opposite of wind direction. Wear thin gloves and spike socks for grip.
  • Hill Repeats: Check route for ice first. Shorten reps to 30 vs. 60 seconds. Walk back down for rest. Focus on power and form.

Winter Half Marathon Training Schedule

  • Mon: Rest
  • Tues: 5 mi Easy + Strength
  • Wed: 3 mi Tempo
  • Thurs: 8 mi Endurance
  • Fri: Rest
  • Sat: 2 mi Easy + 6 x Hill Repeats
  • Sun: 10 mi Long Run

Nutrition and Hydration for Winter Running

Fuelling and hydrating properly helps optimise winter running and keeps your immune system strong:

Stay hydrated

Drink about 16-20 ounces of water 2 hours before a winter run since cold and wind speeds dehydration. Consume another 8 ounces within 30 minutes of finishing your run. 

Eat easily digestible carbs before runs

Foods like oatmeal, bananas, and whole grain toast provide quick energy without digestive issues in cold weather. 

Fuel during your run

Intake 30-60g carbs/hour from gels, chews, or drinks to maintain blood sugar on longer efforts. Don’t wait until you feel depleted. 

Refuel post-run within 30 minutes

Chocolate milk, yogurt with granola, turkey sandwiches. Mix carbs, protein, fat. Helps restock glycogen stores. 

Load up on vegetables and fruits

Cold weather runs tax the immune system. Antioxidants in produce help you stay healthy. 

Stay hydrated around the clock

Drink frequently throughout the day, not just during runs. Urine should be clear or pale yellow. 

Consider electrolyte tabs/drinks

Supplementing with sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium helps maintain fluid levels. Don’t neglect hydration and nutrition just because most runs are shorter in winter. Refueling is critical to maintaining your health and energy as the cold weather persists.

Preventing and Treating Winter Running Injuries

While the risk of injury is higher during winter, smart training and proper care can keep you healthy:

  • Foam roll and use a lacrosse ball regularly to improve circulation and avoid muscle tightness.
  • Do dynamic warm-ups before runs to activate muscles and prep joints for impact.
  • Wear winter-specific shoes with traction to prevent slipping on ice.
  • Slow down pace by 30-90 seconds per mile to reduce impact on cold muscles.
  • Take easy days very easy. Cross-train or take full rest days to allow complete recovery.
  • Consume anti-inflammatory foods like salmon, nuts, spinach to help the body heal.
  • If injured, cross-train non-weight bearing like the elliptical, swimming, or seated bike.

If you do sustain an injury like runner’s knee, Achilles tendinitis or shin splints, treat the injury proactively with icing, compression, elevation, massage, gentle stretching, and topical anti-inflammatories. Seek professional help promptly if pain persists for more than several days. Patience returning from injury is key, as is correcting training errors like increasing mileage too quickly.

Winter Running Motivation Tips

Running through the dark and cold months requires mental grit. Here are some strategies to stay motivated:

  • Find a training partner. Accountability and companionship helps.
  • Make reservations for winter races. Having an event on the calendar provides focus.
  • Join a winter running challenge or virtual race. Added incentives to complete miles. 
  • Follow inspirational runners on social media. Their passion rubs off on you.
  • New gear and apparel. Upgrading your winter running wardrobe boosts excitement to test it out.
  • Keep an uptempo winter running playlist. Music alters mood and boosts endorphins.
  • Plan destination running trips. Look forward to a change of scenery and climate.
  • Focus on smaller milestones. Target getting in 2-3 runs per week rather than big mileage.
  • Run midday. Taking advantage of daylight hours and slightly warmer temps.
  • Reward yourself. Plan special post-run breakfasts, coffee shops, massages.


Running through winter's dark and cold months requires mental grit and physical resilience. With proper preparation and a resilient mindset focused on enjoyment over outcomes, winter miles can deeply enrich your running. Invest in gear to stay safe and comfortable, adjust your training plan accordingly, fuel properly, and appreciate the little victories like enjoying a sunrise on a frosty trail. The rewards of winter running are worth embracing the unique challenges it brings.

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