Cold Weather Running

Wintertime is probably not the best time to plan a dramatic increase in mileage or the right time to add speed work to your training regimen. Cold and icy conditions make running more hazardous. Slipping, muscle guarding, and cool muscles may contribute to posterior muscle group and groin pulls. Warm up well before going out and be especially careful when running on surfaces that are wet or icy. Shorten your stride and run slower than usual. When running following winter storms, if you have a choice of running on ice or snow, choose the snow. You will be less likely to slip because the traction is better. To help yourself keep warm a good strategy to remember is to run out against the wind and return with the wind at your back. The greater the amount of cold air passing over your exposed body surface the faster your body will cool off. Running out against the wind you'll be facing the greatest environmental cooling stresses when you are fresh and running faster. When you are fatigued at the end of a run and expending less energy you will be producing less body heat and thereby have a greater tendency for your core temperature to drop, but the wind behind you will help keep you moving.

A significant amount of body heat can be lost through the head, if uncovered. Keeping your head covered will help keep body heat and circulation directed to areas where it is really needed. The best material for your hat is wool or synthetic material that will wick away moisture. It is important to protect all areas from exposure. The areas most vulnerable are the head, hands and feet. There have been cases of penile injury from cold also. Be careful with your choice of uninsulated shorts. Underware with an insulated front panel can be worn.

Make sure your entire body is well protected. While running on extremely cold and snow covered ground, you may have noticed how cold your feet can feel. Try to run on snow free ground. Be extra careful, as already mentioned, when it has snowed or rain has frozen. The slippery road surface can result in falls and injuries. To minimize this wear absorbant and dry socks. In many cases polypropylene or acrylic can "wick" moisture away and are helpful A thin inner sock can be covered with a thicker outer sock, provided you are not squeezing your foot into your shoe. Immediately following your run, change to a dry pair of socks.

Polypropylene and goretex clothes are also an aid to keeping your body warm and dry. The wicking action of polypropylene is excellent. Combined with a light weight goretex suit - you can run comfortably without the necessity of old fashioned thick layering. When it is not too cold, one layer of a polypropylene shirt below a sweat shirt should be enough for your upper body and polypropylene or lycra tights should suffice for your legs. When it becomes very cold, goretex or nylon will help lessen the effect of windchill. Use an inner layer of polypropylene, and optionally a long sleeve teashirt as a middle layer, then the outer wind breaking shell of goretex or nylon. For the legs, you may add sweat pants over a polypropylene set of tights and if it is exceptionally cold you can substitute Goretex pants or nylon for the outer layer. Goretex is probably the ideal outer layer. Goretex is a breathing fabric and and may help keep you more comfortable than nylon. Nylon does not breathe and may contribute to excess persperation. A ski cap or ski mask can be used on your head, and don't forget gloves. Some runners use the Bill Rogers recommended painters gloves for relatively mild weather. For colder weather, inner polypropylene gloves and an outer layer of mittens can be used.

Windchill is important to keep in mind when exercising in the cold. Moving sports such as roller blading, ice skating, skiing and even running can contribute to a heightened wind chill factor. Running with the wind reduces the effect of wind chill. It is a good idea to run into the wind to start off your run, and then return with the wind at your back. This will lessen the chilling effect of the wind on your body after you have perspired, and make the return trip easier. Don't forget that during and after long winter runs, you will still require fluid replacement. Skin protection should also be used. Sun block and moisturizer will help prevent the development of an early grizzled and weather worn "runner's face."


Frostbite results from an exposure to cold over time. The colder it is or the lower the wind chill factor the quicker frostbite will occur. Freezing begins in the tissues when the deep temperature reaches 10 degrees celsius. Tissues that are frozen below minus five degrees are not likely to survive rewarming. Humidity and wind chill both increase the adverse effect of the cold.

Frostbite may be classified into 4 stages, which are similar to that of burn classification:

  • First degree: redness without necrosis (without death of tissue)
  • Second degree: blister formation
  • Third degree: necrosis of the skin (death of tissue)
  • Fourth degree: gangrene development, requiring amputation or autoamputation

When frostbite occurs, there is usually little or no pain. The affected area becomes numb and stiff. When the injured body part is rewarmed it will become reddened, swollen, and painful. Blisters may develop and other changes, edema may occur over the next 1 to 2 days. The development of skin necrosis or gangrene may occur over the next several days. The persistence of coldness and numbness in an area surrounded by red and swollen tissue is frequently a harbinger of impending gangrene. Delimitation of the extent of gangrene may take up to 30 days.

Immediate Treatment

Avoidance, by proper dressing is the best treatment. If frostbite occurs, the most frequently mentioned treatment is rapid rewarming. The rewarming should be accomplished by placing the affected area in warm water. The temperature of the water should be between 40 and 44 degrees Centigrade. Complete rewarming has been estimated to take about 20 minutes (Principles of Surgery, Schwartz et. al.). Avoid rubbing the affected area and do not expose the frostbitten area to warmer temperatures. Elevation of the affected area can help avoid swelling. A sterile environment is helpful to avoid infections. Tetanus prophylaxis is recommended. A high percentage of long term neurovascular problems is expected. This includes recurrent pain, digital temperature changes, and cold sensitivity.

Don't Forget The Windchill - It's colder than you think!

Wind Chill Chart