From snow and ice to negative degree wind chills, winter running presents several difficulties to runners – especially if you hate the treadmill and want to run outdoors. From itchy red skin to picking out the right winter running gear, these are some questions I’ve received as a running coach about common winter running problems – and the answers to how you can solve them.
Remember that each runner is an individual and will respond to cold weather differently! Above all else, prioritize your own safety and comfort.
My legs turn red and are super itchy after a run in the cold. What is this?
The red, bumpy, itchy skin that happens when you jump straight into the shower after a cold run is called chilblains. Chilblains occur when the blood vessels constrict too much due to the cold and then inflame as they warm back up, causing itchiness and redness for up to an hour.
Warming up too quickly can worsen chilblains – meaning that jumping in the shower immediately after a run may actually make the symptoms worse rather than better. Based on personal experience, I’ve found that changing into warm dry clothes immediately after a run and then gradually warming up before showering decreases the occurrence of chilblains. The best course of action is preventative: wear warm, wicking gear on your winter runs (see below).
My hands turn purple and lose dexterity when I run in the cold. How can I avoid this?
Cold weather causes blood vessels to constrict. During exercise, your body prioritizes circulation to the core and working muscles, meaning that you have less circulation in your hands. The combination of the cold weather and change in circulation from exercise mean you are not getting as much blood flow into your hands. Without sufficient blood flow, you experience a loss of dexterity, purple/blue hands, and numbness, followed by redness and pain upon rewarming. Severe cases of this are known as Raynaud’s Syndrome, and exercising in the cold can exacerbate the symptoms of Raynaud’s.
Taking hormonal birth control can worsen these symptoms, as higher estrogen levels correlate to poorer extremity circulation in the cold. Because of the correlation to estrogen, Raynaud’s is far more common in women than in men – our hands on average are three degrees colder than men’s hands!
What can prevent the symptoms of Raynaud’s? Keep your hands and feet protected from the cold. Warm, wicking socks on your feet, mittens on your hands (mittens keep your hands warmer than gloves), and hand/foot warmers on very cold runs will provide a protective layer from the cold and keep your extremities warm and dexterous. If you are prone to Raynaud’s in your feet, wear compression leggings or compression socks to promote blood flow to your feet.
What gear should I use for winter runs?
A warm core and warm extremities (especially the hands) will keep you warm without overheating on winter runs. Your gear should keep these areas the warmest while protecting the rest of your body from the cold.
Depending on the temperatures, these are the key pieces of gear for winter runs:
- A good base layer (or two): A wicking, warming base layer will keep your upper body and core warm and wick away any sweat (which can make you feel colder). My personal favorite base layers are from Patagonia and Athleta.
- A vest or a jacket: For temperatures in the 20-35 range, a vest will keep your core warm without overheating. Once the thermometer dips below 20, a jacket provides a extra warmth and protection from the elements.
- Leggings: In temperatures 30 and below, the cold weather contact on bare skin can cause your blood vessels to constrict and hinder oxygen delivery – meaning that shorts are not an ideal option when it’s very cold. A good pair of leggings provides protection from the cold without compromising mobility.
- A neck gaiter: Covering your neck will keep you warmer. A wool neck or wicking material gaiter (such as Buffs) can also be used to cover your mouth and moisten the dry winter air.
- Merino wool socks: Warm and dry feet are a must, especially if running in snow!
- Mittens/gloves: Warm hands are key to staying warm overall, especially as your circulation diverts blood to working muscles during a run.
(Want more suggestions? Check out these winter running gear suggestions from six running bloggers!)
If you live anywhere that gets snow or ice, I highly recommend trail running shoes. Yaktrak and nanospikes work well on thick layers of snow and ice, but if your route varies between clear pavement and snow/ice, you risk ruining the crampons and being uncomfortable for parts of the run. Heavily lugged trail shoes provide the traction you need on snow or ice and transition comfortably to plowed surfaces.
How do I deal with icy conditions?
Ice can be dangerous – think of Shalane Flanagan, who missed the spring 2016 season after a stress fracture due to training on ice. If you have the option, run on the treadmill. If the treadmill isn’t an option (or you really despise it), rearrange your training plan so you cross-train that day. Try one of these treadmill workouts or these indoor workouts for runners on an icy day.
If you must run on ice, wear the appropriate footwear (heavily lugged trail shoes or Yaktrak/nanospikes) and do a short, easy-paced run. Do NOT do a speed workout or a long run. Be willing to walk through very icy patches.
How do you deal with running in the cold?
What do you struggle with the most in terms of winter running?