My first half marathon was a memorable one: I exceeded my goals, placed second in my age group (it was a small race), and fell in love with long distance racing. But most of all, I remember just how cold that race was.
I hovered by the space heaters, bundled up in sweatpants until 10 minutes before the race started. Even though I wore shorts, I donned a lightweight running shirt, a jacket, and gloves to stay warm. The 25+ mph winds colored my nose pink in the race photos. Afterward, I bundled up even more and shivered my way through the awards ceremony.
I also remember before that race reading everything I could on cold weather racing so that I was well prepared for race day. Despite the chilling lake effect winds and cold temperatures, I still have an enjoyable race and ran well – and so can you the next time you are racing in cold weather.
Statistically speaking, cool temperatures and mild weather is ideal for long distance running, which is why runners flock to races such as California International, Berlin, and other fall marathons for PRs. Research has found that the mid-40s (Fahrenheit) are the best marathon racing temperatures of middle of the pack runners and 38.9 degrees is statistically ideal for elite runners.
But what happens when the temperatures and/or wind chill on race day dip below those ideal temperatures?
Regardless of your preferences on cold versus warm weather racing, you can expect to slow down at races in very cold temperatures (below freezing). However, by following these tips for racing in cold weather, you can still run a fast, safe, and enjoyable race.
Tips for Racing in Cold Weather
Fueling for a Cold Weather Race
A prevalent myth about running in the cold is that you burn more calories as your body attempts to stay warm. The fact is, if it were cold enough to burn a noticeable amount of calories more, you would have other problems.
However, while you may not be burning a significant amount of extra calories, your body will rely more heavily on carbohydrates (both stored and consumed during the race) and less on fat than you would while running at warmer temperatures. As this article from Runners Connect points out, you will need to consume more carbohydrates when racing in the cold.
When your muscles are cold, oxygen exchange becomes less efficient – which means your body will rely more on anaerobic metabolism (without oxygen) at any given pace. Thus you will use more glycogen.
This can be in part avoided by dressing appropriately (if your muscles aren’t chilled, this won’t be as much of an issue). However, you should also consider veering on the side of caution and taking a bit more fuel than you normally would. This doesn’t mean doubling up on gels, but plan on taking an extra gel or pack of chews with you just in case. It’s better to take in a few extra calories than to risk hitting the wall. It’s also smart to carry an extra gel in case your hands are numb and you drop your fuel!
Hydrating for a Cold Weather Race
You may not feel very thirsty during a cold weather marathon or half marathon, but dehydration is just as much a concern as it is a race at normal temperatures. Low temperatures diminish your sensation of thirst, so you will not get the signal you need to realize you need to drink. You should already have a hydration plan by the time you start the race, so follow that even if you don’t feel thirsty.
Bundle Up Before the Start
Waiting in the cold will only make you colder, which in turn will leave you with a lowered core temperature and stiff muscles before the race begins. Instead, bundle up while waiting at the start line – especially if you are running a big race where you must line up in your corral 30 or more minutes before you start.
Many races will donate throwaway items to local charities. Pick an item of clothing that you don’t mind parting with: an old sweatshirt, cheap sweatpants, etc. Wear it for as long as you need to, then toss it aside either once you start running or once you warm up.
Don’t Skip Your Warm Up
Cold muscles are stiff and less efficient muscles – so don’t start out your race with cold muscles! A warm up before your race will loosen up your joints and muscles and elevate your core temperature slightly so that you are not starting out your race stiff and cold.
You should be doing a warm up before a race regardless of the temperature outside. For a 5K, this may be jogging a few miles and doing drills, as for a marathon you may stick to 5 minutes of easy running plus a dynamic warm up. Do your warm up within 30-40 minutes of the start of the race and then add an extra throwaway layer as you line up to prevent you from cooling back down again.
Safety For Racing in Cold Weather
Runners at the notoriously chilly 2012 California International Marathon encountered an unlikely problem during the race. The 20-degree temperatures caused spilled water to freeze and create slick spots on the ground. Runners at the 2016 Syracuse Half Marathon battled whiteout conditions and icy roads. These weren’t just sub-optimal conditions for racing a PR; slippery roads and air so cold it freezes your eyelashes can pose a safety risk.
Hypothermia is the most significant health concern during a cold weather race. The best way to prevent hypothermia is to dress appropriately (see below), minimize the amount of time you spent in the cold before and after the race, and change into warm, dry clothes or bundle up as soon as possible after you finish. (Yes, even if that means changing in a porta potty or behind a space blanket.)
In terms of footwear, you want to opt for shoes with good traction (just as you would for running in the rain). These can still be racing flats or your favorite pair of long run shoes, or you can wear trail shoes for very snowy conditions. Unless conditions are extreme, you want to avoid wearing crampons such as YakTraks, because these will add extra weight to your foot and make it more difficult to run fast.
If a race feels too dangerous to run because of the weather and road conditions, it’s better to DNS than to risk falling and potential injury. No single race is ever worth your health and well-being.
What to Wear for Racing in Cold Weather
We runners can be an obstinate group, especially when it comes to what we wear for racing. Many runners will always, always race in shorts – but below a certain temperature, this can actually slow you down.
Temperatures below freezing can actually impair muscular endurance, especially if you are exposing bare skin to the cold air. As this article from Runner’s World explains, cold air can penetrate your skin and lower the temperature of your outer muscle fibers by a few degrees Fahrenheit, which is enough to hinder optimal muscle function and slow you down. While a variety of theories suggest why this is – from slower nerve conduction to muscle tension reducing economy – what matters is that this phenomenon occurs.
When it’s below freezing outside, consider wearing tights in your race especially if you will be running for one hour or longer. The reason for wearing shorts – controlling temperature and preventing overheating – becomes less of an issue when you are trying to keep your muscles warm enough for optimal function.
Ask yourself the question: what would I wear for a speed workout or tempo run in this weather? If you would wear capris and a long sleeve shirt for a hard workout, then wear that for the race when the temperatures are very cold. (And if you would wear shorts for a tempo run in 30-degree weather, then wear shorts for your race!).
At the same time, avoid bundling up with too many layers that you cannot easily discard. You want to avoid sweating as much as possible. Even if you are wearing wicking material, sweat cannot easily evaporate off of your shirt if you have another layer on top. Cold sweat against your skin will cause you to chill, which will make you comfortable, slow you down, and possibly even lead to hypothermia in long races in very cold conditions.
When in doubt, wear layers that you can easily discard: gloves, hats, arm warmers, and throw away sweatshirts. These will keep you warm as long as you need, but then you can easily toss them aside once your core temperature raises.
Adjust Your Expectations
Even if you dress well and fuel enough, very cold weather is still not ideal for a PR. That doesn’t mean you can’t run a fast race, but it does mean that you should adjust your expectations and focus more on running a smart race rather than running a specific goal time.
However, you still may surprise yourself. Running in the cold means that you will probably start out slow and run faster as your body warms up more, which is the ideal strategy for races such as the marathon and half marathon!
What temperature do you switch from shorts to tights?
What tips would you add for racing in cold weather?
What’s the coldest race you’ve ever done?