Baby, it's cold outside! So, if you've managed to resist the temptation of cozy blankets, sweats, and a steaming mug of hot chocolate in favor of sticking to your regular running routine, kudos to you. Not only are you well on your way to increasing strength, muscle tone, and cardiovascular health, but you're proving to yourself (and your friends!) that nothing — not even harsh weather conditions — can slow you down.
Running is also a great way to ward off the Winter blues. According to a study at Duke University, researchers discovered that getting regular cardio exercise not only increases your serotonin levels, but it also reduced the symptoms of depression as well as the risk of relapsing in trial participants.
That said, there are times when even the most avid runners should think twice about logging miles outdoors. "While everyone handles the cold differently, generally if it's zero and windy, it's just too cold to run," says Rachel Spurrier, an RRCA-certified running coach in New York City. "No matter how many layers one wears, running with windchill can really make one get cold really quickly. So skipping one run or moving it to a slightly warmer day is much better than risking unsafe conditions."
Although there are preventative measures you can take, like wearing layers, gloves, a hat, and running shoes with good traction, it's important to weigh the pros and cons before pounding the pavement. "Frostbite and hypothermia are the two major concerns when training in extreme cold," says Desi Bartlett, MS, CPT exercise physiologist. "Also, bear in mind that falling or slipping on ice can be a danger."
Bartlett, who originally hails from Chicago, aka The Windy City, advises that runners check the weather report less than an hour before they run since temperatures can change quickly. It's also important to check in with your body midrun to make sure you aren't experiencing numbness, fatigue, intense shivering, impaired speech, or lack of coordination, all signs that you should cut your run short since you are probably doing more harm than good.
"I sometimes tell clients if they think they look a little ridiculous, they probably are appropriately dressed."
"For a healthy adult with no temporary or chronic conditions, it's OK to run in the cold," says Bartlett. "But generally it's best to skip your outdoor run if conditions are 20 degrees or colder or if there is ice or freezing rain."
If you do opt to brave cold temperatures, it's also important to make sure that you are dressed appropriately. "It's all about layers!" says Spurrier. "Wearing a base layer is key; then layer up from there. Cover all exposed skin and always make sure to cover all extremities. If there is any kind of wind, it's good to tuck a layer or two into one's leggings to protect your midsection from getting cold. Also, put an extra pair of socks over one's pants. One can lose a significant amount of heat through one's head and chest, so it's important to keep these protected and covered. I sometimes tell clients if they think they look a little ridiculous, they probably are appropriately dressed. It's always better to be too warm than too cold."
And if all else fails, don't shy away from taking a well-deserved rest day. After all, you've earned it. "Athletes should remember that rest days are essential to their training," says Spurrier. "Taking an unscheduled rest day doesn't mean that you're derailing your training or you're lazy. It's good to get into the mindset that it can actually make for a stronger and more rested runner so, when one does run, they have a better quality workout. This is when the muscle rebuilding phase happens, which is key to smart training and running."