Cold Weather Running: Seven Safety Tips

12 Oct

safety rules winter running

For serious runners, training isn’t only a March through October activity. For them, it’s year round, regardless of temperature, ice, or snow.  But running in winter is very different than running the rest of the year, not only because of the obvious weather conditions, but because of the effect on your body as well. Here are seven safety tips to keep in mind before you start your winter training.

1. Dress in Layers

If the temperature outdoors is 41 degrees, heat loss in wet clothes is double that when you’re dry. Dress in clothing that wicks moisture away from your body, which means no cotton if at all possible.

  • The layer closest to your skin should be tight and lightweight, such as a Tech shirt. Avoid cotton for this layer, as it will trap perspiration against your skin. The outer layer should be a looser, medium weight fabric, and once again, not cotton. This layer should have a zipper at the neck so you can regulate your body temperature while you run. Cover your legs with Lycra or polar fleece. If the wind is blowing or if it’s bitterly cold, add a shell layer made from Nylon or Gore-Tex, resistant to wind and water. This layer should also have a zipper to help it breathe.
  • Socks should be made from a material that not only keeps your feet dry, but warm as well. There are many good synthetic materials, but make sure they have plenty of cushion to protect your arch, heel, and forefoot .
  • A lot of runners don’t consider their hands when running, which is a mistake. It’s important to not only keep them warm and dry (a lightweight pair of gloves will do), but you’ll also need hand protection if you fall on the ice or snow. If it’s extremely cold, wear mittens and tuck disposable heat packets in them.
  • Pay attention to the top of your head. You lose a significant amount of body heat from your head, so keep it covered, including your ears. Wear a hoodie, wool cap, scarf, whatever works for you.

The actual amount of clothing needed to stay warm and dry will differ significantly between individuals. There are no hard and fast rules, so wear what you’re most comfortable in. Experts say that you should feel a little cold when you first start running, because your body heat will build to make you feel about twenty degrees warmer than the actual temperature.

Frostbite Warning: In bitter cold, certain parts of your body can suffer frostbite (hypothermia), whether they are exposed or not. This happens when your body loses more heat than it can produce. Your chances also increase when your skin is wet – in fact, you can suffer frostbite faster when you’re damp in 40 degrees than when you’re dry in 25 degrees. Pay special attention to your nose, cheeks, chin, tips of your ears, fingers, and toes. Symptoms of frostbite include numbness, itching, cold or burning sensation, and skin which may be red, white, pale, hard, or cold to the touch. If you suspect frostbite, get indoors immediately and SLOWLY warm yourself. Do not immerse the suspected area in warm water, as this could cause serious damage to the skin. Remove any wet clothing (having dry skin is important) and warm yourself in a seventy degree room with blankets. If you start to feel pain in the suspected area as it warms, you may indeed have frostbite and you should seek emergency medical care. A more thorough explanation of frostbite is on the Mayo Clinic website.

2. Warm up before you run 

With the uncertain terrain that winter can bring, it’s important that your legs, ankles, and feet are flexible and loose when you begin running. Follow these stretching exercises to get warmed up.

3. Be easily seen

Don’t dress in dark colors after sunset. You can’t expect motorists to know you’re there unless you alert them to your presence. If you’re running at night, make sure you’re in a well-lit area and wearing reflective clothing which can be easily seen. If you run on the street, make sure you run against traffic.

4. Find a route protected from wind

Running on a wooded trail that’s protected from wind, like those in public parks, can be a beautiful experience in the winter. In urban environments, buildings won’t protect you from wind, in fact they create wind tunnels. If you’re running on a city street, choose the sunny side to stay warm. Jason Glowney, M.D., an internist with the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine in Colorado adds, “If possible, run into the wind on your way out and with the wind on the way home. Running into the wind when you’re sweaty will subject you to much greater stress and cold exposure.”

5. Stay Hydrated

Winter weather can be quite deceiving where hydration is concerned. The air tends to be drier, which makes you less aware of the amount you’re perspiring, and the cold also makes you feel less thirsty. If you’re not properly hydrated, you could have a serious problem during your routine, so drink plenty of water right before you run.

6. Watch your footing

Run on surfaces free of snow and ice and wear properly fitting running shoes. Falling on ice is never a pleasant experience, especially when you suffer an ankle fracture or sprain. Watch where you plant your feet and beware of obstacles hidden by snow.

7. Protect your lungs

When you begin a run in extreme cold, you may start coughing or feel a burning sensation in your chest or throat. That’s your body reacting to the incoming cold air – your  respiratory system is working harder to warm and moisten it. You can avoid this reaction by doing a less vigorous run, or covering your nose and mouth with a ski mask, scarf, or neck gaiter to warm the air you inhale. Contrary to urban legend, your lungs or windpipe won’t freeze.

However, don’t run if you have a head cold, sinus infection, or respiratory infection. You may have heard that you can “sweat it out”, but that’s a fallacy. While you may initially feel somewhat better, you’re just experiencing the affect of adrenaline clearing up your stuffy sinuses, and your run may actually make you much worse. Take a few days off from your training and get rest.

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