How to Run in the Freezing Cold

Guess what I’m Canadian and in Canada it get’s freezing F-ing cold. I also run outside at least once every single week, every single month of the year. We’ve certainly seen some dramatic warming trends the last few years but we can reliably count on 4-8 weeks of truly frigid temperatures. How cold? The kind of cold where you let faucets drip at night, wear a quilted onesie to shovel snow and earn nicknames like touqey-two-pants. Plus there’s almost always a windchill. How cold is cold well -16 c (0 f) or -24 c (-10 f) with a windchill. I live in Nova Scotia on the coast but rest assured there are runners in Nunavut too who run all year round. Don’t believe me just ask Instagram. Whether it’s a cold snap, polar vortex or an Alberta clipper there’s bound to be some cold days coming and soon! Here’s what you need to know to get out there when the mercury drops even if it’s just for a winter race. Hypothermic half anyone?

I picked this one for the title since you can tell I’m wearing ALL of the running clothes!

Watch the weekly forecast

If you’re working a training program this winter well you might not have as many options as us more casual runners. Here’s the thing even during a proper cold snap a day or two during the week is probably a bit warmer or at the very least less windy. Lots of us run certain days of the week as a rule. During a cold spell it’s best to look at the forecast for the whole week, or at least three days out and pick the day that looks the best for a run. With a couple of days notice you’ll hopefully be able to clear an hour or so in your schedule. A few degrees really does make a difference.

Opt for late afternoon/evening over the morning

Remember how we spend all summer running nice and early to beat the heat of the day. Sometimes we hear the recommendation for summer running that the evening is just as good but we all know that’s not true. Well in winter it’s time to reverse that advice. The coldest temperatures of the day occur when the sun isn’t out at all regardless of season. So just before or after dawn it’s actually the coldest moment of the day. Wait until the sun has (sort of) warmed up your part of the earth and capitalize on the relatively warmest hours of the day. Chances are you’re at work for ALL the daylight hours anyway so really what’s the difference?

Start cold and don’t sweat

Technically with the right gear you can be out in any climate and any temperature and that is true, just ask the rig workers up north. But at a certain point you can’t run in all that gear anymore. Where it gets actually dangerous is if you actually sweat while you’re running in the freezing cold. Here’s the scenario you want to avoid. Your running with the wind at your back and it’s not cold, you’re even getting a little push so you go a bit harder and get a bit sweaty. Then you slow down or return home or both and now you’re running into the wind. Well it turns out that evaporative cooling even works in winter and through all those layers. Being sweaty dramatically increases your chances of cooling too much and actually entering the realm of hypothermia. It sucks but you should start off a bit chilly and get to a comfortable temperature a bit into your workout to avoid sweating later on. Usually you’re comfy with in a few km. If you do find yourself getting sweaty dial back the intensity at least until you’re really close to home. Use this website to put in your current weather conditions and it will tell you what to wear, just like clueless!

Let go of summer paces

There are so, so many reasons that you won’t be able to pull the same paces you do in the spring that have nothing at all to do with fitness. There’s all those layers, a prime directive to not get sweaty and that ice shuffle move you gotta keep doing. Plus I think you just go slower when it’s colder, it’s a thing. For the first few winters I ran just how slow I was going freaked me out. On the rural roads I run on with no sidewalks and a very poorly cleared shoulder. I’m usually about a full minute slower per km in the dead of winter. When the conditions improve year after year that minute just falls away for no extra effort. So chill, pun intended, you will be back to speed come spring.

Layers and tucks

You’re going to be happier if you wear multiple layers to accomplish your dressing goals rather than just one piece of clothing that does the same thing. Usually more lighter layers adds up to less bulk believe it or not and a tight fit with more options and less holes for wind. This goes a long way to getting through that cold first km and preventing yourself from getting sweaty. It also gives you more fine control on what to wear with the temperature and avoids the need for buying a thick and expensive running jacket. Plus I feel like it’s more breathable. The amp up goes something like this:

  • Long sleeve top
  • Long sleeve top and light jacket
  • Two long sleeve tops and light jacket
  • Long sleeve top, thick sweater and light jacket
  • Two long sleeve tops, thick sweater and light jacket (things haven’t gotten this desperate yet)

You can customize within this by how thick each top is and what it covers, (ie turtle neck vs zip neck). Plus, wait for it, what you tuck into your pants also matters. Getting cold, tuck in your shirts, getting sweaty leave them loose. Also I prefer soft leggings under my winter running pants over thick fuzzy pants for the same reason and wind resistance is key! You can read all about my winter specific favorite running gear here and here.

It wasn’t all that cold that day just snowing. I did take my jacket off for the picture though.

Cover your face

I’ve not found the perfect face cover yet, but it does make all the difference. Up until now I’ve used a cotton scarf my sister got me in Thailand which is perfect when is stays where I want, which is to say not often. Then I crocheted a long cowl out of worsted yarn. Better but it tends to fog up my glasses if I cover my nose. For Christmas this year I got a nike face cover thing and believe it or not my very first real running buff which I’ll be testing out. Oh and a repressed memory, I found a skull cotton buff on one of my runs this summer that I have high hopes for so stay tuned!

Gloves over mitts

I do not mean gloves are better than mittens which I guess they sort of are for phone playlist management. But literally wear you biggest fluffiest mittens over you running gloves when necessary. Then your mittens don’t even have to be specifically for running. And if you have to push buttons on smartphones you’re not doing it with bare hands.

Keep it to an hour

Really more often than not the hardest part is leaving the house and well getting dressed in all those layers. I’m often struck by how I hardly notice the cold for how dramatic I was. That is until I’m about an hour in. Then my legs are getting a bit tingly so are my fingers and I’m all in all over it! Over stopping and shuffling over the ice patches, over the damp sneakers and over the run in general. Any time it’s below freezing really I want it to be over right around the hour mark. Don’t be a hero and preserve that runner’s high for the rest of the day!

At -25 c (-15 f) it’s time to be inside

For even those that are somewhat used to running in the cold like me around -25 c on the thermometer or with a windchill it’s best to stay inside to workout. That’s where my bike trainer comes in handy. Most of us won’t really see temperatures that low or very often at all for a whole week at a time. Experts agree that below this temperatures it’s hard to make sure you’re safe from hypothermia and frostbite. Sure some northern runners do it on the regular but chances are that’s not you. It’s certainly not me! If you insist keep it short and keep it close to home potentially by running back in forth in front of it. Around here there’s a community center with a gym and a $5 drop in fee that’s my fall back option for winter running but… following this tips I haven’t been in two winter’s now. What can I say I love the outdoors!

So that’s how we do it in Canada. At least that’s how I do it in Canada! When I’m really feeling dramatic I remember that there’s a good chance there is someone surfing the break at the point in front of the house right now so suck it up buttercup! What’s your cut off temperature where the treadmill actually starts to sound like a good idea? Any tips you want to share with a currently cold Canuck?

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