You may wonder what a Southerner could possibly teach you about cold-weather running. Well, I may live in Atlanta, but I travel enough to have logged plenty of miles in the ice and snow. I admit that when I first began visiting places like Minneapolis, Winnipeg and Boston in the dead of winter, I was tempted to limit myself to indoor exercise. But after seeing a steady stream of runners head out to face the elements, I eventually followed them.
What a pleasant surprise to discover that, with a few adjustments, I could enjoy a run in 20-degree temperatures as much as a 70-degree run! Through trial and error I learned how to adapt traditional running advice to the vagaries of cold weather. Here's what I found.
Form and stride: A long stride is perilous on ice and snow, where footing can be dicey. A shorter stride is more stable because it keeps your feet more directly underneath your body. Another way to add stability is to decrease your "bounce." By keeping your feet close to the ground and taking some of the spring out of your step, you'll gain more control.
Warming up and cooling down: Because cold reduces the flexibility of muscles and tendons, a thorough warmup is crucial. Here's one that works particularly well on cold days: Start by walking, then walk and jog for a few minutes, then jog slowly for a few more minutes before easing into your normal running pace.
If you'd rather hit the ground running, warm up indoors. Jog in place or spin easily on a stationary bike for a few minutes until you break a sweat. Then suit up and head out the door.
The very idea of "cooling down" may seem ridiculous when you're sprouting icicles, but a gradual transition from outdoors to indoors is smart. (Going straight from arctic temperatures into a hot shower can tax the heart.) Cool down by reversing the warmup process: Ease your running pace into a slow jog, then walk and jog for a few minutes, and end with a few minutes of walking.
Hydration and nutrition: Believe it or not, winter running can dehydrate you. So don't neglect to drink. No matter what the weather, drink plenty of water throughout the day. If you're running long enough to require energy bars or gels, stash them close to your body to keep them from freezing.
Intensity: Even on a clear running surface, going all-out in very cold weather has some risks. I've seen many well-trained runners suffer pulled muscles when weather conditions changed during a workout. It's possible-after a good warmup-to do some gradual accelerations during an outdoor run without much injury risk, but intense speed sessions are best done on a treadmill or indoor track during the winter.
Four Cold-Weather Myths
Don't know what to believe when it comes to winter running? Here are the cold facts:
Myth: You'll freeze your lungs.
Fact: There's no evidence that exercising in cold weather, even in extreme cold, will hurt your lungs. If the cold air hurts your throat, breathe through a bandana or a polypropylene face mask.
Myth: You'll burn more calories when you run in the cold.
Fact: When you run continuously, you burn roughly 100 to 120 calories per mile. The air temperature doesn't significantly change this.
Myth: You don't have to drink as much when it's cold.
Fact: Most people sweat about as much during winter runs as they do during summer runs, but many runners don't recognize dehydration as easily during the winter. When in doubt, drink.
Myth: We're meant to hibernate during cold weather, not run.
Fact: Just take a trip to the Twin Cities in February and see how many people are running outside, enjoying the subzero temperatures. With the right clothing and a positive attitude, you can adapt to just about any type of weather.
Reprint: Runner's World, January 2000, p. 30