The Ins & Outs of Cold Weather Running

While we’re out of the Polar Vortex, we woke up this morning to some seriously cold weather that is here to stay for a while. Many people find it hard to remain active when it’s freezing outside. And if you’re like me, a treadmill just doesn’t cut it.

But don’t fret! Despite popular belief, the body is well fit to adapt to the cold, and we are able to continue running outdoors during this time of year as long as conditions are safe to do so (be smart — don’t run when it’s icy and slippery!).  Here’s what you should know.

How Cold Affects Our Bodies

Burn out. In the cold, we have slower and less effective muscle contractions, and the decrease in temperature also decreases the amount of nutrition entering our muscles.  Additionally, one of our bodies’ daily tasks is core temperature regulation. In the cold, our bodies need to work overtime to maintain this temperature. This uses up more energy (including that energy we get from carbohydrates),  leaving less energy for working muscles and causing us to “hit the wall” sooner.

Where’s the bathroom?! In the cold, our blood vessels become constricted, which increases our blood pressure slightly.  To reverse this, our bodies will remove more water from our blood as it is filtered through the kidneys.  From the kidneys the excess water is moved to the bladder where it serves little purpose other than an annoyance during a run.

Feed your thirst. Thanks to this process, you’ll notice a decrease in your average sweat, which in turn slows your body’s response to thirst. But don’t let it trick you! Even though you have a full bladder and don’t feel thirsty, you should still drink about 4-8 ounces every 20 minutes based on pace. 

Clothing Recommendations

Cover your face. The cold has been shown to contract our airways, similar to exercise-induced asthma. Try using a scarf or mask over the mouth and nose to maintain a warm and moist environment for the air we are breathing to enter.**

Wicking. Moisture-wicking base layers are also very helpful.  Sweating is great; it cools us when we are warm, and it can be our way of knowing we have gotten a good workout.  But during the cold months, too much moisture on the skin can make us colder and drop our body’s core temperature.  Good wicking material moves the moisture way from the surface of our body, assisting with temperature regulation.

Warm-up outside. You want to avoid warming up indoors.  When you go out into the cold, your sweat will start to freeze, reversing the effects of your warm-up.  So take it outside.  If you cannot bear the thought of starting out cold, start with some gentle dynamic stretching or calisthenics indoors — just be wary of your sweating.

Remember the essentials. Don’t forget gloves, a hat (we lose about 40% of our heat though our head) and cotton socks to keep feet warm and dry.

Overall, our bodies are made to adapt to colder temperatures, but the effects on the efficiency of our many systems can negatively affect our ability to run outdoors. Being prepared and in tune with our bodies can ensure a safe and successful cold weather run.

**(Note: shortness of breath, a tight chest and a cough are more common in the cold; take caution if you do suffer from exercise induced asthma, are currently suffering from a respiratory illness, or are less aerobically fit.) **

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