Learn To Love Running In Winter

For running, winter is actually preferable to summer. Take advantage of the benefits, and avoid the cold-and-dry downside.


There’s something energising about running in cold weather. 

While many of you may prefer to stay indoors under the duvet and give that early-morning start a miss, there are some (myself included) who find winter a really effective time to train; because you aren’t as limited by the heat as you are for most of our year. 

It means you can start your runs later (assuming you have the luxury of finishing later too), and even midday runs are an option. So you can embrace a greater degree of flexibility than you might in summer, when sun avoidance is key. The difference between cold and hot weather is that for the former, you can easily dress up; but for the latter, no dressing down will sidestep the physiological challenge that arises from being unable to lose heat as fast as you produce it!

In fact, optimal performance comes at temperatures a lot colder than you might think. Scientists have analysed race times from marathons around the world, and developed models that predict that a chilly six degrees would produce the fastest marathon times overall. 

…the rule of thumb is that if you start the run feeling comfortable, you’re going to be too hot within about 15 minutes.”

And the faster the runner, the lower this optimal temperature falls, because we generate heat in proportion to our running speed – for the top 1% (so, the elites), the optimal temperature was three degrees, warming to about eight degrees for the mid-pack marathoner. 

Don’t get comfortable
My personal feeling is that this is probably too cold, especially for us South Africans who love the warmth. The problem when it’s that cold is that your skin temperature equalises with the air temperature pretty quickly; and as that happens, and our skin drops to around 15°C, we actually get weaker – cold skin and cold muscles produce less force. 

The only way around this is to keep the skin warm; and that means many more layers, which isn’t comfortable. Or fast. And probably too hot, as the day warms up!

In fact, probably the trickiest part of running on a really cold day is not overdressing – the rule of thumb is that if you start the run feeling comfortable, you’re going to be too hot within about 15 minutes, so you’ll have to start shedding layers. Ideally you want to start your run feeling slightly cold, knowing that as you get into it, you’ll produce enough heat to warm up. 

The only remaining challenge then is your extremities. Ears and fingers in particular get cold; but that’s a problem easily solved, with a beanie or headband and some gloves, which are easy to remove and carry.

A breath of fresh air
One thing that’s less easy to overcome is the challenge that cold air imposes on your breathing. Cold air hurts – literally, for some; their airways can be so irritated by the cold that they struggle to breathe, or have cold-induced coughing episodes. 

For most, the cold air will at the very least cause an annoying runny nose; cold air irritates the nasal lining, so we respond by producing more mucus to keep the lining moist. (This has the attractive name ‘rhinorrhea’.) For the less fortunate, it causes narrowing of the airways, triggering coughing fits. 

One study from way back in 1998 got healthy people to do light exercise in (very) cold air – minus 23, not something we have to deal with here, fortunately. They experienced large increases in some of the inflammatory molecules that we normally associate with allergies. They described it as the cold air causing “an asthma-like condition”. Unsurprisingly, people who do have asthma fare worse when the air temperature drops – and it doesn’t have to be as cold as -23°C, either!

This happens more than we might realise in people without asthma, too. Some studies suggest that up to 55% of athletes suffer from what is called Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction (EIB), and cold air is a well-known trigger for this. For all the above, add ‘dry’ to the mix and the problem is exacerbated; and since cold air is normally drier air, the double combination makes exercise challenging, particularly for those of us exercising inland this winter.

Solving this problem is tricky – it’s not as though you can prevent cold air affecting your airways by just breathing less! Finding ways to a) warm the air, and b) reduce your body’s natural response to cold air if you’re susceptible, are necessary to keep you running and breathing comfortably. (For some tips on how to achieve this, see ‘Coming in hot’, left).

Remember also that a large portion of any challenge is adaptation. We struggle with what we’re unaccustomed to; but a combination of familiarity and physiological adaptation will change that, and in time, you’ll feel less cold. Your body becomes more efficient at warming you up (hormone levels manage this), and you’ll also shiver less when you are cold. 

The end result is that you will become a more efficient cold-weather runner; but as with overcoming any other challenge, it takes time. So embrace your inner snowman this winter: turn the cold into a training opportunity, so you’re stronger than ever when the temperature begins to rise again. 

Coming in hot
Actual evidence for their benefit is thin, but many asthmatics have learned that one handy trick is to start exercise wearing a mask or buff over the mouth and nose, to try to warm and humidify the air. This may be the last thing you want, after the pandemic years; but it’s been found that doing so, even if only in a warm-up, can reduce the prevalence and severity of bronchoconstriction. 

…one handy trick is to start exercise wearing a mask or buff over the mouth and nose, to try to warm and humidify the air.

It’s also true that if it’s cold enough, wearing a mask actually feels quite good; so those of you whose winter mornings are particularly cold and dry might be gifted a whole-body solution from a face covering. 

There are masks that are made and sold specifically for this purpose, but I’ve seen no evidence that they perform much better than what we all became so accustomed to wearing, or even just a buff or a scarf. And once you’re warmed up, you may be able to do away with the mask and remain unaffected by the cold air. 

Warming up gradually also helps. Instead of launching straight in and asking your lungs to move 50 litres of cold air a minute right from the start, rather ease into your run with a gradual build-up that gives your airways a chance to adapt to the sudden drop in temperature as you head outside. If you can do that warm-up with a face covering, all the better. 

Try to breathe through your nose, and focus on deep, slow breathing (well; as deep and slow as you can, given that you’re running), because this helps warm the air and reduce airway irritation. Finally, if you do suffer from EIB, then an asthma pump that helps open the airways may be handy on those colder and drier days. 


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