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Don't Cool Your Heels This Winter: 4 Tips to Keep Running in the Cold

POSTED BY: Florida Hospital

For many runners, the motivation to hit the pavement falls along with the temperature. A dampened spirit is common for would-be winter runners, but it doesn't have to be.

With a little planning, there's no reason for the cold to stifle your running habits. Furthermore, you'll be prepared to run on the road, in climates cooler than Florida's.

We checked in with Florida Hospital Physical Therapist Samantha Corkwell for tips on running in cold weather. As a New Jersey native, she's accustomed to running through the cold and helping athletes maintain their exercise routine over the winter.

One tactic is to stay positive. For all the discomfort of running in the cold, there is a certain pride to be felt in braving the chill.

"Running through the frigid months can make you feel like a warrior who's still working toward your goals and doing something that others aren't mentally tough enough to do," Corkwell says.

A handful of adjustments to how you get warmed up, dress and pick a route can mean the difference between preserving your fitness habit or playing catch-up later on.

Layer up (then layer down)

Alfred Wainwright, a British writer of walking guidebooks, once wrote, "There's no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing."

When it comes to running in the cold, the question of what's suitable should take into account how you'll warm up once you start running.

"Dress for 20 degrees warmer than the outside temperature because your body will warm up pretty quickly," Corkwell says. "Layering up is a good thing."

Those racing in cooler climates should pay extra attention to this advice. Corkwell once showed up to a November half-marathon bundled up in a parka, gloves and a hat. She was planning ahead, knowing she'd be passing through security and waiting outside for at least an hour.

Many such runs collect and donate winter clothing left along the route. In 2015, Chicago Marathon volunteers collected about seven tons of runners' discarded clothing.

For those who can't discard items along their route, she recommends choosing pieces of clothing that are easy to peel off and wrap around your body or stuff in a pocket.

A hat, gloves and scarf are always solid choices to prevent excessive heat loss through the head and hands.

Corkwell is a fan of sweat-wicking clothes, including socks, to help keep your body dry so it doesn't lose too much heat. Waterproof shoes are another way to help your feet stay dry.

She also likes to run with a handwarmer in case her hands get cold. Finally, don't forget your lips; carry some chapstick to keep them from drying out in the cold wind.

Beef up your warm-up

The biggest health risk for cold-weather runners is pulling muscles that haven't been properly warmed up, Corkwell says. The remedy is to extend your warm-up period.

"A lot of people, especially when it's cold, want to get their run over with," she says. But warmups are even more crucial in cold weather, especially for people with prior injuries.

The ideal length of a warmup varies based on the runner and their pace, but in general Corkwell recommends a warmup of between 10 and 15 minutes in cold weather.

"In the beginning of a run, if you slowly ease into your pace it can act as a warmup," she says. But if you're running for speed, plan on the longer warmup to get your body ready.

This advice is especially critical for those with breathing issues, including asthma. In colder temperatures, it will be more difficult to take a deep breath.

"If you have any tendency toward asthma, I'd recommend much longer warmups and a focus on breathing through the nose and taking slower breaths," Corkwell says.

Pick a route

Choosing a safe route is important in the best of conditions, but in the winter there are a few more factors to consider.

"I would stay on any of the sidewalks of cities I knew did a good job of plowing and salting," Corkwell says. Universities also tend to keep their paths clear.

If you're running in the road, don't just ask whether it's too icy to run - think about whether vehicles might lose control. 

"I would avoid running in the street in snowy weather," Corkwell says.

Consider choosing a route that you can share with someone else. The willpower needed to run in the cold will be easier to maintain with a partner.

"When I was training for any runs in the winter months, I would usually run with a friend because it's a lot easier to get out there and face those temps if you have a running buddy and someone to hold you accountable," Corkwell says.

Stay hydrated

There is a misconception that you don't need to drink as much water in cooler weather, Corkwell says.

"During the winter, especially because cold weather has a drying effect, we want to make sure that athletes are having proper hydration before and after a run," she says.

In other words, whatever hydration system you use in the summer - whether it's a bottle, pack, belt or something else - keep it in the winter.

In the end, much of running is about personal preference. For Corkwell, who's been in Florida about a year and a half, the summer months are actually her slow time; she says running in the heat is too uncomfortable.

For those runners who want to keep going in the winter, Florida Hospital physical therapists and the rest of the sports medicine team can help you create an individualized exercise plan.

"We can assist our patients with strategies for warming up, including creating a dynamic stretching warm-up to target problem areas," Corkwell says.

To schedule an appointment with Florida Hospital Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, call (407) 303-8080 or schedule an appointment.