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Winter is Coming—Here’s How to Run Safely Outside

Stay healthy, motivated, and injury-free during the impending cold season.

There are plenty of good reasons to run outside in the winter. For starters, cold air contains little humidity, which is a major cause of dehydration and heat exhaustion in the summer. It also can be a majorly refreshing change of pace from indoor training. And while lung damage is a common myth about cold-weather running, let’s be clear: It’s impossible for your lungs to freeze, even in the coldest climates.

Plus, by March, when the temperatures slowly start to rise, you may actually notice that your lungs feel great, thanks to the months of adapting to cold, dry air. That said, icy roads and snowbanks are anything but easy on your legs, so unless you’re training in warm weather year-round, being mindful about how you adjust your routine to your climate will help ensure you don’t end up scratching those spring race plans.

How to Run in the Cold, Safely

Take Your Warm-Up Seriously

Whether you’re out the door at 6 a.m. or prefer evening miles after work, it’s important to integrate a pre-run movement into your routine. A dynamic warmup with flexibility and activation drills is one of the most effective ways of preventing injuries and eases your body into workout mode. When done properly, it also makes for a smoother transition to the cold.

“By the time I finished warming up I would be so uncomfortably hot that rather than dreading the cold, I couldn’t wait to get outside to cool off ,” says Canadian Olympian Nicole Sifuentes. Over the course of her professional career, she developed a 10-minute, pre-run routine that she practices religiously, which includes stretches, foam rolling, and specific muscle activations.

But even with a regular warm-up, it’s important to remember that winter running is still going to put extra strain on your body, especially when it comes to stride and pace. “The change in surface and slippery conditions can cause runners to alter their stride to gain more balance and traction,” says Dr. Wes Gregg, sports chiropractor at HYPO2 in Flagstaff, Arizona. “Because of the unstable and unpredictable surface, runners tend to shorten their stride to account for this to prevent falling. This often leads runners to noticing more soreness after running in the snow because they are using their stabilizing muscles more.” Luckily, strengthening those stabilizers (think: hip flexors and your smaller glute muscles) is more manageable than other areas of the body that cannot be easily manipulated (like, say, your high arches). The key is adding a few simple moves—like three sets of 10 lateral mini-band walks and glute bridges—into your warmup as well as after your run, while your muscles are still warm.

Listen to Your Body

If you’re struggling to maintain consistent mileage throughout the season, consider it a message from your body that you might need to simply dial it back. Whether you’re running 80 miles a week this winter or barely any, it’s important to remember what this season is about: being flexible with your routine, allowing your body to rest when it needs it, and focusing on strength training that will prepare your legs for racing in the spring.

“Winter can be a rejuvenating period of rest, and it’s important for runners of all skill levels to take some downtime,” says Joel Sattgast. “The change in seasons can provide an opportunity for active rest and reflection, as well as renewed focus on strength, capacity, mobility, and further performance variables of running.”

Watch Your Step

Hal Koerner, author of Field Guide to Ultrarunning: Training for an Ultramarathon, from 50K to 100 Miles and Beyond, says that getting comfortable on different terrain is crucial to your running toolbox. “I remember The North Face championships in 2012 turned out to be a mud bowl of epic proportions,” he says. “Some runners were completely defeated by it. Watching them slog through the course, you could see they had no motivation, no momentum. For them, the course was miserable and went on forever.” In contrast, he remembers others who ran through it like kids playing in mud puddles, embracing it and having a good time with it. Yes, dealing with elements like mud can be frustrating, but staying positive will get you through the run in better fashion and likely at a faster pace. Here are a few simple cues to keep in mind as you’re handling winter’s variable elements.

How to Run on Ice

Good technique on ice includes being very focused; taking shorter, faster, lighter strides with a wider stance for better balance; having your hands as free as possible; and slowing your pace appropriately for the conditions.

How to Run in Snow

The thing to remember is that snow has many different personalities. It can be soft and powdery, heavy and wet, or hard packed. This abrupt change can present dangerous situations, so be familiar with what you are running on and remain alert to temperatures and terrain changes.

How to Run in Mud

Thick, cold mud can pack into the bottoms of your shoes, adding what feels like a ton of extra weight; a gunked-up bottom means significant loss of traction as well. Try to stomp off as much mud as possible or wipe off what you can on a rock. And keep an eye on your pace and exertion: As you tire, dredging through mud can lead to muscle strains, cramps, and pulls as the tackiness of the mud causes you to stride differently.