Ultrarunner Edna Jackeline Vazquez Nuñez knows cold. The Mexico-born endurance athlete is co-owner of Vive Healthy Sport and Nutrition in Chicago, where windchills along the Lakefront Trail frequently dip far below zero. And that’s not all: in 2016, she completed a seven-day, 155-mile run on the world’s coldest continent, Antarctica, as part of the Four Deserts Challenge.
There’s no denying low temperatures and slippery footing place extra stress on your body, she says. But with the right gear, some strategic planning, and a mind open to adventure, it’s possible to keep moving forward. After all, Nuñez logged 60 miles in a single day in avalanche winds and snow up to her calves.
We asked experts and real-world winter warriors like Nuñez to share their best advice for staying safe and comfortable this season. Here are their secrets.
1. Cater to Your Core
Your body’s first response to frigid air is to protect what’s most important: your heart, lungs, and other internal organs, says John Castellani, a research physiologist at the United States Army who studies the body’s responses to cold conditions. So when you sense a chill through your skin, the blood vessels there constrict, redirecting warm blood toward your core.
That’s one reason your hands and feet often freeze first. While it’s good to cover them up (more on that in a moment), keeping your core warm also maintains the flow of nourishing blood to your extremities.
Vests do the trick for many runners, including Pittsburgh’s Renee Butler. “I buy cheap ones from Lands’ End that are two sizes too small,” she says. “This keeps the vest tight against my body and lets me use the pockets for my phone, keys, and nutrition, plus it keeps me extra warm.”
2. Be All About the Base
Of course, you can’t run in a vest alone. Layering up is your best strategy for keeping toasty—and what’s closest to your skin matters most.
Above all, avoid cotton; it traps sweat, which can freeze, make you colder, and even lead to hypothermia (dangerously low body temperatures). Instead, choose moisture-wicking fabrics like polyester, bamboo, or Merino wool. Tuck your base into your pants to avoid drafts, advises Baltimore runner Lauren Seserko.
From there, add a middle layer of fleece or wool. You can vary the thickness based on the temperature and your preferences; cold tolerance varies based on factors like age and body size, and even fluctuates slightly across the menstrual cycle, Castellani says. If it’s rainy or windy, top your middle layer with an outer shell that’s weather-resistant, he suggests—but be cautious, because even vented windbreakers can trap moisture inside.
You can fine-tune over time: Shailyn Drukis, who’s braved temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero on her runs in the Yukon, keeps logs of the temperature, what she wore, and how she felt to inform future choices.
3. Give It Time
Cold-weather regulars know the pattern: the first subfreezing day feels nearly unbearable. But by the time March rolls around, 32 degrees seems nearly balmy. It’s not all in your head: Just like you can acclimate to the heat, your body adjusts to cold.
So-called “cold habituation” occurs when your nervous system responds less robustly to the cold, increasing your skin temperature. “We perceive our environment primarily through our skin,” Castellani says. “So when the skin’s a bit warmer, we perceive the environment is warmer, even if our core temperature hasn’t changed.”
For best results, ease yourself in. Take short runs at first, then gradually increase your time outside (you can even split a longer run between the road and the treadmill). After 5 to 10 days, you should feel more comfortable, Castellani says.
4. Tweak Your Expectations
Generally speaking, cold is much less detrimental to your running than heat; women run their fastest marathons at a relatively brisk 50 degrees Fahrenheit, French researchers have found. But if it dips much below freezing, your perceived effort level may increase, as your body expends more energy keeping warm. Plus, the weight and drag of your extra clothing increases, further slowing you down. And then there’s the footing—if you’re not careful around snow or ice, you can easily take a tumble.
For all these reasons, Dakotah Lindwurm, a coach and runner with Minnesota Distance Elite, advises her athletes to run by feel rather than targeting a specific pace on the coldest days. She might also swap in an easy run so they don’t fall or get too hung up on the numbers.
There’s another good reason to slow your roll, especially on long runs: If you push too hard at first and can’t keep up your effort, “you’re not able to maintain enough metabolic heat from your work to be able to overcome the environmental conditions,” Castellani says. At that point, you’re more prone to hypothermia, especially if it’s damp out (that’s likely why so many runners—more than 1,100—dropped out of the cold, rainy Boston Marathon in 2018).
5. Find Your Footing
For extra insurance against slipping, stick to cleared, salted paths, even if you have to drive to reach them. If her neighborhood route’s still snow packed, Lindwurm sometimes heads from her home in Eagan, a suburb of St. Paul, to Great River Road, a popular path that tends to be cleared quickly.
If a blizzard thwarts your morning run, stay flexible, suggests Dawn Shay, who lives in Pontiac, Illinois. “Maybe you can run after work, when the snowplows have been out,” she says. Or, scout out a one-mile loop that’s safe—perhaps a parking lot or a quiet road.
6. Stand Out
With sunlight hours at a premium, staying visible to cars and other passersby is critical. If you can’t run when it’s light, brands like Oiselle (with its Firecracker line) and Brooks (the Run Visible Collection) make reflective jackets, vests, and other apparel. Or, glow on your own: “I recently bought 16 LED lights that I can clip onto anything,” says Chicago runner and coach Jessica Garcia. “I pack one for myself and one for my dog. They are cheap and bright.”
7. Winterize Your Warm-Up
Easing your body into motion is more important when it’s cold. The chemical reactions powering muscle contractions are most efficient at warmer temps; chilled legs are more prone to spasms, strains, and tears.
Chicago runner Lizbeth Nieves does her warm-up, a set of dynamic moves like inchworms and air squats combined with glute-activating bridges and band walks, inside her house. That way, “it doesn’t feel as bad when you get outside,” she says. Lindwurm lengthens her outdoor warm-up and recommends her athletes do the same, prescribing one to two easy miles before faster efforts.
8. Don’t Skip Sunscreen
Sun protection may slip your mind when you’re bundling up. And though harmful UVB rays are less intense in colder months, snow reflects up to 80 percent of those that remain, and skin-damaging UVA rays stay just as strong. “I have definitely burned from a winter run,” says Rachelle Leone, a runner and triathlete in Rocky Hill, Connecticut.
Slather skin with SPF 15 or higher, and use lip balm with sunscreen, too. The thin, delicate skin around your mouth is more prone to sun damage than the rest of your face. If it does burn or chap, Seserko and Chicago runner Maureen Haynes both swear by Laneige Lip Sleeping Mask. “A little pot lasts me so long,” Seserko says.
9. Tame Your Tresses
Harsh conditions also damage your hair, and stuffing it inside a hat does you no favors. Fortunately, that’s no longer essential. “Fleece hats by TrailHeads have everything I needed: a brim to keep the precipitation off my face, a fold-down flap that covers the ears and a good bit of the neck, and the best part, which is an opening for a bun or ponytail,” says Cynthia Finocchiaro, who runs in Fairfax, Virginia.
To avoid breakage, choose gentle hair ties made of natural fabric, such as the organic cotton bands by Kooshoo, rather than elastics. Headbands and wraps keep your ears warm and also allow room for curly and natural hair.
Off the run, wash your hair less frequently, follow up with conditioner, and minimize heat styling. Extra oil treatments—like argan oil or jojoba oil—further soothe your scalp, which dries out in winter just like the rest of your skin.
10. Freeze-Proof Your Digits
Windchills of negative 18 or below increase the risk of frostbite, one of the biggest hazards winter runners face. While mild cases of frostnip are reversible, in extremes, frozen tissues can die or become infected, leading to amputation. Women tend to have colder extremities than men and are more prone to Raynaud’s disease, a condition that restricts blood flow to fingers and toes.
Keeping your core warm helps, but so does eliminating exposed skin by covering up. Sara Holquist, who trains outdoors in Montpelier, Vermont, as long as it’s above 10 degrees, wears knee-high thin wool socks, which protect her ankles. Leone often tucks warming packets on top of her toes.
Those packets, by brands like Hot Hands or Little Hotties, sell in bulk to runners like Sarah Wiliarty, in Middletown, Connecticut. Tucking them inside mittens traps more warmth inside than wearing gloves alone. Brands like WhitePaws RunMitts feature pouches to hold them.
On the coldest Minnesota days (think 20 below), Lindwurm has topped her gloves and hand warmers with thick tube socks. “It makes you look kind of funny, and it’s hard to maneuver your watch at that point,” she says. “But you have to do what you have to do.”
11. Protect Your Face
Winter temperatures in Grand Fork, North Dakota, also regularly dip near 20 below. To keep her whole head warm, local runner Valerie Bauer wears a neck gaiter she can easily pull up over her cheeks.
One no-no: smearing Vaseline on your face, which some athletes do to battle cold and windburn. Petroleum-based products can actually increase your risk of frostbite, drawing out heat and offering a false sense of security in dangerous temperatures, Castellani says.
12. Revise Your Route
Many athletes change their routes seasonally. Chicago’s Sarah Stanley recommends one- or two-mile loops, rather than an out-and-back, for longer runs. That way, you’re never more than a short walk or jog away from a tailwind or help if you need it.
13. Don’t Forget to Fuel
Trudging through snow and brisk winds increases your energy expenditure by up to 40 percent. Plus, low blood sugar often leads to fatigue and poor temperature regulation. Starting your long runs well fueled, and toting along a source of carbohydrates, remains important in winter.
Elizabeth Suever, who trains outdoors in Barrington, Rhode Island, recommends runners with dental work stick to gels: “Chews will harden in the cold and can pull out crowns,” she says. “I learned this the hard way, and my dentist—also a runner—said to avoid solid gummy fuel during cold runs.”
14. Drink Up
Constricted blood vessels cause your body to secrete a hormone, arginine vasopressin, which regulates fluid. As a result, you’re much less likely to feel thirsty, and because you don’t have the visible cue of sweat, it’s easy to forget to drink, Nuñez says.
But proper fluid intake is key to maintaining your body temp: Dehydration reduces your blood volume, so you lose heat more quickly. It also saps the moisture in your skin, lowering your defenses against chapping and frostbite.
The biggest challenge can often be keeping your fluids from freezing. Try swapping water for sugary beverages, which have a lower freezing point and taste more appealing. Garcia, for instance, sips on coconut water and tart cherry juice, and Drukis adds maple syrup from Endurance Tap to her water.
Insulated bottles help. And if you have a hydration pack with a tube, tuck it under your outer layer, or protect it with an insulated cover.
15. Pregame Your Post-Run
Before you head out, think ahead to how you’ll warm up afterward. If you can’t shower immediately, Chicago runners Ericka Dirkmaat and Megan Farley stress the importance of changing into dry clothes (pack them in your car if you’re driving).
Nuñez always has some warm, broth-based soup ready, which heats you from the inside and also restores your electrolytes. Lindwurm, meanwhile, hops in a hot shower or sauna for 20 minutes to reheat.
16. Appreciate the Upside
While you can’t change the weather, you can change your approach to facing it. Leone, for instance, hates hot-weather training and embraces her time on snowy New England trails: “Winter running makes me feel a little bit more badass.”
Drukis looks forward to her “favorite makeup,” frosty lashes, and the scenery—watching coyotes, wolves, and foxes cross her path. “It’s more noticeable than ever that you aren’t alone,” she says. “Winter running truly is my favorite, and mentally, it’s when I feel most connected to this beautiful place I live.”
And Lindwurm knows the grind of getting through the season leads to strong performances, like her 2:31:04, 13th-place finish at the 2021 Boston Marathon. “Minnesota has produced some really great runners, I think, because we’re tough when it comes down to it,” she says. “We can do hard things because we get through Minnesota winters every year.”