Winter is coming. Here in Wisconsin, we definitely got a taste of winter in the past week or so with chilly temperatures and even a bit of snow.
That means it’s time for your annual reminder: winter running can be safe and, dare I say, even enjoyable with a few precautions.
First, let’s put to rest one of the most popular but most inaccurate myths about running in the winter, the idea that you can freeze your lungs. This is a completely false myth.
The fact is that you can’t freeze your lungs in any climate found in any populated parts of this planet. By the time the air you breathe in reaches your throat, just passing through your mouth warms it up to near your body temperature. By the time it passes through your windpipe and into your lungs, it is up to your body temperature.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some side effects to breathing in this cold air but it is important to stress that there is no evidence that the side effects are long term dangers.
Handling the cold, dry air
The main side effect is that the cold air is very dry. As your body warms it, your body also has to humidify it. This can lead to a dry, raw throat and at times a dry cough after running.
Some people claim that running in cold weather makes their lungs cold. The best explanation I can come up with is that the air they are breathing in is still dry when it gets to their lungs and their lung tissue may be drying out as it humidifies the air. This is not a long term problem, though, as your body tissues will recover with no long term damage once they are not being subjected to the dry air.
So what can we do about this dry air issue? The best advice I can offer is to look into a balaclava or ski mask. Cover your mouth and possibly nose and more of the warmth and humidity will be held in. This can be a significant help if you experience a sore throat or dry cough after your cold weather runs.
Cold air and exercise induced asthma
Another popular myth about breathing in the cold air is that this will give you exercise induced asthma (EIA). While there is minimal evidence that this won’t happen, there is no evidence that this will happen. The question simply hasn’t been given much attention by researchers.
The most likely explanation is that breathing in the cold air increases the symptoms of mild cases of EIA enough to make themselves known, while running in warmer temperatures might not be enough for the symptoms to be noticeable or a bother.
The best solution I’m aware of would be the same as for the dry air issue. Cover your mouth with a balaclava or ski mask.
Dressing for the cold
The next big question is always how to dress. This has gotten much easier in the past decade or so with all the great tech fabrics available to us now. Wicking, thermal fabrics may not be cheap but, if you run in tough weather, they are worth every cent.
Of course, if you don’t have the budget, you can work with the methods we used in the 1990s. One good wicking layer against the skin to get your sweat away from your body, then layers of whatever material you have available.
There is one rule that applies no matter what you’re wearing: layer. Instead of one bulky layer, go for two or more lighter layers. This will greatly help in the case that the temperature warms up as you’re out running or you go from running into the wind to running with the wind (more on that later). You can just take off a layer or two and aren’t left either over dressed or under dressed.
Running in the dark
Make yourself visible
With the winter weather come short days and long nights. That means running in the dark.
For running in the dark, the rule is pretty simple. If you are around traffic, make sure drivers can see you.
There are a lot of wonderful products on the market that are bright, reflective, have lights in them, and probably have other ways to make you visible. Take a look around at your local or online running store and you will find plenty of gear designed to make you very visible on dark mornings and evenings.
Depending on where you live, you may want to take other safety precautions. Ideally, having a running partner would be perfect but it’s not realistic for everyone. Other precautions involve running on well lit routes, carrying personal safety products such as pepper spray, and running in areas where there are other people or that are well patrolled by police. Of course, your needs and options would depend on where you live.
Make sure you can see
Depending on the ambient light available, you may also find that you need a source of light to see with. There are a lot of head lamps available these days. I picked up a cheap one a few years ago and, for approximately $10, it gives me just enough light to see the road in front of me and, as a bonus, makes me much more visible to drivers.
Snow and ice
For many of us, winter weather means snow and ice. Running on snow and ice. That’s a recipe for disaster, right? Well, there are precautions that can be taken to minimize or possibly even eliminate the risk of these potential dangers.
When running on snow and ice, there are two factors to consider: equipment and strategy.
For running on snow, the best solution I have found is to run with a shoe that has good tread. Trail shoes are great. The lugs are big enough to dig into the snow and give you traction and there is enough space between the lugs to allow the snow to fall out between steps. Road flats can be very poor on snow.
For running on ice, you want something that will cut into the ice to get traction. There are a lot of devices that are designed for this. Check out an outdoor sporting goods store and you’ll see various products that slip over your shoes and have metal spikes or coils to cut into the ice. You can also give the screw shoe a try.
As for running on questionable surfaces, that’s something that is best figured out with experience. The best advice is to be too cautious at first. After you gain some experience, you will learn how to run on slippery surfaces and what is slippery and what isn’t.
If I could offer a few quick tips, here they are:
- Take it very easy on corners if you aren’t positive they are clear.
- Every route has its trouble spots. Get to know those spots and be extra careful at those places.
- Sometimes it’s better to have a planned slide than an unplanned one. In other words, the best way to get past some slick spots is to actually purposely slide across them so you don’t unexpectedly lose footing and go for a tumble.
During the summer months, a nice breeze can feel great. During the winter months, even a gentle breeze could be dangerous if you’re not prepared for it.
The first rule of the wind is simple. Always start by running into the wind and return with the wind.
Sometimes I modify this to start for a short period with the wind, then turn into the wind after 5-10 minutes.
The idea is simple. You don’t want to warm up, work up a sweat, then turn into the wind and have that sweat freeze on you. Also, if you get in trouble, it’s better to walk back to shelter with the wind at your back than with the wind in your face.
If you absolutely can’t start into the wind, try to change direction frequently so you don’t spend too much time all at once running into the wind after working up a sweat.
Finally, there will always be some times when it’s just not safe to run outside. Running in the middle of a blizzard, unless you have a very controlled area where you can be certain a car won’t slide into you, is a bad idea. No traction device helps on a half inch of glare ice and, even if you have good traction, dodging sliding cars isn’t my idea of fun.
Don’t be afraid to take the occasional day off or use indoor options (the treadmill of course being the most convenient for most of us). It’s not the end of the world and it’s far better than getting hit by an out of control car.
So get out there and run this winter! I’ve been running through the Wisconsin winter for almost 30 years now and have survived to tell my story. If you just take a few precautions and give it a try, you might decide you like winter running as much as I do.
Note: This is my annual winter running post, updated and resurfaced every November. If you have read it before, I hope the updates and reminders have been helpful.