Some runners pride themselves on being four-season athletes, hardy enough to handle any weather conditions, come the sweltering heat and humidity of the hottest summer day, the torrential downpour of a spring morning, or sub-freezing temperatures and a bitter wind chill in the winter. But, when is it too cold to run outside?
Committing to run regardless of the weather does have its benefits, as it hardens you to difficult conditions you might face on race day and sets a precedent of a no-excuses attitude.
After all, if you struggle with motivation, once you start bargaining with yourself regarding running in inclement weather, you can quickly find that you’re sliding down a slippery slope. Before you know it, you might realize you’re only heading out for your runs with the weather is picture-perfect.
But, when it comes to cold weather running, perhaps it makes sense to establish guidelines as a matter of safety posing the question, when is it too cold to run outside?
While we are all for getting your miles in, consistent training, and building resilience, in this guide, we will discuss the risks of running in the cold along with how cold is too cold to run outside.
We will cover:
- When Is It Too Cold to Run Outside?
- Risks Of Running In The Cold
- Things to Consider Before Running Outside In Cold Weather
- 7 Tips for Cold Weather Running
Bundle up and let’s dive in!
When Is It Too Cold to Run Outside?
Most runners want to know how cold is too cold to run outside. Ultimately, however, there are no hard-and-fast rules or cutoff temperature under which all experts agree it’s too cold to run outside. It mostly comes down to your personal tolerance, preparation, and comfort level.
Some runners find they can only handle running in temperatures just below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit or 0 degrees Celsius), but much below that, they have difficulty breathing or feel like their numb toes are going to fall off.
Runners with asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Raynaud’s syndrome, and low body fat may be particularly sensitive to running in cold weather.
Other runners find that as long as they are properly clad, they can reasonably handle running at any temperature, no matter how far below freezing the thermometer dips.
With that said, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends runners exercise caution when deciding whether to run outside when the air temperature falls below -18 °F (-27 °C) because tissue injury can occur in 30 minutes or less under these conditions.
It’s also important to be cognizant of the wind chill, as even seemingly mild wind speeds can have a significant effect on lowering the “real feel” temperature on a cold day.
For example, when the air temperature is 30 °F (-1.1 °C), and the wind speed is 10 mph, then the resultant conditions will feel like 21 °F (-6.1 °C). You can calculate the wind chill here.
Risks Of Running In The Cold
According to research, frostbite and hypothermia are the primary risks of running in the cold.
Frostbite is a direct freezing injury of body tissue that occurs with cold exposure that causes the skin temperature to fall below −0.5°C. Peripheral tissues away from the core, and that are particularly susceptible to vasoconstriction include the nose, ears, fingers, and toes. These areas are especially prone to frostbite.
Runners who notice the early signs of frostbite, including cold, red skin (which then will progress to a tingling, numbness, or a burning sensation), should immediately seek shelter to rewarm the skin.
Hypothermia, which is defined as a drop in core body temperature below 35°C (95°F), occurs when the total loss of body heat exceeds your physiological heat production. There are three grades of hypothermia, and unfortunately, severe hypothermia can be fatal.
Shivering is the early warning sign of hypothermia, but shivering ceases as the condition becomes dier.
Breathing can also be a challenge in the cold, with many runners experiencing a burning sensation in the throat or lungs. This can be especially problematic for runners with asthma. Breathing through a buff can pre-warm the air and alleviate some discomfort.
Things to Consider Before Running Outside In Cold Weather
To optimize your safety running in cold weather, it’s a good idea to consider a few factors besides the air temperature when you’re considering how cold is too cold to run outside.
As mentioned, a major element that must be factored into your decision-making process about how cold is too cold to run outside is the wind chill. Even relatively mild cold temperatures can be dangerously cold when the wind speeds are high.
Wind can damage exposed skin, and just because the air temperature may be somewhat warmer, you have to factor in the windchill when evaluating the risk of exposing your skin to the elements.
Of course, any snow, sleet, or freezing rain can quickly make an outdoor run a slippery, unsafe mess. Icy conditions are particularly dangerous, and you should run indoors on a treadmill if there are any concerns about visibility and traction.
Once precipitation settles on the road, it affects the underfoot conditions when you run. Even when roads are plowed, the shoulders and sidewalks are often covered in snow, slush, and ice adding risk to your run.
Falling while running can result in an injury that could take you out of the game for weeks, so it is always best to err on the side of caution when road conditions are dicey.
Winter running often feels like it’s synonymous with running in the dark due to the short daylight hours. Always ensure you are well-illuminated with reflective clothing and use a headlamp to light the trail or road ahead.
7 Tips for Cold Weather Running
If you’ve decided you want to test your inner warrior and brave the coldest of cold days and run outside, here are a few tips to make running in the cold safer and a bit more tolerable:
#1: Warm Up Indoors First
Sip hot tea and conduct your warm-up routine indoors so that you feel ready to go and somewhat warm before heading out into the frigid world. This can also prevent pulling a cold muscle and make the blast of winter air slightly more refreshing as opposed to brutal when you first head out the door.
Just be sure to not get too hot inside; sweaty and damp layers will actually make you feel more chilled once outside.
#2: Dress Appropriately
Your cold-weather gear can make or break your ability to run in the cold. Wear synthetic or wool base layers and windproof outer layers, and avoid cotton.
The general recommendation for what to wear running in the cold is to dress as if it were 20 degrees warmer outside and you weren’t running. Overdressing can lead you to be overly hot and sweaty, and once you’re damp, you will end up feeling even colder.
Using layers is ideal because they trap heat and can be removed if you are feeling too warm.
It’s equally important to wear warm socks, gloves, a hat, and a gaiter to cover as much exposed skin as possible.
#3: Modify Your Route
Instead of embarking on a single, long out-and-back route or longer loop course, run small loops close to home or several short out-and-backs. This will allow you to easily head back inside if you feel too cold or start displaying even the slightest signs of hypothermia or frostbite.
#4: Change Your Mindset
Instead of focusing on performance, focus on safety. In other words, if you start to feel too cold, or your toes and nose are feeling numb, it’s time to head inside. Be happy and proud of what you did, and shift your priorities from finishing the workout no matter what to getting warm.
#5: Hydrate With Warm Fluids
During and after your run, hydrate with warm (not hot) water or tea in a thermos to raise your core temperature.
#6: Take a Warm Shower As Soon As You Are Home
Once you’re home, take off your cold, wet clothes and take a warm shower. Be careful not to make the water too hot, as your perception may be skewed if your hands are numb, and the hot water can burn your skin.
#7: Consider the Risks vs. Rewards
Before heading outside in the bitter cold, ask yourself if you have safer, better options like running on a treadmill or cross-training at the gym. Weigh the pros and cons and evaluate what you really have to gain by running outside. Is it worth the risk?
What do you do when winter rolls around? Do you run outside or fire up the treadmill?
Here are some beginner treadmill workouts you can try out the next time it’s just too cold to get out there.