Tips and tricks for running in winter

Using wearables and common sense to stay fit and healthy in the cold months
How to stay fit and healthy this winter

January is full of hope and expectations. Your shiny new smartwatch has you out running daily. You're meeting your New Year's resolutions with flying colors. Nothing can stop you!

Then the first February snowstorm hits, you step outside, sniff the cold air, shake your head sadly and go back inside for six weeks. In your case, six weeks of Netflix and copious snacking.

Depending on where you live, winter workouts range from mildly uncomfortable to a war against ice, rain and snow, where the threat of breaking a leg or catching a cold is a legitimate concern. But once you start taking days off for bad weather, you'll rapidly lose any chance of maintaining a consistent workout routine.Winter in north east California

Winter in north east California

When I first moved from Northern California to Boston, I went from an everyday runner to a hibernating mammal, hiding in my apartment day after day with only Netflix, snacks, and lots of shame for company. I would occasionally go for runs, but everything from fears of falling to getting sick from the cold kept me from staying active.

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As someone who's been running for years, this experience made me miserable and ashamed, and I'm certainly not the only one who feels this way. New Year's and couch-to-5k resolutions frequently fail once the bad snowstorms and cold fronts start to hit. When you start taking days off for bad weather, you'll rapidly lose any chance of maintaining a consistent workout routine. Occasional slacking will become the norm far too quickly.

This year, having put Boston behind me for New York City, I resolved to put an end to my winter wimping-out and start training for the Airbnb Brooklyn Half in May. Learning from running blogs, local New Yorkers' advice and my own mistakes, I've managed to conquer this winter and stay out running this winter.

Cover up; don't bundle up

Cold weather running is a precarious balancing act. Dress too warmly, and you will sweat no matter how cold it is. Unless you keep your runs short and immediately heat up after every workout, your workouts will eventually compromise your immune system. You need dry, long-distance runs to meet your workout goals.

Focus on covering your entire body thoroughly - think beanies and gloves, or even vaseline on exposed skin to trap escaping heat - but wear no more than one or two light layers. For your inner layer, look for light, moisture wicking shirts and fitted shorts that should work just as well for sweaty summer runs. Design your outer layer to shut out wind chill first and foremost; leave your warm sweaters in the closet.

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If your smartwatch and long-sleeved outfits aren't a great fit, there are some winter-appropriate wearable options to try. Consider smart clothing like Hexoskin's Arctic kit and Athos's Upper Body package that reduce sweat and give comprehensive biometric measurements. For your second layer, the NuDown jacket line tackles the sweat problem with a built-in air pump, which you can use to adjust its insulation as your workout progresses to stay cool.

Wear appropriate shoes

Depending on where you live, your winters may be categorized by slick rainy surfaces, ice and slush, or even deep snow. Customizing shoes and socks with the proper traction and support for your environment is the first line of defense against injury.

Above all, look for waterproof shoes with plenty of ankle support. For consistently rainy environments, forego lighter racing shoes in favor of heavier, more cushioned trainer and trail shoes.

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Depending on how often your neighborhood attracts snow, your best option could be adding chains or anti-slip soles to your shoes, preferably those that work as well on slippery pavement as on ice. Digitsole produces heated athletic shoes and soles with smart sensors that track your workouts, which sounds promising but could potentially lead to undesirable sweat.

As for socks, moisture wicking and cushioning is much more important than warmth. Sweaty feet will swiftly lead to blisters, so don't wear your thick woolen Christmas socks on a run. Blistering and bruising is especially common in winter, because you may not feel any pain in your toes until you exacerbate the problem.

Don't be numb to your body's needs

Sometimes cold weather runs can feel amazing. You don't feel sweaty, you push harder because you don't feel sore, you don't get as thirsty, and you generally feel less tired at the end of it. While this is certainly a perk that can help motivate you to work out, remember that your Narnia-esque wintry surroundings are only making you feel magically strong.

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Your body is sweating and tearing through energy at the same rate as normal; you are simply numbed to the pain and discomfort you'd normally feel, and this blissful ignorance can be dangerous. Keep yourself fueled, hydrated, limber, and warm immediately after a run, even if it doesn't feel necessary. There are wearables being developed to track dehydration and tiredness for you, but for now, just rely on common sense.

Focus on pace and distance, not heart rate

Whether you use a smartwatch with built-in HRM or a chest strap to track your workouts, keep in mind that during the winter, your heart itself may not accurately gauge how hard you're pushing yourself.

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As temperatures drop, your heart rate may rise slightly higher to pump blood to your extremities, but your oxygen requirements will increase exponentially faster. That means your smart devices will underestimate just how hard you drove yourself during a workout. If you train by heart rate, you could end up harming yourself by trying to maintain your usual numbers. Focus instead on hitting your target mileage at a reasonable pace, and use your monitor to make sure you aren't pushing yourself too hard.

Boring treadmill runs aren't worth it

Sweat detecting wearable spots health issues

Gym memberships are a necessity during the winter months, but that doesn't change the fact that running on treadmills can't provide the same benefits as a typical run. The gym's unchanging surroundings and lack of stimuli actually keep your heart rate sedate and mind unfocused. The treadmill belt pushes you backward instead of your stride pulling you forward, while the rigid pace and flat elevation only strengthen one limited portion of your leg muscles.

Don't let gym visits become dull and repetitive, or your motivation and fitness will suffer. Use smartphone apps like Run, Zombies! or PaceDJ to keep your blood pumping and mind distracted from the mileage counter in front of you. Try to alternate speeds and incline at consistent intervals throughout your run, and throw in side shuffles, high knees, or butt kicks to diversify your muscle growth. And use lower-body wearables like Sensoria smart socks or the Polar Stride Sensor to ensure you stay uniform over time.

Plan for bad weather

Sometimes snowstorms, slippery conditions, or sheer laziness will keep you from leaving your apartment, and no amount of outdoor preparation will let you go running.

Track weather forecasts a few days in advance so that necessary stay-at-home days don't disrupt your routine. Schedule tough workouts or interval training ahead of storms, then use subsequent home workouts for recovery or strength training.

Essential Reads: Home workout wearables

Try Wahoo Tickr X's 7 Minute Workout App or Microsoft Band 2's pre-loaded workout routines to engage your core in lieu of weight training. My personal favorite is Xbox Fitness with Kinect, a surprisingly comprehensive hub of cardio and strength routines with varying degrees of difficulty that links to your Microsoft Health account. It tracks your movement and heart rate and grades your efforts, marking areas for improvement and shaming you for any slacking

For recovery workouts and injury prevention, yoga is a great at-home remedy to consider all year-round. There are easy workouts available online (as well as through Xbox Fitness and other tech avenues) that will keep you limber and help sore or injured muscles to recover, as well as draw attention to improving your breathing.


1 Comment

  • Metoo says:

    hi, great tips but ankle support simply increases risk of injury for runners. For long walks that might be good, but not for running.

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