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Winter running: Tips to maintain your mileage as temperature drops

Ann Arbor running expert Kathleen Gina on how to best run in the cold

Photo: PxHere
Photo: PxHere


ANN ARBOR – Here in Michigan, as temperatures dip down below 40 degrees, it is time to figure out how to stay comfortable while you run.

Since we all have different temperature regulators, there is no “cookie-cutter outfit” that will work for all runners. Running in Michigan’s fall/winter may require anything from a light, wick-able synthetic top to heavy-duty winter clothing.

Here is a list of things you will need:

A head lamp for those runs before sunrise or after sunset (remember, the drivers cannot see you), and reflective vest. It is always a good idea to be visible, but remember to also wear a hat and gloves, a base layer shirt, a wind-resistant jacket and neck gator.

Runners today have a great advantage over runners from the last century. Clothing today has become so sophisticated that a lightweight jacket can be surprisingly very warm. In the past, many runners opted out of running in the winter, but today, we should welcome the chance to test our fortitude and strengthen our wit by running in challenging conditions. 

I have worked with runners who do not run outdoors in the winter, and that is OK for those who are not planning spring half or full marathons. I am sure your half or full marathon will most likely not be indoors. Although years ago, Vic Tanny’s (for those of you old enough to remember Vic Tanny’s) offered an indoor marathon on its 200-meter track, I think I would rather brave the elements.

Now is the time to prepare to head out the door in colder temperatures. If you wait until temperatures dip below 20 degrees, it will be more difficult to determine what is the appropriate clothing to keep you warm and comfortable for your run.

40 degrees to 50 degrees
A long-sleeve shirt may be all that you need, but for me, I would add a lightweight, wind-resistant jacket. With a jacket, if I get too warm on the run, I can always tie the jacket around my waist for the parts of the run when I get a little warm.

I prefer tights once the temperature is at 40 degrees, but a lot of runners still opt for shorts at these temperatures. I also bring gloves along, wearing them to start for the first couple miles then tucking them in my jacket once I am warmed up. 

I wear a “bill cap” when I run and will continue to do so until temperatures go below 40 degrees. Once temperatures fall below 40 degrees, I switch to a moisture control beanie cap. I have lighter weight and heavier weight caps depending on the temperatures.

30 degrees to 40 degrees
Avoid the risk of frostbite and cover more of your body, particularly your hands. Light running gloves and a synthetic beanie can keep you warm with or without long tights. For your body, a base layer under a windproof running jacket will protect your torso, and running tights ensure your legs don’t get too cold. 

If it’s raining, depending on the intensity of the rain, you should pay attention to the temperature and what outfit is going to work best for you. Remember your spring race may have similar temperatures along with rain, so it is better to determine how to get through the run the most comfortably. 

Loose-fitting clothing can cause a drag and increase the difficulty of your run. I choose a long-sleeve base layer that is tighter-fitting and a jacket that is relatively rain-repellent and breathable. A rain-proof jacket is not breathable and may be more uncomfortable due to overheating your body. If it is raining for my special event, I will wear a rain proof disposable jacket with a hood for the first couple of miles. With practice, I can determine what outfit will be best for running in the rain between 30 and 40 degrees.

20 degrees to 30 degrees
Your tights or running pants should be insulated or have some wind resistance. There should be some space between the base layer and the jacket to store warm air. Keep in mind that 25 degrees feels very different depending on whether it’s calm or windy, so take that into account when getting dressed. Cover your hands and head with a breathable hat and gloves and wear eye protection to protect your eyes from cold wind and debris.

It has always been advised to run in the direction of the wind so that when you return on your run, the wind will be behind you. But as good as this advice is, it is difficult for me to plan this with most of my routes. If you can plan your run with the wind at your back on your return, that may be more comfortable. As I mentioned, when the temperature dips into the 20s, the wind can make it feel much colder.

Less than 20 degrees
Most runners opt out of running when the temperature dips below 20 degrees. I suggest you hit the gym and incorporate some strength training on those frigid days. Winter time is the time to increase your strength training days. When running days need to decrease, it is a good time to build that strong body to help you perform at your best in the spring.

Those of you who want to brave the elements of 20 degrees or below, moisture control and staying warm becomes a bigger challenge, so your middle and outer layers should be well-ventilated and warm. Pick a jacket that is breathable. You’ll also want heavier gloves — your hands are the one layer where you should plan being on the warmer side. If you are like me, your legs get colder, so I wear a windproof layer over my tights, and my tights have a fleece lining. 

I use a face and hand protectant such as Dermatone, and that helps keep me warm. I use fleece gloves with a pair of Gore-Tex mittens over those gloves.

Wool socks are great in these temperatures. They will keep your feet warm and if your feet get wet from snow or rain, they will still protect your feet and decrease the chances of getting blisters.

Many smartphones don’t work under a certain temperature, so if you want to listen to music, wear a jacket with an interior media pocket. I add a disposable “hand warmer” in my smartphone pocket, as my phone won’t work in colder temperatures.

Some advise not running in temperatures under 10 degrees, but some of us feel more challenged and are able to prepare ourselves for the frigid temperatures. I make sure all my skin surfaces are covered and my face is well-sealed with a skin protectant like Dermatone. I wear a neck gator that I can pull up over my mouth and nose if needed.

I do not worry about looking silly when I run in the cold, so I encourage you to be brave as well and protect yourself from the elements.

Happy running! One day at a time.

Kathleen Gina is a certified adult running coach (2002-present), a retired registered nurse (retired 2003 after 20 years of service) and founder of “Run Ann Arbor,” providing professional coaching for half and full marathoners, enjoyable group running, and bringing like-minded runners together for fun, fitness, training, and socialization. You can contact coach Gina at runann2@gmail.com.

This story is sponsored by Applied Fitness Solutions. AFS provides group fitness classes and personal wellness coaching at their three area locations: Ann Arbor, Rochester Hills, and Plymouth. Learn more about AFS.

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