Sure, it is freezing outside and running in cold weather might not feel quite as natural as when it’s warm and sunny. But before you retreat to the treadmill for your run, consider this: Running in the cold may actually feel easier, help you reach your weight loss goals, keep your metabolism going strong, and boost your mood.
Written by: Jessica Smith & Cari Rossi
5 Benefits of Running in Cold Weather
Running in cold weather might help you burn more fat. How? Chilly temperatures may change unwanted fat into a different kind of fat that actually burns calories. Think of it this way: The fat in your body isn't equal. There's white, brown, and shades in between. White fat is what we commonly think of when we think of unwanted body fat. Brown fat is metabolic tissue that burns calories, and there's a growing body of scientific literature that suggests that exercising and exposing our bodies to cold temps turns our white fat to brown. (Here's more on the science of building muscle and burning fat.) That means running in cold weather could not only help you burn calories, it could change your body composition.
Cold is actually the ideal weather for running. Believe it or not, cold weather is actually the ideal condition for your run, says Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist, sports performance coach, and author of The Marathon Method. "The colder the weather, the less heat stress on the body, which makes it significantly easier to run," Holland explains. "Running in hot and humid weather is extremely taxing on the body—there is a reason why the majority of marathons are held in October and November." (Related: The Importance of *Mentally* Training for a Marathon)
Running is a great tool for preventing winter weight gain. Getting yourself to the gym is a challenge in itself (especially during the winter months), and a treadmill at home can get boring, which is why we love running in cold weather. It's free, convenient, and never dull. "We tend to move less and eat more in the colder months," Holland says. "Running burns significant calories and is therefore a powerful tool in maintaining and even losing weight during winter."
Running can help stop you from feeling quite so SAD. "When the days get shorter and the temperature plummets, many people suffer from Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD)," Holland says. "Running helps release powerful hormones that help combat this depression, increasing positive mood states during the cold weather months." And taking your run outdoors helps boost your mood even more: One study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found that people who exercised outdoors reported increased energy, decreased feelings of depression, and were more likely to repeat their workouts.
Running will keep your metabolism going strong. "If you believe in evolutionary theory, our bodies are programmed to preserve our fat stores in the winter, slowing down our metabolisms in direct response to our decreased exercise levels," Holland says. "Running in the cold serves to ‘trick' the body, preventing this seasonal slowdown of metabolism and helping to maintain a healthy weight." (Related: What to Eat Before, During, and After Cold Weather Workouts)
How to Stay Safe While Running in Cold Weather
Now that you know why you shouldn’t let winter weather stop you from pounding the pavement, it’s time to lace up your sneakers, bundle up, and get going! Keep these tips in mind:
Don't expect to set a new PR. "Your performance in the cold can start to decrease as the temperature drops below 40 degrees," says Sean M. Wells, D.P.T., A.T.C./L., C.S.C.S., and fitness expert at bistroMD. "Peripheral blood vessels constrict, joints feel stiffer, and muscles are harder to warm up."
Make sure to warm up. Add some calisthenics to your agenda before running in the cold. March in place, do jumping jacks, or hop for five minutes to get your heart pumping blood to your muscles. "This will ensure you don't strain a muscle or injure your joints," says Wells.
Dress appropriately. Layer, layer, layer. "Wearing loose, light layers helps trap warm air," suggests Amy J. Derick, M.D., clinical instructor of dermatology at Northwestern University in Illinois. "The first layer should be made of a synthetic material, which wicks moisture away from your body," she says. "The next layer should be insulating (wool and fleece are good insulators and hold in more body heat than cotton), and the top layer should be windproof and waterproof." Try these winter workout apparel options to stay warm and energized.
Cover your extremities. "The biggest concern with exercising outdoors in the winter is the risk of frostbite," says Wells. Make sure you cover your hands and ears, and turn around if your skin starts to sting or feel numb (especially the skin on your nose and chin, areas that are more difficult to cover).
Practice slip prevention. Frigid temperatures and precipitation can make for icy paths and sidewalks. Luckily there are a few things you can do to make sure you stay steady on your feet, says Mike Ross, exercise physiologist at Gottlieb Center for Fitness, part of the Loyola University Health System, and author of The Balance Manual. First, check the treads on your shoes. If they're worn down, your running shoes won't give you the traction you need. (We adore these winter running sneaks!) Second, have a plan. Think about what would happen if you fell anywhere on your route. Could you get help? If not, map out a safer alternative and make sure to take your cell phone. Finally, slow down while running in cold weather. Trying to go your normal pace when it's icy out pushes your sense of balance.