Winter Care for Runners

Hydrating for Winter - this water bottle is insulated with a wool sock containing warm water, a twist of salt, and slice of lemon helps stave off chills in cold weather

Sports nutritionists make the point that the colder weather of winter doesn’t increase our calorie needs. Nevertheless, if body temperature drops while out in cold weather; a protective reaction kicks in which leads to hunger and searching for food. Winter care for runners is about staying “comfortably warm” while outside so winter hydration and fueling remains stable.

Dressing for Winter
Just like a tempo run at a “comfortably hard” pace, runners need to be “comfortably warm” by dressing in layers. Using myself as an example, I have a routine in which I first check temperature and wind conditions. Then I adjust my clothing layer(s) accordingly. This usually starts at 10°C (50°F) by adding a long sleeve moisture-wicking shirt. As temperature decreases and/or wind increases: more layers (e.g., thermal) can be added / to other body parts (e.g., hat, gloves, thermal tights) / to cut the wind if needed (e.g., nylon jacket & pants). The key is to make layering a ROUTINE. By experimenting, the runner should routinely know what clothing to wear at what temperature. But the runner has to make sure they don’t overdo layering, as sweaty clothing drains body heat. If you start to get “tropical” inside your exercise clothing, make the effort to rid yourself of a layer or two. You’ll stay drier and warmer.

Hydrating for Winter
Runners need to be mindful of the fact that it’s easy to become dehydrated during winter. Cold weather tends to blunt our perception of thirst. Also some runners purposely skimp on fluids when wearing extra layers of clothing to minimize the need to urinate. Outdoor athletes need to consciously consume fluids to replace water vapor exhaled from breathing. When runners breathe in cold dry air, the body warms and humidifies that air. When exhaling, significant amounts of water vapor (“steam”) are given off leading to dehydration. Warming inhaled air requires extra calories too. For instance, a study of cross country skiers at -18°C (0°F) found that of 600 calories burned from an hour of skiing, 150 of those calories (25%) were used to warm inhaled air.

Unless you’re hot, avoid drinking icy water stored outside during a run. Cold water cools you off and gives you chills. The better alternative is to have an insulated water bottle, or a bottle covered with a wool sock, with a warm drink in it (pictured above is a water bottle insulated with a wool sock containing warm water, a twist of salt, and slice of lemon).

Fueling for Winter
Usually sports nutritionists study nutrients and sports performance. In winter, it’s a bit different as food’s warming effect (thermogenesis) is studied for staying comfortably warm. For example, 30 to 60 minutes after you eat, your body generates about 10% more heat than when you have an empty stomach. Also aerobic running increases your metabolism 7 to 10 times above your resting level and is great for staying warm.

After a run, enjoy warm carbohydrate sources with some protein. These sources chase away chills, replenish glycogen stores, and rehydrate. Examples include, hot cocoa made with milk, oatmeal with Greek yogurt, lentil soup, this WINTER CHILI RECIPE. These examples add a thermogenic effect and contribute to rapid recovery.

Trail runners planning an extended run, for safety, should carry some source of emergency food (like an energy bar) in case they have to stop moving for a time. An emergency food source should be added to other trail safety precautions like carrying a cell phone and so forth.

Winter Weight Gain and the “Winter Blues”
Depending on how one defines it, the festive season can last a month or more during winter. As part of the season, well-intentioned family and friends often gift their favorite baked goods, high in carbohydrates and fat, which can lead to winter weight gain.

As well, the low sunlight conditions at this time of the year can be associated with the “winter blues”, or perhaps even a formal medical diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s important to be mindful of changes in mood, because carbohydrate cravings can accompany these changes.

What is a runner to do? Fortunately, there are actions the runner can take at this time of the year to mitigate weight gain and the blues. First of all, as much as possible, maintaining your regular running schedule outdoors during winter will have a positive impact. Studies show that exercise and time spent outdoors are both mood enhancers. And while you’re running outdoors, there is no better time to process high carbohydrate festive treats than having these treats as close to or during your runs. Then, once your run concludes, hold off on treats for the rest of the day.

Thank you for reading!

This post mentions the "comfortably hard" pace of a tempo run. For more on tempo runs, check out: Monthly Run Challenge: Tempo Run and Trying to Master the "Elusive" Tempo Run .

The recipe in this post provides a thermogenic boost with a running twist, check out: Hey, Runners! Try this Winter Chili Recipe .

This article emphasizes exercising outdoors as much as possible during winter. Nevertheless, there may be winter days when this isn't a good option. Check out these posts on keeping your exercise routine going when nasty weather hits: Are Standing Bike Intervals in your Future? and The Many Uses of Cross-Training for Runners .

For readers living in the southern hemisphere or near the equator, I haven't forgotten you! Check out this post on taking care when the warm weather hits: Summer Care for Runners .



Experiment of One Coaching covers topics ranging from running, strength training, health & wellness, sports nutrition to travel.