My name is Ian Krammer, and I love to play in the mountains.
I’ve climbed all 58 Colorado 14ers, and am currently working through the list of 764 Colorado 13ers.
While most of my climbs are in the warmer months, training for long days at altitude is a year-round adventure. I start training in December to be ready for spring hiking — which means a lot of exercise in the coldest months of the year.
To be ready for climbing gigantic things, cardio is king. I incorporate intervals and paced runs into weekly workouts. I also run 6 half-marathons during training, one every 4 weeks.
But spring in Colorado brings the most snow, the coldest temperatures, and the most severe weather of the season. It can be incredibly hard to rally for a run when it’s only 20* outside and the sidewalks are barely shoveled.
That aside, winter running is a special kind of fun. It’s all about staying warm, being prepared, and getting out there. With some seasonal gear additions and mindful planning, the cold months may just be hiding the best runs of your life!
Read on for some of my top tips for running in the winter.
Why Run in Cold Weather?
My answer to this question is simply: Why not?
Running is great for your immune system, your lungs, and getting your heartrate up. Running can also reduce the risk of death from a wide variety of causes.
But perhaps more importantly: cold weather running is an excellent mood lifter.
The short days and long nights of winter are hard on my mental health. I usually work 9-5, so I often leave home just after the sun comes up, and return during sunset. Working out under fluorescent indoor lights or under the dark of night gets old fast.
It’s true that depression can be more prevalent in places that have cold weather. But you don’t have to live in a perpetually cloudy or rainy place to experience the lethargy, apathy, and restlessness that winter can cause.
Running in winter is a great way to counter negative moods. Regular exercise has been shown in study after study to alleviate the worst symptoms of depression.
And even when covered in warm clothes, time spent in the sun also means a natural source of vitamin D. Most of us get over 90% of our vitamin D from the sun, so it’s especially important to chase after that patch of sunlight in winter.
Plus, winter running is a stellar way to get a break from all the screens!
What to Wear for Running in Winter
Cold weather running is a constant game of not-too-hot and not-too-cold.
Wear too many clothes (or the wrong ones), and you’ll end up sweaty and cold. Wear too few layers, and you might suffer freezing digits and a shortened run.
The reason winter runners wear the equivalent of long underwear in a 30* windchill is because their layers are working.
Base Layer: Start with a base layer top and bottom made of lightweight, insulating, but sweat-wicking materials. Look for form-fitting blends using modern fibers like merino wool, polyester, and lycra. Avoid cotton: it will retain sweat. Running in cotton can lead to avoidable dampness and chafing.
Mid-Layer: Add a mid layer, like a microfleece hoodie or polyester pullover.
Best Running Gloves and Hat: I also recommend merino wool running gloves and hat. I like merino wool because it’s durable, retains heat well, and doesn’t smell when you get sweaty.
Facemask and Neck Gaiter: When it’s especially cold, a face mask or a neck gaiter that can be pulled over the face is critical. This will circumvent the chances of frostbite, and keep you comfortable in any windchill.
Light Waterproof Jacket: If there’s rain or snow, add a light waterproof jacket or shell to protect from moisture and block cold wind. In my experience, unless it’s well below freezing, leave that puffy at home — it will likely be too much. Warming up on a winter run is easy, but overheating is easier!
Reflective Clothing: Shorter days means you may be running at dusk or dawn, when traffic and other people won’t see you as easily. Consider picking up clothes with reflective elements, or wearable reflective bands. These attach easily to arms or legs to make you more visible while burning calories.
Best Running Socks: For cold weather running, I like medium-thickness merino wool socks that cover your ankle. Make sure to test-run thicker socks with your current shoes for spacing and comfort.
Best Running Shoes: When it comes to your running shoes, grip is everything in winter. Prioritize footwear that has a sticky, aggressive lug pattern that clings to snow and slippery surfaces. Shoes that hold up in rough conditions often feature durable stitching, waterproof uppers, and robust Vibram outsoles.
Gaiters & Spikes: If you’ll be in snow or lots of water, look for shoes that are gaiter-compatible. Are you running on icy trails? Consider getting spikes that can easily pull on around your shoes and offer extra grip and a sense of peace.
Try out different layers in different conditions to find the right match for you. It took me 4 iterations to narrow down my favorite combination, but now I never have a reason not to run in winter!
Winter Running Tips
A few small additions can make your cold weather runs even better.
Run at the Right Times
Dusk and dawn are dangerous times to be running in any season, but especially in winter. The only thing worse than a patch of black ice is not knowing you’re on it.
I recommend a headlamp or flashlight not just to help light the way as the sunlight wanes, but for other people and traffic to see you.
Technology is Your Friend
Bring a phone or a watch and track your route. Ice, snow, and wet weather can make for treacherous conditions, so it’s important to be able to send a message in case something doesn’t go according to plan.
Your device is also a great way to track your route, pace, elevation gain, and a slew of other metrics while you focus on that next step.
Reflective snow can be hard on your skin and your eyes. If it’s sunny and you’re in a snowy landscape, don’t forget strong SPF sunscreen. Snow reflects the sun, and can damage your skin.
Your sunglasses should also be a staple of your running toolbox, with UV and Polarized lenses to protect your eyes.
Drink Smart, Eat Simple
Hydration is still essential, no matter how cold it gets. If you’re going on a longer run, set yourself up with water drops along your route before you go.
For example, I’ll hide coconut water or electrolyte blends along my half marathon routes before I run them, and they’re always cold when I get there.
Beware that hydration hoses will often freeze in cold temperatures, rendering your only source of water useless. If you want an easy way to hydrate, consider a hydration vest, small backpack, or fanny pack. When it’s especially cold a small, hand-held water bottle might be all you need.
Eat for your run. High fat, high calorie, high protein items are popular options 30-45 minutes before you head out. A peanut butter and banana sandwich is my go-to, but anything simple for your body to break down into fuel like fruit, yogurt, chicken, cheese, and oatmeal are good choices, too.
Warm-Up Before the Cool-Down
Warm-ups are essential to improving performance when exercising by easing your muscles, joints, and body’s systems into hard work. Studies have shown that warm-ups can significantly reduce your risk of injury during exercise.
Usually a warm up is a 5-to-10 minute session of stretches and slower movements. I recommend dynamic stretches for winter running. These are active, movement-centric exercises that loosen muscle groups and prepare your body for your run.
Choose stretches and movements that will help your specific situation. I like mountain climbers as an option for activating my legs, shoulders, and core, and it’s the perfect stretch for tight hamstrings.
Significant temperature swings can also affect how your body behaves during cold weather running. You generally burn more calories during a run in cold weather versus warm weather, as your body is not only keeping you moving, but working to keep your body temperature up.
Help your body warm up before you shock it with a 25* air temperature!
I usually start winter training just as the major snow and ice starts in December, so speed and pace are secondary to safety.
In winter, my runs often involve a lot of walking. In a holiday season that prioritizes hibernating and eating luxuriously, any reason to move outside is a good reason.
So slow down and enjoy the chilly beauty — but watch out for that puddle!
Watch the Weather
Frostbite and hypothermia are real threats in cold weather running.
On really frigid winter days, watch the weather and look at not only the temperature, but the windchill. When your body temperature dips below 95°F, you’re at risk for hypothermia. Shivering, clumsiness, and disorientation are signs that you need to get inside and get warm.
A strong layering system will help you avoid this issue. Again, avoid cotton. When cotton gets wet, it can make you colder, increasing your chances of hypothermia. Lighter wicking materials like merino wool move moisture through your layers and away from your body, keeping you both dry and warm.
Frostbite happens when extremities like your fingertips, ears, or nose are exposed to ultra-cold temperatures. I wear a lined neck gaiter to block the wind on the most glacial of winter runs. A pair of glove liners, running gloves, and a warm running hat are a must.
Remember: it’s always okay to skip that run when the conditions are too dangerous. There’s been plenty of times where the weather was just too brutal to make my run worth it. When that happens, there’s always your favorite YouTube workout!
Set Yourself Up for Success by Choosing the Right Schedule
It’s hard to run when it’s cold out, so be kind to yourself.
For me, the key is to schedule my entire day around my winter run. When I give myself plenty of time for getting geared up and ready to be outside, my runs feel stronger and I run further.
Give yourself the gift of time, so there’s never an excuse not to go.
While this may seem intuitive, it’s harder said than done: run when you’ll actually want to run.
Is early evening best for you? Or does an early morning run work best? Use your run as a time to ground yourself, check in, and follow through. Set yourself up for success by choosing a time when you can do those things.
I used to be a morning runner: I would prepare breakfast the night before, something small and carby like sweet oatmeal or savory toast. I’d eat it as soon as I woke up, so there would be time to digest the food (and avoid cramps). By the time I got dressed, stretched, and warmed up, I would almost always have an incredible run as the sun came up.
Now, I reliably run in winter only if the sun is out. I do most of my runs during my lunch break. The mid-day hour is just enough time to get in a good workout and still come back and be productive.
Get an Accountability Buddy
When you’re struggling to get going, lean into your community.
Your friends and family are probably also struggling to get outside to run during the winter. Making plans to run with a friend holds you both accountable, and keeps your routine fresh and interesting.
Get Outside This Winter
Don’t let the cold weather stop you from running.
I’ve had incredible runs in winter months: My regular trails and routes are usually quieter. The views are more expansive when there aren’t any leaves, and the cooler temperature means I can run longer and regulate my temperature easier than in summer.
Running in winter offers a different view of your community and the natural areas around it. It’s the perfect way to keep your body strong and your mind clear and healthy.
- Give plenty of time to digest after a snack or meal, and make sure to stretch and warmup before jumping straight into a run.
- Watch the weather carefully.
- Don’t be fooled just because the sun is out — sunscreen and long sleeves are winter’s most unusual — but compatible — couple.
- Spend time narrowing down the perfect layering system for your situation.
Choosing the perfect winter running gear is no small task, but the right system will keep you dry, warm, and safe. Your gear should help you crush your cold weather training goals — whether you’re running, climbing, or hiking.
And if you’re like me and you’re going to keep hiking this winter, keep reading! There are some key things to know for cold weather hiking — like how to prepare for freezing temperatures in the backcountry, what to bring, what to eat, and ways to stay safe while you summit new heights.
About the Author
Ian Krammer is a Denver-based mountain climber, copywriter, and dog-lover. When not writing, he can be found climbing Colorado’s tallest mountains and looking for the best cheeseburger in the Rockies. To get in touch or follow his adventures, follow him on Instagram @coloradorambler