Even though the days are getting incrementally longer, it’s still going to be a long slog to spring in colder climates. While it might seem like a pain to lace up your running shoes when the mercury dips, with proper preparation, exercising in the cold can be a breeze.
The normal health benefits of exercising -- cardiovascular health and mood-lifting endorphins -- can help carry you through the gloomy winter months. While exercise isn’t a cure-all for clinical seasonal effective disorder, it has been shown to complement other treatment options, such as antidepressants and light therapy.
But running in the cold presents unique challenges.
When you’re running in really cold air, it may feel like you’re breathing harder than usual; this is due to the fact that breathing in colder air makes your respiratory tubes contract, making air flow a little less easier. People with pre-existing lung conditions, like asthma, may want to take special preventative measures before venturing out on a cold-weather jog. Options include things like using bronchodilators to help increase airflow or wrapping a scarf around the nose and mouth to help warm up air on its way to your lungs.
The runny nose you get while running through the cold is not necessarily a sign that you are coming down with anything. It’s a natural reaction called vasomotor rhinitis and is caused by the dilation of the blood vessels of your nose in response to the cold. This will usually stop about 10 or 15 minutes after you get back inside a warm space.
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While you might joke about feeling allergic to the gym in winter, some people can actually suffer adverse reactions, like hives and nausea, to exercise. It’s a rare phenomenon called exercise-induced anaphylaxis, or EIA.
In other people, exercise can provoke a food allergy, a condition called food-dependent exercise-induced anaphylaxis, or FDEIA. For people with this condition, it turns out that running in the cold may be a way to avoid a dangerous allergic reaction. In April 2012, a group of Korean scientists published a paper on the reactions of a 19-year-old man with FDEIA who exercised after eating walnuts. When the man exercised in a warm environment, the walnuts provoked an allergic reaction; but when he ran in below-freezing temperatures, there was no reaction to the nuts.
Though cold-weather running can be beneficial, winter road warriors should take care to avoid hypothermia and frostbite and watch out for the early warning signs: shivering, slurred speech, confusion and stumbling.
Experts recommend several layers of light, loose clothing, since air trapped between the layers of cloth will help insulate you from the cold. Ideally, the first layer should be something made of wicking fabrics that draw sweat away and should fit slightly snug. Over that, don a light, long-sleeved shirt. If it’s really cold or inclement, a loose windproof or waterproof jacket should be worn over all. Hat and gloves are also a good idea, since your head and hands lose a lot of heat.
If you or a running companion is showing signs of hypothermia, get out of the cold, wrap the person in a blanket, and get them warm fluids right away.