The Surprising Health Benefits of Running in Cold Weather
It's a strange breed of people who run outside all winter — but there is science behind their madness
I ran cross country back in high school, and my best race came at my county’s Meet of Champions, during a freak Halloween blizzard. This isn’t one of those “uphill both directions in the snow” Grandpa Abe yarns, I promise: the storm’s even got its own Wikipedia page. In typical East Coast fashion, the local stations and papers rolled out their best jargon for the anomaly: “Snowtober,” “Shocktober” and “Oktoberblast” all had some play.
At 16, I didn’t usually take enough time to consider why I PR’d in certain races and flopped in others. Between seven-hour school days, homework, studying for standardized tests and all the boilerplate stresses involved with growing up, making mistakes, becoming a real person, etc., it was all I could do to run at least eight miles a day, listen to my coaches, and then hope for the best on race day.
Something was clearly different on October 31, 2011, though. Cross-country coaches generally stand at familiar perches throughout the course, in order to relay pertinent information (“That’s X Team’s fifth man — surge past him in a half mile!”) or offer encouragement (“Dig! You’ve got this!”). During that particular race, my coach chuckled with surprise when he saw how far up I was, and shouted, “You’re really running today! You’re really running!”
When you enter the final straight of most cross-country courses, you can see the clock hovering above the chute from about 45 seconds away. I remember trying to make out the shimmering red numbers through the sleet, and discerning a time I’d never even sniffed in my previous races. I sprinted with whatever I had left, and nabbed a personal best. More important than the time though, is a fact that isn’t as easily googled as “Tanner Garrity, Meet of Champions, 2011.” (Go ahead, find my time, see if I care.) Which is this: the fastest I’d ever run a 5K was also the best I’d ever felt during a 5K.
I was self aware enough, even then, to register that running through a snowstorm had suited me. And in the immediate weeks (and near-decade) following, I realized that that proclivity extended to all sorts of cold weather. Crisp fall afternoons, icy rain in March, New Year’s nor’easter … whatever. I’ll take a chilly run over a steamy one any day of the week. And I’m here to explain why you — soul-crushing as a 40-and-below spin might sound — should, too.
For starters, let’s debunk the myth that running in the cold “burns more calories” than normal running. Running longer distances, or running them through six feet of snow in Russian backroads a la Rocky IV, burns more calories than normal running. That said, there have been scientific studies that prove cold-weather running helps improve performance. A team of sports scientists at St. Mary’s University in London had test subjects run 10Ks in two different “environmental chambers” — one a summer chamber, the other a winter chamber. The team showed that heart rates are 6% higher in hotter conditions (blood floods to the surface of the skin during extensive sweating, which taxes the heart) and due to poor thermal regulation, runners are 38% more dehydrated. (Meanwhile, when you’re cold your blood flows to the core, which tricks the body into thinking it has enough fluids.) In other words: running’s just blatantly harder in the summer. So, cold-weather running can help you set a personal best (if you’re so inclined; while that doesn’t have to be the point, as we’ll touch on in a bit), it should at least encourage you to come back out for more sessions, which in turn will really improve performance.
Last year, we spoke with Dr. Robert Zembroski about “Scottish showers,” the practice of taking ice-cold rinses in order to energize the body and stimulate the immune system. One fringe benefit of the routine is a process called “cold sculpting,” which suggests that cold-temperature exposure can help turn white fat (the inflammatory fat linked to heart disease) to brown fat (naturally occurring fat that produces heat). Running outside over the winter could catalyze this conversion, which will in turn burn off the excessive white fat. The science is young, so don’t bet the house on an Olympic body by St. Patrick’s Day, but the signs are there that combining consistent exercise amidst cold temperatures will help your waistline.
(Below) Zero Expectations
A simple joy of cold-weather running? People who’ve never tried it don’t expect to like it/feel good during it/run fast. Which rightfully strips running of its greatest obstacle: the menacing mental hurdle. ‘Tis better to get out there and expect little, than to not get out there at all. Look at is as a non-qualifying headstart to your spring get-into-shape plan. Eventually, spring will arrive … and you’ll already be in shape.
The Gear’s Here
We all possess an evolutionary tendency to hole up in the winter and pack on weight. Remember: for millennia, Homo sapiens died of eating too little food, not too much. So, it’s understandable that our biology tells us to munch on as much high-fat, high-carb foods as possible during the shortest days of the year. Which is still … okay, within reason. But unlike our pelt-wearing ancestors, we now have the proper moisture-wicking wear and winterized running shoes to go work off those calories outside once we’ve digested. To make sure you’re suited up correctly, source:
- A pair of running shoes explicitly made for colder weather
- An airy waterproof jacket that you can layer over an insulating piece (like a crew sweatshirt and a sweat-resistant tee)
- Accessories to protect the noggin … mask, performance beanie, etc.
It’s for the Never-Treadmillers
The knock on treadmills is more spiritual than scientific. Most runners know that treadmills don’t alter your gait or wreck your knees. Running on a rubber instead of concrete, and cutting wind out of the picture entirely, is actually less taxing on the body. But for those that can’t stand them nonetheless, who long for that discovery component of a run — cold-weather running is your calling card.
The Community, The Solitude
For all the declarations above, cold is cold, and running in it can often be extremely unpleasant. There is a special communion, though, in encountering other cold-weather runners, and exchanging a knowing wave. It means far more than the “Hey, we bought the same car!” wave. A runner’s wave (or interchangeably, a runner’s chin nod) is a quick, agreeable conclusion that you don’t know each other, you will probably never know each other, and yet you are of the same tribe. If you’re looking for a little more than that, of course, every city has its running clubs; they’ll be out on the roads all winter long, and usually log some workouts on the local icy track, too.
But I also appreciate the solitude of the cold-weather run. It’s a free tech detox, a chance to check in with oneself, an opportunity to cash in on the little sunlight available to us during the darkest portion of the year, and a proven challenger to seasonal affective disorder. Maine-based writer Caitlin Shetterly summed up the feeling beautifully in a piece for The New York Times last year:
” … When I am running, I find a room of my own. In the wind and bright sun, in the cracking ice echoing through the salt marsh, in the flight of the blue heron up above, in the scratch of my ratty running shoes on the sandy, icy shoulder of the road, I am free. And mostly alone, as few runners join me on the slippery roads of winter … When I am running there is nothing but time and my own body and however long it will take me to get there. Everything else needs to wait. And believe me, sometimes it does take a long time. I am that slow.”
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