What Happens to Your Body When You Run in the Cold

Updated on September 20, 2017
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Amy is a Registered Dietitian and avid Ultra-Marathon runner. She mixes her love of science, nutrition and athletics to enhance performance

As winter rears its ugly head, running tends to take a backseat. Getting adequately dressed up for the cold and bracing for ice and snow can make even the most dedicated runner second guess themselves. While it may be tempting to swap your trail run for a warm indoor session on the treadmill, consider these benefits of running in the cold.

1. You Will Burn More Calories

There are multiple reasons for this. Shivering alone can burn approximately 100 calories in 15 minutes. The shivering mechanism also activates the muscles to secrete a special hormone called irisin that stimulates your fat cells to produce heat. This allows both your muscle and fat cells to be engaged in burning calories.

2. You Can Build Some Serious Mental Strength

Besides the typical bragging rights associated with casually stating you did an “easy six miles” in freezing weather, real mental benefits can be achieved. Running in uncomfortable conditions trains your body to continue when the going gets tough. This mental training will prepare you for adverse conditions in a race or give you an edge if conditions are primo. Additionally, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is estimated to affect 10 million Americans. Getting daily sunshine and fresh air can ward off SAD and keep your fluctuating emotions in check during the colder months.

3. You Get More of a Muscle Building Strength Workout

A successful runner typically adds in strength training to compliment their running. Trying not to slip on the ice and lifting your feet higher with every step, not only gives you a better workout, but also trains your body to become more efficient. If you want to test this theory, give it a try. If you typically run a flat, dry five-mile distance; try it after several inches of snow. The next day you will likely experience soreness in muscles you never typically feel sore in. Proof that snow running is activating and working muscles that are typically missed. When the snow finally melts, your training and conditioning in the snow will make you feel faster than ever in warm, dry weather.

4. Your Metabolism Will Increase

A physical adaptation of cold running is called thermogenesis. Thermogenesis is literally the process of heat production. This heat production not only increases your calorie burning while running, it increases your overall metabolism. A research study evaluated the effects of repeated exposure to milder cold conditions and found that it leads to an overall increase in metabolic heat production. In the study, this lead to increased calorie burning and better body temperature regulation.

5. You Can Run Faster

This is only true to a point. Fifty degrees is considered the optimal running temperature. If you live in a warmer state like Arizona or Florida, winter provides a great opportunity for you to perform optimally. Once the temperature drops to 30 degrees or below, a decrease in your speed may be inevitable. The good news is research shows that running in cold conditions trains your body to use oxygen more efficiently. A research study out of University of Northern Arizona showed that a 29% increase in speed could be obtained after five months of cold exposure.

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Five Tips to Make Running in the Cold More Pleasent

So, now you know what happens to your body when you run in the cold. The next step is how to adapt and make winter running more pleasant. Here are some tips and techniques to help you make the most of your next winter run.

1.) Layer your clothing. A fast-drying inner layer made with fleece or synthetics coupled with an outer waterproof shell can keep your core warm and your body protected from the elements.

2.) Invest in waterproof shoes. If you live in a city that snows one day and has a heat wave the next, you are no stranger to wet feet. When temperatures are low, having wet feet can make running unpleasant to painful.

3.) Run toward the wind. On an out and back run, running toward the wind on the first stretch can be not only psychologically motivating but also prevent wind chill later on when you are more sweaty and exhausted.

4.) Wear goggles or sunglasses. The reflection of the sun off the snow makes it very bright and can take a toll on your eyes on long runs. Also, sunglass can dull the stress of blowing wind, snow, and ultra-violet rays.

5.) Make sure you aren’t caught in the dark. With cold winter running comes shorter days and increased chances of getting caught in the dark. Pack a headlamp, wear reflectors and don’t feel bashful about decking yourself out like Christmas tree. With slippery roads and built up snow banks, winter running can pose significant risks without the right gear.

References:

Virtanen, K. (2014). BAT Thermogenesis: Linking Shivering to Exercise. Cell Metabolism, 19(3), 352-354. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2014.02.013

Daanen, H. A., & Lichtenbelt, W. D. (2016). Human whole body cold adaptation. Temperature, 3(1), 104-118. doi:10.1080/23328940.2015.1135688

Garrity, P. A., Goodman, M. B., Samuel, A. D., & Sengupta, P. (2010). Running hot and cold: behavioral strategies, neural circuits, and the molecular machinery for thermotaxis in C. elegans and Drosophila. Genes & Development, 24(21), 2365–2382.

Schaeffer P. J., Hokanson J. F., Wells D. J. and Lindstedt S. L. (2001). Cold exposure increases running VO(2max) and cost of transport in goats. Am. J. Physiol. Regul. Integr. Comp. Physiol. 280, R42-R47

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    • profile image

      Run4Denise 

      21 months ago

      I love cold weather running because I am not a fan of sweating. It definitely is a way to keep weight gain at bay in the winter time. I think that when runners stop running in the winter it is really easy to gain weight. I have a harder time running in the summer.

    • profile image

      GetWithCharles 

      21 months ago

      I went out for a few of your cold runs now, and it wasn't all bad! Good to get some fresh air! I ran into a girl that was training for a half-marathon and I'm considering giving that a try. I didn't know so many people ran in the winter in the Rockies!

    • veganfitspiration profile imageAUTHOR

      Amy 

      21 months ago from Colorado Springs

      Thanks GetWithCharles. Have fun running outside!

    • profile image

      GetWithCharles 

      21 months ago

      I don't like the cold much, but I'm getting tired of feeling locked in the gym everyday. I think I'll try one of these cold weather runs! Keep doin your thing, Amy!

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