How cold is too cold to run? Learn the facts

Last Updated: April 15, 2020

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A question many new runners might have as we approach winter is “How cold is too cold to run?”. Most people that love to run outdoors wouldn’t compensate by going to the gym and hitting the treadmill for the simple reason that many do not like it.

Mentally speaking, going out for a run when it’s 0 degrees outside might be enough to set anyone on the path of switching on their central heating and staying inside watching Netflix. However, the victory one might experience by actually going for a run when they’d rather choose the latter does a lot for your mental state. That feeling of accomplishment and sense of joy with endorphins hitting us at full force is the reason many of us will want to run in the cold winter.

how cold is too coldWhilst there have been many studies on whether it’s safe to do so or not, it ultimately comes down to the person and their individual circumstances. For example, if you have asthma it might not be a good idea to run in -20 degrees Fahrenheit. So before running in the cold and especially if you have pre-existing health conditions it might be a good idea to see your doctor first.

Speaking biologically, the human body, however, is capable of having such colds. Many people are worried that running in the cold could freeze their lungs or cause irreversible damage, however, according to Jack Daniels, a running coach states that as long as you wear adequate clothing and warm-up that you will be fine. Further to this, John Castellani, an exercise coach at the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine states also that as long as you have the right gear and clothing there’s no such thing as “too cold to run”.

From another angle, there have also been studies done that state that exercising in the cold might reduce your body’s immune function which makes you more prone to illness. Taking a quote from one of my favorite runners as well, Sage Canaday, he says “I’ve run in below zero a few times, but for the sake of my lungs and throat, I generally will run indoors if it is that cold outside—especially for intense workouts when I’m breathing harder.”. 

Many runners have also avoided running in the cold if there’s a chilly wind. For the most part, if it’s just cold runners have been able to withstand the temperature but when you add a bit of wind to the mix, things can quickly change.

With so much information at our fingertips, it still begs the question: how cold is too cold to run? I think it comes down to personal preference and also knowing what your limits are. If you’re a healthy individual and you go for regular check-ups then you will be the only one that knows your own limits. After doing some research on the internet I’ve come up with the potential benefits and risk factors to running in the cold.

Pros of Running in the cold

1. Mental Fortitude

mental fortitude with runningI’m a big believer in doing things that suck and testing my limits. Doing the stuff that I don’t want to do has made me a stronger and happier person overall. 

When you’re sitting at home in your warm home and your wife is making some warm biscuits and you’re wearing your favorite sweater the last thing you want to do is go for a run in the cold. However, if you do end up going for that run and especially after telling yourself that you didn’t want to do it your brain is shocked.

Your brain starts thinking that this might become the norm, and when you keep tricking your brain like this eventually you will re-program your mental fortitude to be stronger and do other things in your life that also suck, helping you grow as a person. This is a point I’ve learned from one of my favorite runners, David Goggins.

2. You can continue running outdoors

Most of you that have landed on this article are people that likely love to run outdoors, you don’t want to go to the gym and be stuck on the treadmill. You’re likely a runner that runs through the rain as well and quite like it in fact. You don’t want to compromise and you want to continue running outdoors. By running in the cold (And getting accustomed to it where it’s now the norm) you are training your body to be able to handle it on a regular basis. Before long, you’ll be continuing your running regime outdoors all year long.

3. Burn more calories

Your body works harder to keep your core temperature up whilst you’re out in the cold. “Our bodies use a considerable amount of energy to keep us warm and humidify the air we breathe when we’re out in the cold” mentions Stacy Tucker a natural health expert and founder of Almeda Labs.

4. Helps those with allergies

If you’re anything like me and have a ton of allergies, then you’re in for a treat because pollen counts are practically nonexistent in cold weather (And especially around snow).

5. Lowers inflammation

We’ve all used an ice pack before to decrease swelling after an injury, this is because ice reduces inflammation and for that reason, the cold can do the same. A lot of people boast a lot on the benefits of cold exposure, one such person is Wim Hof, also known as The Iceman. Wim Hof has numerous world records in cold exposure and has run up Everest in just his underwear. Crazy right? Well, he talks more in-depth about how the cold can reduce inflammation and seems to think that it provides many other benefits as well. Look into him, I promise it’ll be a treat.

Cons of Running in the cold

1. Hypothermia

hypothermia running in the coldHypothermia is when the body loses heat faster than it can produce heat which in turn causes a dangerously low body temperature. Several symptoms of hypothermia are shivering, shallow breathing, weak pulse, confusion or bright red and cold skin. 

The typical causes are wearing clothes that aren’t warm enough for the conditions you’re in, staying in the cold too long or jumping into something like ice water.

Hypothermia isn’t usually a cause for concern on land though. The cause for concern is usually when you’re swimming, especially for long periods of time. 

This can happen quite easily at cold Ironman events where you have to swim for several hours before you actually transition on a bike. With running, as long as you’re wearing adequate clothing you should be fine. However, needless to say, this doesn’t mean that the risk isn’t there, it’s just lower.

2. Frostbite

Frostbite is a condition in which skin and the tissue below the skin freeze. This would normally affect small parts of the body such as your fingers and toes (Which are also the most prone to cold). Your skin will get cold, then numb and finally hard and pale. Most cases of frostbite which are mild in nature can be treated by warming the area however severe cases will require medical care. Frostbite is something that occurs in really cold temperatures and can be avoided in most cases if you wear adequate clothing.

3. Tightness

The cold usually makes us tighter around our joints and muscles. This can be avoided with a proper warm-up regime, however. When exercising or running in the cold you should always make sure that you’ve done some light stretches and warming up before heading out for the run.

4. Slipping

In the cold, the pavement and the ice that’s built up around is a risk factor that shouldn’t be overlooked. You run the risk of getting an injury after falling down so you need to make sure that you’ve got the right gear and equipment for running in the cold such as the right running shoes.

Conclusion

So how do you decide when it’s too cold to run outside? As mentioned before it’s definitely a personal preference. However, in saying that most runners and athletes will sound a similar tune. That is that it is dependent on the wind chill factor outside. 

The wind chill takes into account conditions such as wind speed and moisture. “Say the thermometer reads 36 degrees Fahrenheit; if the wind chill says 20 degrees, your exposed skin will freeze as if it were 20 degrees-an crucial distinction for anyone going outside for more than a few minutes,” says Brian Schulz, M.D, an orthopedic surgeon/sports medicine specialist at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in LA.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Have you found some research that states otherwise or have you ever run in the cold yourself? Let me know your thoughts in the comments box below.

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