Cold Weather Running
Disclaimer: We accumulated this material from the collective hundreds of years of experience of our members who run in the winter. But you’ll see that a recurring theme here is that you need to experiment with what will work best for you, your body, and your temperament. Don’t venture too far from a safe, warm place when trying new things, and always stay safe!
Just look at that Fred Meyer sign, surrounded by ice fog. Makes you want to stay indoors, right? Most people, probably yes. But there are a few hardy souls who are intrigued by the prospect of answering the call, ‘how low can you go ….’, and out they go, running in the coldest weather.
Year ‘round running is not only possible in Fairbanks, it is practiced by a large number of our local runners. Our 12-month calendar of running events attests to this. There may be smaller participation in some of our winter events, but runners always show up at our races. While some continue to run throughout the winter, others take advantage of our excellent snow conditions and cross train by switching to cross country skiing during the winter months (or to snowshoeing or skijoring). But with more Fairbanks runners competing in winter marathons and shorter races throughout the Lower 48 (and Hawaii), they have found that in order to stay in peak running condition, they have to adapt their running to our local weather conditions. And by running during the winter, you’ll be in better shape for those spring marathons or races of any length!
Fairbanks is located at 64°49′ North latitude (about 120 miles south of the Arctic Circle as the raven flies, which is where the sun does not rise above the horizon on the shortest day of the year). Our shortest day, near December 21—the Winter Solstice—has 3 hours and 42 minutes from sunrise to sunset. Our winters are marked by periods of greatly reduced sunlight and the presence of persistent high pressure weather systems over the Arctic Polar Region. When conditions permit, these Arctic highs move south and attempt to establish themselves over Interior Alaska and Northern Canada. They are generally accompanied by clear skies, calm winds, and cold air. Once these high pressure systems are in place, in combination with our reduced daylight, our air temperatures tend to fall lower and lower.
All outdoor winter activity in Interior Alaska centers around these reduced daylight conditions and our weather. Our coldest average temperatures occur about three weeks after Winter Solstice, reaching -11°F in mid-January before starting to rise. By this time, our sunlight has already increased to over 5 hours. Keep in mind that is the average temperature; the minimums are normally far colder!
During our coldest weather, temperature inversions usually (but not always) exist in our area. The coldest temperatures are usually found in the lowest areas, with warmer air aloft. There are an abundance of ridges and hills surrounding Fairbanks running from east to west, to the north of the city, where you can often find warmer air. In our darkest six to eight weeks, the sun offers little or no warmth as it sits very close to the horizon even at midday (around 1 PM); our temperatures tend to reflect this as our daily high and low temperatures during prolonged, mid-winter cold spells are usually not very far apart. And when the city and surrounding low areas are blanketed with ice fog, it’s a psychological lift to run in the hills where you can at least see (but not feel) the sun.
Running Club North formerly observed a -25°F cancellation temperature for most events for a number of years (a few events were held regardless of the temperature). That gave an indication of what many runners considered to be a temperature below which the plusses of running were outweighed by the minuses of the ambient conditions. However, now race cutoff temperatures are left to the discretion of the Race Director. And at most any temperature, local runners can be found out on our local roads and trails.
There are a number of considerations when running in our often-extreme cold.
Running is normally not an overly risky sport, at least not compared with pro football, bull fighting, and extreme skydiving! But there are some real risks when running in extreme temperatures, which are magnified the colder it gets. There are health risks, including frostbite and hypothermia, as well as environmental risks, such as running on icy surfaces. Running surfaces are less and less slick the further below zero the temperature falls, but you can still slip and slide.
By carefully considering the information here, and using some good old common sense, you can have a great run no matter what the temperature is! It will take some experimentation to find what works for you, and you’ll probably want to pick a reasonable personal cutoff temperature. Maybe initially that is freezing, +32° Fahrenheit, but over time you can reduce that as you gain experience with what works for you. Many of our members have low temperature PRs of -50° and colder, but for the most part they didn’t start with that kind of cutoff!
Where Should You Run?
Running during extreme cold is inherently more risky than fair-weather running. Some of our members avoid trails and remote areas when it is really cold, simply because a simple, ankle-twisting fall can have serious repercussions. Even if you can walk out, it is quite possible that although you are dressed warmly enough when you’re running, you’re seriously underdressed when walking slowly. Running in a group can be wise, but how cold will you be by the time they return with help? Even if you carry a cellphone—a wise thing to do in any circumstance—you can have serious frostbite by the time help reaches you. And cell signals can be spotty outside of town.
So in really cold weather you might want to stick to visible places—like running in populated or more heavily used areas. On the other hand, remote winter running can be some of the best running, if you’re willing to take responsibility for your well-being.
How Long Should You Run?
A winter run is typically just plain harder. Your clothes are heavier than that skimpy singlet and shorts you might wear during the summer, your body needs to warm up that cold air you’re inhaling, and you might be running in hillier country at higher elevations to take advantage of the inversions we often have.
So you probably want to run for shorter times than you normally would. Turn around and head home or back to the car well before you feel like you want to, because cold saps your body of energy. If you’re training plan calls for a longer run than you can comfortably and safely do all at once, you might break it up into two runs that day.
Cold temperature is the biggest weather issue you’ll face with winter running. Wind is usually not a consideration during the winter, as our coldest temperatures are generally accompanied by and result from calm air (although this has been less true in recent years). As temperatures rise, wind is more common and it can produce wind chill equivalent temperatures that are as low or lower than our coldest ambient temperatures.
The good news with winter running is that you’re far less likely than summer to encounter a bear, since they are hopefully snoozing away in a den somewhere. Periodically bears wake from hibernation by warming weather in January or some other disturbance, or for some moisture or to briefly stretch their legs, but for the most part they are snoozing. Besides, bears seem to steer clear of the Fairbanks area (we don’t take offense). But if you do encounter a bear, take the usual precautions. If you need to learn about what to do, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has some great resources.
More likely is that you’ll encounter one or more moose, which, frankly, kill and hurt many more people in Alaska each year than bears (and not just from vehicle collisions). Moose can be ornery, but at least they are vegetarians and are not predatory. Be on the lookout for them, and give them wide berth, even if that means turning around and going back the way you came. Sometimes yelling at them from a safe distance causes them to do the right thing and head away, but not always. And know the signs of an angry moose. The usual cautions of not getting between an angry mom and Junior of any species apply.
You’ll occasionally encounter other smaller critters too. Just give them a wide berth as well, as much to not disturb them as to stay safe yourself.
The most important thing to consider before running in our extreme temperature conditions, is dressing properly. And there is one major concept that you need to deeply embrace: layering. Many light layers will keep you far warmer than one or two bulky layers.
Don’t wear cotton! It will get wet and stay that way. Stick to synthetic, wicking layers from the top layer to bottom.
Be careful with windbreakers as one of your layers if it’s very cold, because the sweat can’t get out and it freezes on the inside of the jacket. One thing you could try is to use tech shirts and cover them, say with a synthetic sweatshirt. This way the moisture will freeze on the outside, not the inside.
Go to any group run or race during the winter in Fairbanks, and you’ll see all kinds of options for keeping your face warm (including those annoying people who seem to have a warm face no matter the temperature!). At a minimum, you’ll probably want a warm cap and a neck warmer that can overlap to keep your ears warm; the addition of a headband that fits around the ears can make this sufficient for all but the coldest temperatures. You could add a balaclava under all of this for the coldest temperatures, and you can even add a second headband around your nose, leaving your mouth clear to breathe, as you can see in this picture. (It is kind of embarrassing when this fellow joins us at group runs, but he never complains about a cold nose!) And some people swear by full face masks with openings for your eyes, nose, and mouth, but others can’t bear the constricted feeling.
You’ll need to experiment with whether you’re comfortable with something covering your mouth. Many people find that although this works for a short time, it gets pretty uncomfortable for an entire run. You can pull a neck gaiter up and down as needed, but be careful if you have a beard. Leaving it in place too long can cause it to freeze in place!
The biggest thing you need to be careful of is to not overdress and sweat. Sweating is not good during cold weather. You might do okay if you keep running, but if for any reason you have to stop or walk you’ll get very cold very fast, and adding layers on top of wet ones won’t help much. This is probably the hardest problem to solve.
Women—and confident men—can wear any of the many insulated skirts that are available these days. These can serve to keep your bum and thighs warm and comfortable. Just make sure that it is either short enough to not restrict movement or have zippers or something to loosen it.
Virtually everyone who experiments with layering discovers two things. First, in the beginning they layer too heavily. If you wear enough layers to stay warm as you walk out of the house and through the first few minutes of warm-up, you’ll probably overheat when you get down to serious running (whether that is fast or slow). You should probably be a little chilled until you get warmed up and into the run. This is where experimentation comes in: keep notes of what you wore for each run and the weather conditions, and a note whether it was too little or too much. Over time you’ll figure out what works for you at any temperature, and when fall comes around you’ll have a good record of what worked in previous years.
The second thing people discover is that over time they need fewer layers for a given temperature, as their body acclimatizes to the cold.
One specialized consideration is for people who wear glasses. In colder temperatures, glasses can easily frost over to the point of obscuring your vision. If you can run safely without them, you might just leave them at home or in the car. Some of our members use contact lenses which tend to work quite well. If you have to use the glasses and contacts won’t work, you’ll want to consider some kind of face mask that deflects your breath away from your glasses, which is the major reason they fog up. Another issue is that when snow is falling, moisture can build up on the lenses; a hat with a bill can ease that problem. Unfortunately, we don’t have any other sure-fire solutions to these problems.
Finally, you might want to consider carrying additional layers in a small pack, both in case you’ve underestimated your needs that day or in case of emergency. Or stash them along your route, or in the car if you’ll pass near it repeatedly.
By the way, if you run with four-legged friends, make sure they are appropriately geared up for the cold too! Some breeds are built for cold weather, others are not so well prepared. This might include booties and a coat.
Mittens keep your hands warmer than gloves, since your fingers are all keeping each other warm, and you can use products like Hot Hands or Grabber Hand Warmers. Some people bring along pair of thinner gloves to change into once they get warmed up, while others are okay with just removing their mittens every so often to cool their hands down. It actually can be quite nice to run in cold temperatures with warm naked hands, at least until they cool down!
Some people swear by neoprene gloves as the only thing they need until the temperatures really get cold. Then you can add a shell for additional warmth.
Shoes and Socks
There are few things that interest runners more than their shoes. After all, running shoes are in theory the only sport-specific thing you need to run. (Well, except in cold weather!) And it should be no surprise that when we asked around for cold weather ideas, tips, and tricks, shoes were the most popular topic. This, just as much as the clothing for the rest of your body, will require you to experiment a bit to see what works for you.
There are specialized winter running shoes available at several of our fine running and sports stores in Fairbanks. Ice Bugs seems to be the favorite brand of Fairbanks runners, but there are others that might work better for you. These are lightly insulated, no mesh in the upper, and have studs built in to protect you when running on icy surfaces. They are a bit heavier as a result, so consider how they might affect your running.
One response is typical of the suggestions we received about shoes: “I use regular sneakers, but one size larger so I can wear thicker socks. And I duct tape over the mesh to keep my feet a wee bit warmer.” Running shoes typically have a mesh that keep your feet cool and dry during the summer, but is the enemy of your feet in the winter. If you can’t afford or don’t want winter-specific running shoes, duct tape can be your friend (and there are so many neat colors and patterns these days!) to keep the warm air in and cold air and melting snow out. Assuming you can keep it on! Having it peel off in the middle of a sub-zero 20 mile run can ruin your day.
Another member, one of our most experienced winter runners, shared this cautionary tale: “I once covered the toes of my shoes with duct tape to block the air. Worked fine until the duct tape loosened up along the sides and top so that as I ran through a few inches of snow, the duct tape would act like little scoops on top of my shoes. At the beginning of a run, they deposited snow on top of my warm shoes which then melted and ran into my shoes. As the run progressed and my feet cooled, the melted snow froze until the toes of my socks were entombed in ice. As it was about -20 degrees, I cut the run short, made it home, and spent several minutes in agony as my toes warmed up. Lesson learned.”
There is a product called “Toasty Feet” inserts that go under your regular insole. No one seems to stock these in town, but they’re available on-line at few different places for $16 to $20/pair). They are about 1/8″ thick and cut down to shoe size like many inserts. These are filled with an insulator called “Aero-Gel,” which is an effective insulator. One member has been using them for years and swears by them. They really work, but you have to have room in your shoe to not pinch your overall fit.
You can layer socks just like clothing. A common thing to do is to wear a single pair of wool socks as the temperature drops, then at a certain temperature add a thin nylon sock inside the wool socks. But you need to be sure that your shoes can accommodate thicker socks and layering, and don’t tie the laces too tight. You definitely don’t want to restrict the blood flow by having them too tight. That is a surefire way to get frostbite fast. Sometimes just getting a wider version of a shoe gives you enough room for the extra sock thickness.
Some people have good luck with neoprene socks, which are thin but do a good job of keeping the heat in. For comfort, you could wear a liner beneath them, usually just a standard summer wicking running sock.
One of our members cautioned against thicker socks or layers, if your shoe size won’t comfortably accommodate them. Instead, put a thick wool sock on the outside of your shoe. Use something like ancient wool hiking socks. If you run on trails and snow-covered dirt roads, you won’t slip—it’s too cold. Yes, the socks wear out, but by then the cold snap will be over.
In the very coldest temperatures, you can add a plastic bag on top of your outermost sock as an air barrier. This can be surprisingly effective, but be careful that it isn’t so effective as to cause your feet to sweat.
Another thing to consider is your knees. Cold weather and cold-stiffened running shoes with reduced cushioning can take their toll on these critical joints. One member suggested wearing neoprene knee sleeves or tightly knitted wool knee socks in between layers of polypro and outer wind layers on the legs. You do have to be careful of extra sweating in that area and constricting your knees. You just want to keep them a little warmer.
For traction, you have a few options:
- Get a shoe that has studs built into the shoe, such as some Ice Bug or Solomon models. These work great, and tend to be reasonably comfortable when you hit dry pavement, if you don’t mind the scraping sound.
- Add studs to your shoes. Sheet metal screws can work well, just be careful about how you install them. There are plenty of resources on the Web for this.
- Use a product like Stabilicers, Yaktrax, or any of many others. These attach to the bottom of your shoes, usually rubber that stretch over the sole, and act like tire chains on a car. These have the downside of adding not-inconsiderable weight and can put some stress on the bottom of your foot. But some models slide over the toe of your shoe with enough rubber on the top to block the air flow, much like using duct tape for warmer feet.
If you use add-on spikes, loop a zip-tie between them and the lace, because they can and do fall off. Sometimes you can trot along for a while before you notice they are missing. It isn’t fun to have to backtrack looking for one especially if it means going back uphill late in a long run.
Running at any time of the year has inherent safety issues, some involving sharing the course with other largely incompatible users. Think cars, particularly since you’re likely to do at least some runs during our extended dark hours.
The key here is to make sure that drivers can see you well in advance. Wear clothing that has built-in reflective strips and are neon colors. But most clothing has just a couple of square inches of reflective surface, you’ll certainly need to augment it with reflective vests or suspenders.
Always run with a headlamp. You don’t have to use it all the time if you want to enjoy the mystic experience of running in the dark, by moonlight, or under the northern lights, but switch it on when cars or bikes approach. There are also all manner of blinking lights that you can attach to various body parts to make yourself even more visible. This is one area to go overboard. Make. Sure. You’re. Seen.
If you carry a cell phone, put it in a plastic bag to protect against sweat. And carry it where it will stay warm. Modern smartphones are notorious for shutting off when they get even a little cold, and you want it to be alive and kicking if you need it for an emergency. Jacket pockets probably won’t keep it warm enough, but one option is to put it in a dog bootie with a hand warmer. Another member suggested using something like a Spibelt, and putting the belt inside the top of your pants beneath your jacket.
And while we’re at it, be much more aware of your surroundings than usual. Your vision might be obscured by face coverings or a hood when you’re bundled up, so look around a lot to make sure you see cars, snowmachines (not all of which have their lights on), bicycles, dogsleds and skijorers, skiers, and other faster traffic.
By the way, it may seem like you need to load up on gear for winter running. One thing you can do is scour Value Village for used clothing and shoes, and Play It Again Sports for other things. New isn’t always better!
Food and Hydration
Be sure to eat some high-energy food before and maybe during your run. A bonk can drain your energy reserves much faster than during the summer.
Whether you sweat or not, be sure to keep hydrated. You’ll probably need more water than usual, since our winter air is quite dry.
Tips for Long Runs
The infamous “long run” in the later stages of many marathon and ultramarathon training plans can be a challenge during the winter. A typical long run is 20 or more miles, which can be a looooong time to be outside in frigid temperatures. But a long run is eminently doable with a bit of planning.
One of the easiest ways to do a long run is to plan a shorter loop or out and back that you do multiple times. That way, you can visit your car, home, or some other heated starting point multiple times, where you’ve stashed dry clothing, spare batteries for your headlamp, warm drinks in thermoses tucked away in coolers, and snacks. Five to seven miles seems to be a sweet spot for a loop like this for a 20 mile run: you won’t repeat it so many times that you get bored with it but it’s long enough to not take a break too often. But pick something that works for you and your training plan.
Consider joining a group for your long runs. Someone in Fairbanks is always training for a marathon! That way, you can together easily handle the logistics. And if anyone has a cooperative, supportive, loving non-runner partner, that person can provide a mobile aid station, assuming your route is on the road or is road accessible. And you can go in together to pay for that person’s beer after the run!
Another option is an aided long run, such as the Dawn 2 Dusk run near the winter solstice in late December at UAF. If that works into your training plans, it’s an easy way to get your long run done.
Join the Fahrenheit Be Damned Group!
One last tip. Running Club North has a group that meets every Wednesday evening during the winter for a 4 to 8 mile run, the Fahrenheit Be Damned group (sometimes written Fahrenheit Be Darned for the more sophisticated runners). As the name implies, the group gathers no matter how cold it is. This is a great group of people who would be happy to share ideas and give you feedback, and it’s a great way to test out the things that work for you.
See the club calendar for details.
We hope you find this information useful, and that you undertake a safe, comfortable, and fun winter running career!
A number of our members contributed questions, tips, text, and wise advice when we updated this page in early 2015, including Ashley Munro, Mara C. Bacsujlaky, Wendi Graham, Kate Millburg, Ron Johnson, Carol Kaynor, Dan Bishop, Dorli McWayne, David James, Mark & Donna Miles, John Lyle, George Berry, Andrea Swingley, and Carol Kleckner. Principal writer, editor, and cat herder: Don Kiely.
If you have any questions that should be answered here or suggestions about how to make this cold weather running material more helpful or interesting, or if you spot any errors, please send them to Don Kiely.
Local endurance athlete Chris Butcher–AKtrailrunner–put together a video in January 2020 about the clothes system that works for him in extreme cold: