Cold Weather Safety

by Jim Starr, September ’01

This is the first in a series of articles on running safely in extreme environmental conditions. It is an outgrowth of research and writing that the author did on behalf of the MCRRC board. The final document has been reviewed and approved by the board. Since the cold weather season is beginning, I will address some hazards of cold-weather running in this article.

Cold weather raises runners’ risks of both hypothermia and falling. Some experts advise against your ramping up mileage or adding speed work in the colder months. Also, it is usually a good idea to warm up before going out to run. When you run on slick surfaces it is advisable to shorten your stride. Runners should obviously avoid running on ice when possible. Remember also that even in the winter you need to hydrate. (It is possible to experience heat stress while wearing many and/or heavy layers of clothes. I did last year at the DC Road Runners Belle Haven half-marathon).


Severe hypothermia is unlikely in our area. Still, it can occur, e.g., if a runner slips and falls into a creek or is not properly clothed and must stop running because of an acute injury. If a person suffering from hypothermia is unconscious, he or she must be rewarmed gradually. Maintain an open airway. (Tilt the head back slightly and make sure the victim doesn’t gag on his tongue).Move the person gently to a warm building or other shelter. If possible, substitute dry clothes for wet ones. Seek help. If the person is conscious she should be given warm liquids—never alcohol, coffee, or tea.

Frostbite is usually experienced as numbness. The affected area should be rewarmed as soon as possible. Sometimes immersing the area (e.g., a hand) in warm water provides effective first aid. If you experience numbness it should be a signal to shorten your run.

Some Tips

  • Layer your clothes. Usually one or two layers on the legs and two-four layers on the torso will be adequate. At least the inner layer should consist of wicking fabrics like polypropylene. Middle layers should help to insulate and the outer layer should protect against the wind. In very cold weather, two pairs of socks may be appropriate.
  • Wear a hat and gloves. Much heat is lost through the top of the head and the hands. In very cold weather, mittens are more useful than gloves. Some runners cover their gloves with an extra pair of socks.
  • Consider a ski mask and glasses or goggles. In very cold weather, a ski mask and glasses or goggles can help to protect the face.
  • Wear light-colored and reflective clothing. It gets dark earlier and stays dark longer in the winter, and it helps to be visible.
  • Carry waterproof identification. In the event of an emergency, identification can speed up the process for those trying to help.
  • Try to run with others. This is the safest alternative when running, according to police. Running with a dog is the next best thing, If you must run alone, do not wear headphones, and let someone know your run route. If you do run alone carry a waterproof alarm device (e.g., whistle) of some sort.
  • Do not overdress. You should feel a bit chilly at the start. Overdressing increases the risk of dehydration, especially on longer runs.
  • Run into the wind during the first part of your run so that the wind can be at your back as your return. The build-up of perspiration during a run can exacerbate the effects of wind-chill making frostbite more likely.
  • Use Vaseline and chapstick for lips and other exposed areas.
  • Men might consider investing in wicking briefs with a front wind panel. In very cold weather, men have been known to suffer from frostbite because of wind chill.
  • Club event coordinators such as race directors, coaches, training run leaders, and board members may alter or cancel an event in light of safety and health hazards.