Cold Weather Shrinks Running Performance

how cold weather effects running performance

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t was another wintry morning here in New Hampshire. I searched for my running shoes as the house creaked and groaned against the blustery 30 mph winds forcing the real feel temperature all the way down to a bone-chilling 3º F. Days like these really test a runner’s tenacity.

Absurdly, I asked myself “What would Pre do?” I assume he’d tell me to stop being a baby and get my ass out the door already. I mean, he’s freakin’ Steve Prefontaine.

After dressing in multiple layers of everything from shirts to mittens, I looked at my vaseline-covered reflection in the front mirror. I had no more excuses. It was time to run. The biting wind pushed me backwards and almost drowned me. Snot oozed down my upper lip. And, fresh tears fused my eyelashes together in milliseconds. I blinked hard while concentrating on the road ahead. I wrong step might send me reeling. Winter running is hard, and I’m just getting started.

Why is running in cold weather so difficult?

Simply put, you’re body works harder as temperatures drop below 50º F. Part of this is due to the fact that some of your overall energy and resources are being diverted to simply keeping your body warm. The body’s metabolic rate climbs as temperatures drop. Like shivering, it’s a coping mechanism for preserving our core temperature. Marvelous! But, it steals energy from other less important functions like running.

According to a 2004 study, athletes consume more oxygen as temperatures dip, the explosive power of muscles is limited, and we convert carbohydrates to energy at higher rates than we would at warmer temperatures. Basically, we burn through tons of fuel and our muscles perform at less than ideal levels. No wonder it’s hard to run fast in the winter.

I came across a few unsubstantiated claims about how much you can expect your pace per mile to drop at certain temperatures. But, without research to back up the claims, I’m hesitant to share those numbers. Suffice it to say that you can expect your average pace per mile to slow down by as much as 9% as temperatures approach zero. So, let go of pacing expectations and run by feel.

Maintaining your body temperature in frigid weather is critical. This is a challenge for slender endurance runners who typically have very little in the way of natural insulation.  Dress wisely, always let people know where you’re running and carry a phone and some cash just to be on the safe side.

Once you begin your workout, keep moving. In more moderate temperatures it’s fine to walk a lap, or catch your breath and chat between intervals. In the winter, you want to keep your temperature up from start to finish. 

Run within your capabilities and don’t go so far that you can’t make it home again. Getting stranded and walking home on frigid days, after your wet and sweaty, is a recipe for hypothermia. Winter running is beautiful and invigorating, but it deserves your respect and full attention.

Stay safe out there and enjoy the miles!

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