Running Cold: How Weather Affects Your Performance

Have you noticed a drop off in your running performance during the winter months? Here's why you may not be running as fast as you expect.

February 3, 2016
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If you’re one of those brave souls who continues to run outside during the winter months, you’ve probably wondered just how much the cold conditions affect your workouts. Not surprisingly, the colder weather will indeed have an effect on your body, but just how dramatically it changes your performance depends on a variety of factors. Here are some ways that running in the cold will have an effect on your training.

Performance drops with the temperature,

Colder weather will definitely have an impact on your performance, but surprisingly that drop off begins at about 50 degrees rather than the frigid temps that you would expect during the winter. That said, the drop in performance isn’t really all that noticeable until the mercury falls below freezing. Once the air temperatures hit 32 degrees or below, there is a slow but steady drop off in speed because cold muscles simply can’t perform at the same level that they do when they are warmer. The colder temps will also slow down the nervous system, causing fewer muscle contractions in your legs, which ultimately reduces your pace, slowing you down noticeably.

Carb up for a cold-weather run.

The cold conditions will have other effects on your body as well. For instance, when you run in warm conditions your body taps into its fat stores for energy, but in the cold it’ll burn carbohydrates at a much higher rate instead. This can have a dramatic impact on performance since carbs are used up much more quickly, leaving you with low energy reserves to get you through the remainder of your workout.

Another side effect that comes from burning carbs at such a high rate is that it also increases the amount of lactic acid that is produced in your muscles. Excessive lactic acid will have a detrimental effect on your speed too, bringing performance down even further.

Cold air is hard to breathe.

Let’s face it, running is a demanding aerobic activity. When you’re moving at higher speeds, or climbing steep hills, it can sometimes be difficult to catch your breath. This is especially true in the winter when you’re also breathing in colder air. The blend of physical exertion and frosty temperatures can often put a real strain on the lungs, making it even more difficult for your cardiovascular system to operate efficiently. This can result in a drop off in performance as your body struggles to get enough oxygen into its system when you try to push yourself harder.

Longer Warm-Ups

Ask any runner and they will probably tell you that the first mile is always the hardest. Even under the best of conditions, it can take your body some time to warm up and begin working at peak efficiency. That’s why that first mile can be so rough, but the ones that follow tend to get a bit easier. During the winter that warm-up time can take a little longer because of the cold conditions, however, as your muscles will simply be more sluggish.

More Calories Burned

One of the side benefits of running outside in colder weather is that you’ll burn more calories while you’re doing it. Your body has to work hard to keep its core temperature at normal levels during the winter, which is why it is common for us to start shivering as the mercury takes a plunge. That is one method that your body uses to generate more heat and in doing so also uses more calories than normal.

The Cold has an effect on your shoes too!

Cold weather won’t just have an impact on your body, it will take its toll on your running shoes too. Most modern athletic footwear uses synthetic foam known as ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) as a cushion to provide support against impact when working out. But as the temperature drops, EVA can harden, lessening its effectiveness as a shock absorber. Once it warms back up, its regular properties return, but if you’re running in temperatures that fall below freezing you may find that your legs are taking more of a pounding because your shoes can’t perform up to their usual standards.

It should be noted that taken individually, most of the effects of cold weather aren’t necessarily all that noticeable. But, when each of them comes into play they can have enough of an impact to bring your running performance down. About the only thing you can do is accept that it is simply something that happens during the winter and not get down on yourself because you aren’t running as well as you normally would. One the weather starts to warm up, your performance will too.

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