I’ve often wondered this question myself, and I get asked it from clients, so I compiled some information for us to use as a guideline as we face the winter months and cold weather ahead.
Some runners can handle colder temperatures better than others. Factors like body fat and pre-existing conditions such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, and Raynaud’s syndrome will impact tolerance to cold weather. If you have a pre-existing condition, talk to your doctor for his or her recommendation.
One study found that tissue damage occurred in 30 mins or less in temperatures of -27C and colder. Try warming up indoors before taking your run outside with a light jog on the treadmill, spin on the bike, and/or some dynamic stretches. Cold muscles + cold temperatures increase risk of injury. My experience has shown that sitting in a sauna briefly also makes muscles feel more limber in the cold and more tolerable as your core temperature is up as you head out the door. But don’t forget your dynamic stretches to get bloodflow to the working muscles, as well.
If taking your run outdoors, it is important to consider the “feels like” temperature because wind chill can make the actual air temperature a lot colder. Some risks of running in cold weather include frostbite and hypothermia. Therefore, it is VERY important, if you are going to take your runs outside, you dress appropriately. Any skin exposure makes you more susceptible to frostbite. If you find it difficult to cover your face, you can protect it by applying petroleum jelly to exposed areas.
Signs of frostbite include tingling, stinging, burning, numbness, pale, blue and/or waxy skin. Frostbite can occur in any temps below zero, so be sure to be aware of warning signs. If you feel these signs, seek shelter immediately.
Hypothermia can be fatal. It begins with shivering but it’s important to be aware that shivering will stop when the situation becomes dire. Be sure you have warm and dry clothes to change into right after you are finished your run and consider routes with lots of shelter or close to home on those really cold days. Listen to your body. If you aren’t warming up, it’s time to end the run.
At the end of the day, you don’t need to be a hero! If running outside in the cold isn’t for you or you don’t have the appropriate gear for the conditions, opt for indoors. There is no shame in running on a treadmill and only you know your own tolerance. Don’t put yourself at the risk based on pressure from your running buddies. Although they mean well and just want your company, the decision is up to you!
So, to answer the question: When is it too cold to run outside? The answer: It depends on the person.
Melissa Paauwe, UESCA Certified Running Coach Owner/Founder of We Run the World Coaching, Inc; The Run Lounge
Castellani, John W et al. “American College of Sports Medicine position stand: prevention of cold injuries during exercise.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise vol. 38,11 (2006): 2012-29.
Dickenson, M. (2022). Try warming up indoors for your outdoor run. Canadian Running. https://runningmagazine.ca/sections/training/try-warming-up-indoors-for-your-outdoor-run/
Sayer, A. (2022). When Is It Too Cold To Run Outside? + 7 Tips For Running In The Cold. Marathon Handbook. https://marathonhandbook.com/when-is-it-too-cold-to-run-outside/
Senay, Emily Dr. "Preventing the Nip of Frostbite." CBC News, 5 Jan. 1999, www.cbsnews.com/news/preventing-the-nip-of-frostbite/.