Running & Biking in Cold Weather


Last winter (2011/2012) was a fairly mild one.  I biked and I also ran as much as I was able to, through almost the entire winter.  Of course, despite a milder winter I still had to really bundle up.

So this year I plan on, and am doing, the same – providing it doesn’t snow very much.  Because how much can you enjoy biking and running in actual snow conditions?   (Well, outside of using a mountain bike on a snowy trail – a really exciting sport but not one I’m talking about in this post.)

Not much, the sand and salt on the road can ruin the bike, it can be dangerous, and slippery while biking or running.  One slip while running or one bad fall while biking and you might be out of running and biking for the winter.  But people do bike in snowy conditions, my personal preference is snow and slush is a cut-off point for me.

So anyway, this year I plan on doing as much running and biking as possibly if the weather cooperates.  Otherwise it’s running on our treadmill and picking up the slack with the other exercises I do regularly.

And not putting on enough clothes to wear really isn’t the biggest problem for me, the biggest problem for me is balancing how much I need versus wearing too much to the point of getting too hot and sweaty and being constricted.

What I wear depends on the outside temps, wind chill, which sport I’m doing, where I’m going (hills or more level road/street), how much I want to push myself that day, etc.

So I can give you a little advice on cold weather running and biking, though I’m no expert on running, biking, nor cold weather exercising.

Schwinn Road Bike

Schwinn Road Bike

What you wear and how much is going to depend on the above, as well as your own body and personal preferences.  And
it usually takes some or a lot of experimentation to see what works best for whatever exercise you are doing outside.  Don’t wear something when running or biking that you would wear outside for hiking in the woods, or visiting friends in the winter in other words.

I like the moisture wicking stuff underneath, even though many people think of it as a summer/warm weather gear it works great in any conditions where you are sweating and need to keep cool and keep moisture off your body.

In case you don’t know; moisture wicking clothes ‘wicks’ your sweat away from your skin, keeping you cool and dry, and doesn’t absorb moisture themselves; letting the moisture instead evaporate into the air.  Or in the case of using moisture wicking clothes in conditions where you are wearing another layer of material over it (like cold weather); the next layer of clothing absorbs the moisture.   Either way you are kept cool and dry.

Pretty important in the winter as you don’t want to have a layer of sweat that is going to cool against your skin, and is going to hamper your clothes’ insulation.  So wear moisture wicking stuff against your skin and a layer over this that is going to be your insulation layer, and it’s also best if that layer can readily absorb that moisture from the moisture wicking layer beneath it too.  And depending on the conditions maybe another layer over that that will provide a wind block and maybe more insulation.  Again, it depends on conditions and what works best for you.

I use a neck protector too, great for both keeping your neck warm; front, back, and sides, as well as pulling up over your lower cheeks and face, and covering your nose and mouth in extreme cold or wind chill conditions.  In very cold conditions you really want to consider filtering that cold moisture out of your stream of air intake, especially if you’re running and going to have your mouth open to help you breathe during high cardio times.  Don’t take a chance of getting frost-bitten  lungs!

You can find one similar to what I have here.  They make them that are thicker and probably even warmer and of various materials, but you have to watch out because you may not necessarily be able to breathe through them if you plan on using them double-duty.  It’s good to get a nice wide one, both because the rolls are more insulation when pulled down as well as the width gives you enough room to pull it up over you mouth and nose too.  Of course a scarf works too, but can be problematic when running, or biking if you are trying to keep it tied around you.  There are also many cold weather masks and such, but the neck protector doing double-duty as a lower face mask is a good compromise to me.

The only problem is anything over your nose, and mouth, collects that moisture that it is filtering out as you breath through it.  If it’s really cold this moisture can freeze and decrease the amount of air you can pull through it and you might have to shake the ice out of it.  Or at least wipe away the moisture occasionally before it freezes.

Which brings me to the next thing that I would like to mention when biking or running in cold, or even just cool weather –    it’s nice to have something readily available to blow your nose, wipe away condensation from your face protector if you’re breathing through it, etc.  I keep something in my jacket pocket but if you’re a biker you know that a lot of biking gloves come with a little terry cloth section on the back for, well, wiping your nose or whatever.

Yea, yea – gross and all.  And it’s not meant to actually blow your nose on.  But it’s a fact of life that many of us have runny noses when we run or bike in cool or cold weather.   Or even in warm weather when we’re doing some heavy-duty cardio work.  And the gloves are washable.  But I personally do prefer something that I pull out of my pocket and can throw away if needed.

Don’t underestimate how cold your hands can get, even when running.  Thin gloves for cool weather, insulated for cold.  Maybe even something with a hand warmer for biking – after all; you’re not using your hands very much.

Another thing that’s good for cold running and biking is these ear muff/ear warmer thingies.  I have three of them now and they are indispensable.  They fit below the helmet when biking and below a hat or over a toque when running.  Indispensable as I said.  And the band, though not very wide, does provide a little bit of protection for around the back of the head right under your hat or helmet.

When biking you have some special conditions to consider that might not come into play when running, or are less of an issue.

Like wind chill.  Obviously when biking you are traveling faster, thus creating more of a wind chill then when running.  Here’s a little chart via NOAA.  You may be toasty warm or just right while running with whatever set up you have for clothes and find that once you get on your bike and moving the wind and cold air may knife through those same clothes.

Give special consideration to those things that aren’t moving that much; your toes, fingers, and of course ears, and etc.  Your feet and toes especially when biking might be more stationary than when running.  I don’t worry about my foot wear that much when biking, I don’t need something too flexible (as long as I have full ankle movement – you don’t want to wear high boots or something!) so a hiking sneaker and an extra pair of socks works well for me.  And don’t forget those moisture wicking socks in the innermost layer.

There’s also a lot of stuff you can wear under or over your biking helmet.  I see the occasional person with a winter biking helmet, or even using an old half motorcycle helmet.  The latter can be very warm but also too heavy for long trips.  So you probably want to stick to something that you can either wear under or over your helmet, or a cold weather helmet that’s not going to have your head bobbing like a bobble-head after a few miles.

I use a skullcap sort of thing under my helmet and it keeps my head nicely warm.  There is some adjustment to the helmet to allow for the thin but palpable increase in your ‘head’ size, and you really want to make sure that there’s not going to be able slippage of the helmet in case of a spill or full-blown accident.

And talking about accidents (I know – we don’t want to consider it but things do happen and we should always be prepared, just in case) – a lot of people now use some sort of ID that they can easily carry on their person without, well, lugging their wallet and driver’s license around.  Good to have where ever you might be doing something away from home or friends and relatives and when you don’t won’t have conventional ID on you.

RoadID Band

RoadID Band

I bought my wife a RoadID bracelet, which has all of her contact info as well as name and birthday, in case of an accident.  The bracelet is very high quality and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone, running, biking, walking, hiking, etc.  Even comes with a nice little storage container.  You’ll see a lot of people using these because they are very nice quality and there are so many options to choose from. Very big in the running community especially, and biking too.  Check ’em out – RoadID.

I picked myself up some dog tags with comparable information on them (see pic to the left – sorry about the blurred out lettering, see an example of the lettering on the link).  In fact, I just ordered myself another set!

Mine was from a seller, Tag-Z, on Amazon.  You can find his online store here and the dog tag set I ordered from this link.  Really nice, heavy-duty, and come with two chains and two silencers.  You can put pretty much any info you want

Tag-Z Dog Tags

Tag-Z Dog Tags

on them, and they also sells plenty of other kinds too.

RoadID or these or something else – good idea to have with you.

I also stick a little note in my underseat carrier that lists my name and contact info.

Another thing I use is a Schwinn GPS/Heart Rate Monitor Watch (I highly recommend using a HRM/GPS watch for monitoring your workouts, for fun, to make it entertaining and for motivation, and also for health/statistic/progress tracking as well as watching your max heart rate if you’re doing something really intensive) and one of the things that previously bugged me was when I wanted to look at the watch – I exposed some of my skin to the cold.  Duh, all I need to do with a long sleeve moisture wicking shirt is put the watch on over it, and a quick check of the watch is easy to do and involves simply pushing the top of my glove down and/or the bottom of my outer jacket up and doesn’t expose skin.  No draft up your sleeves.  It works extra good if your long sleeve shirt is made for running and has extra long sleeves that normally go down over your hands (mine has thumb holes to hold them down).

Garmin GPS Watch and Heart Rate Monitor Strap

Garmin GPS Watch and Heart Rate Monitor Strap

I have to wear my GPS watch backwards as my gloves occasionally press the buttons as I run or bike.  Solves the problem just fine.  But newer GPS/HRM watches like the Garmin Forerunners have a button lock.  My wife’s has this and it’s a darn nice feature.  It’s hard to beat any Garmin product in general.

You probably want to take extra care with your bike too.  In just cold conditions you don’t really have to worry about anything but your regular maintenance and adjusting the air in the tires, but if you’re riding on wet roads that especially have been sanded and salted recently, you really want to wipe down the bike and make sure any moving parts are well lubed, and maybe do a cleaning more often of those parts.

BTW, above is a photo of my road bike.  I love the bike, and I’ve made a lot of mods to it to make it even better.  You can’t buy this any more but there is a similar model here.

I’ll include mention of a few accessories – not really weather-related but of interest in general when biking and makes the experience much better in any conditions.

Like the anatomical relief seat.  I can’t say enough good things about an anatomical relief seat in general, and this one specifically.  For the price its excellent, and you will feel the difference right away when you start riding.  They also make a women’s version.

The difference is indescribable.  There’s no pressure whatsoever when riding now, and I’d urge any male to consider one of these of one kind or another, instead of any flat seat or one with just a slight depression in the middle.  I can’t speak to whether the slot in the bottom makes it any cooler when biking in cold conditions but I don’t really notice any difference.

I have a tool/fix-a-flat/accessory pouch under the seat but the FuelBelt FuelBox is another of my favorite accessories.  It’s the little thing you see right in front of the seat in the above picture, and it’s just large enough to hold a phone and a few other small things.  I wouldn’t recommend riding your bike and reaching down to unzip this and talking or texting on your phone of course.  But whether you just need to stop to answer a call quickly, take a picture, or grab it in an emergency; it makes it much, much easier and you don’t need to dismount to get it out of the underseat pouch or out your pocket.  There’s also a little waterproof insert inside it.  I think the FuelBelt FuelBox was really meant to hold energy bars for quick access and to mount up behind the stem of the bike, but the location I put it seemed to work best for me, and it fits my phone just right.

A very muddy road bike

A very muddy road bike

And wipe that bike down after a wet, slushy or wet-road ride!  And if you ride a lot in slushy or wet conditions consider a pair of bike fenders that you can put on fairly quickly, and the occasional cleaning with a bike chain cleaner.  And remember that just because the road is wet doesn’t mean that it’s clean-wet, road moisture is full of chemicals from cars, dirt and mud and grime, and sand and salt in Winter times and areas.  Take a look at my pic to the right – this was during an unusually warm patch in our Northern NY winter and after a night of heavy rain.  The road’s looked just wet, but the water on the road was laced with mud, dirt, and salt.  The bike got a good bath after this, a cleaning of the moving parts, and a re-lube.

In conclusion – use your judgement and if you feel it’s too cold then just don’t do it.  If you think you can go outside and do a run or a ride wear proper clothes, make sure your core keeps warm especially as well as your extremities.  And every few miles do a full body check – start with your head and work down, wiggling and moving whatever you can.  If something feels too cold take a break, get out of the  wind, stop and move the body part around if possible, and if it’s really bad don’t try to be a hero – just call someone to pick you up or get in somewhere warm.

Prepared and ready to go

Prepared and ready to go


Addendum 11/17/2014

I’ve learned a few things since I wrote this blog post, and I recently wrote a bit about winter biking on a forum I frequent so I thought I’d repost it here also.

I cut my biking off as soon as it snows or there is snow on the road or on the shoulder, it’s such dangerous riding compared to rain or something else. Though I know some people use studded tires and such, but usually when we start getting snow we get it pretty heavily here in northern NY. The brother of an acquaintance has been hit a multitude of times because he rides his bike everywhere, including in the snow.

Otherwise as long as the roads are clear I use my regular road bike with 23 mm Michelin treadless grippy tires, I usually don’t even mess with the air. Or I use my other road bike with 28 mm generic tires with light tread, especially if it’s a bit wet. If I’m stuck out and it starts snowing a bit or gets a little slushy I dump 5 or 10 pounds from the high pressure tubes, just to make sure.

But below freezing there is a certain amount of loss of friction on even a clear road.

During Winter months and early Spring I always wipe my bike down afterwards, even if it’s a sunny day with no moisture on the road. There’s always some little bit of puddle or bit of moisture that I have ridden through at some point that’s thrown up salty, greasy, rusty water onto the bike somewhere.

And each Spring I get out my bike cleaning brushes and chain cleaning widget and do all three of my bikes. Even a clean-looking chain usually leaves the chain cleaner fluid dark and dirty.

For clothes for me it’s a matter of finding the balance between the number of layers I need and the temps/wind for certain ranges of temps. Even the difference between mid-40 degree temps and mid-30 degree temps affects how much I wear, it seems to me the wind chill is such a bigger factor than when I ride in shirt-sleeve temps of course. But it gets down to 20’s or 10’s and it’s pretty much just put on as many layers as comfortable, no matter what the wind is.

I think you really have got to avoid the wool, for any part of the body, it’s warm but it’s not breathable once it gets wet and even in the winter you want to let your body’s natural heat exchange system work properly. Sometimes you can get some good performance out of man-made wicking clothes that also have a small amount of wool for insulation, you get a bit of both worlds there.

And you want to avoid things that really constrain you tightly, it’s good to have a tight moisture wicking layer but putting on tight gloves or two many socks in your shoes or something like that is a bad thing, if it’s constrained you decrease your blood flow to that body part and you’ll be cold. Maybe even chafe, or have that body part fall asleep on you from the constraint, maybe not even notice it if it gets cold.

I think the two biggest things with dressing for biking in the winter is A) layers and B) dressing so that you’re are a bit cool at the beginning of your ride, as you will warm up.

It’s all about layering, and making sure the outer layers have some space between them and are not skin-tight, while having a tight moisture wicking inner layer. Lay moisture wicking clothes underneath and over the top layer heavier warmer insulated clothes that still allow a slow wicking action, and if needed cover it all with a windproof wind breaker sort of thing.

I say ‘if needed’ because there’s been times when I have been riding in fairly cold temps but the addition of a very light but windproof wind breaker is enough to hold in enough heat to really make me way TOO warm.

Basically – you want to wick the moisture away from your body but hold the heat generated by your body within the layers, and stop any heat loss from wind chill if the temps are very low or the wind is very high.

If you’re watching your budget (or are just cheap like me) a good rule of thumb that I have found is that you can get the inner layers (long legged lycra pants and moisture wicking shirts) for pretty cheap, and then figure on paying a little more for the insulated stuff like biking pants and wind breakers and insulated but wicking middle layers.

You can also get shoe covers and helmet covers, these suckers work great, almost a necessity. I love my neon yellow bike helmet cover, heh.

You lose almost a third of your heat through your head so a beanie, the helmet, and a helmet cover should work for pretty much any temps. I like the beanie that can be rolled up around the sides if needed and still fit under the helmet, but also rolled down over the ears if it’s cooler.

These beanies are good for middling cool temps, but ear muffs/covers are a must-have for real cold conditions. I am careful with these as you don’t want to get one that blocks out too much sound, and some of them inadvertently do this. It’s a fine line between getting one that is warm but not too opaque to sound.

And I use a neck warmer, a long one is great because you can roll it down just around your neck if it’s just cool, and if it’s really bad you can roll it right up over and around your cheeks, back of the neck to the bottom of your helmet with the ear muff band against it in the back, and it can extend down under the collar of your windbreaker quite far to keep out any wind that will shoot down there. And if needed you can pull it right up around your chin or even over your nose. That’s why I like the real long ones.

Also, consider a balaclava or better yet a convertible balaclava.  One guy I know uses one of these along with ski goggles; this way he is completely covered from head to toe.

The shoe covers usually fit over any shoe, and for those who use shoeclips they come with a slot in the bottom. A few times I have actually worn heavy hiking boots when I wasn’t going more than 15 or 20 miles. I have good form so the high ankles didn’t bother me as I pedal but I wouldn’t want to ride a long distance like that I guess.

You can stick your feet in plastic bags before putting them in your biking shoes if you don’t want shoe covers, you’ll be amazed at the difference that can make in keeping your feet warm. But, just like wearing wool socks, you’ll find that your feet can feel like they are swimming in sweat after a bit. Though unlike wool the plastic bag will usually not let that trapped moisture get real cold. But you’re better off wearing a moisture wicking sock, your shoes, and a show cover to wick the moisture away from your feet but hold the warmth in and stop the wind chill from getting in.

Shoe covers do look a bit odd, but better than having cold feet.  They make just toe covers too, I haven’t tried these but I imagine they work well as that’s where most of the wind resistant/wind chill is.

I also use pants clips to make sure the outer pants don’t slide up as I ride, especially with having another layer underneath they can tend to do that and you’ll start feeling a draft on your ankles.

The biking sleeves/arm warmers and leg warmers are good, especially in middle cool conditions because you can use them to keep arms and legs warm without having a lot of layers over top.

They do sell handlebar hoods (some with hand warmers) to stick your hands in while you ride but a good insulated glove made for working outdoors, or especially made for biking or a mitten is going to work well.

My wife has a pair that has inner fingers, and an outer mitten over it, and they work well for her. I know some people use large mittens and fit gloves inside them but it’s pretty bulky. There’s a lot of windproof and insulated biking gloves out there. I guess for me that’s one of the hardest things to get right as you need something warm for long periods of time when you are not moving your hands, but if you need to grab a brake or shift quickly you don’t want to be too constrained either.

Don’t forget to either wear biking shorts underneath or make sure the long biking underwear or lycra pants you use underneath have padding. Since your rear is in one place and never moves surprisingly it can get pretty cold and sometimes you might not even notice it, so it’s good to make sure you have your regular padding both for comfort and a little insulation.

And I always make sure I stop once in a while, get off the bike, and stand there for a few seconds becoming fully aware of each part of my whole body, moving things a bit, and making sure nothing is too cold, nor has has fallen asleep (I think we tend to move less when we’re wrapped up for the cold), or needs some movement.

Update October 2015

I thought I’d add a bit to this posting as I have learned some things over the years.  A few things…

About keeping your ears warm, there’s a ton of things you can do. Probably one of the most popular is to just use ear warmers. The ear part fits below the helmet, and the arched part goes behind your head, below the rear edge of the helmet.  Here’s a link for a bunch of these.

You can also see there are the insulated ones that wrap around the whole forehead/back of the head/ears. These wrap-around ones work also but you have to position them below the edge of the helmet, or on some people it might be too low so you have to loosen your helmet so it goes over the top edge of it.

You can also use a biking cap or skullcap that is long enough to fit down over the ears.  Like this one.

In really cold weather you want an ear warmer or insulated wrap-around but for moderately cool temps these work great, they come down over your ear and also cover your head for warmth. You do have to slightly adjust your helmet fit but they don’t have the thickness of a hat, so they don’t take up a lot of space under your helmet. Downside – they look a little like a swimming cap but once your helmet is on you can only see the ear part.

If you get a regular one you can fold up the edges so it doesn’t go over your ears and use it as a sweatband under your helmet in warmer temps.

They also make insulated ones, again – your helmet would have to be slightly adjusted larger but they don’t take up a lot of space.

Sometimes in freezing cold temps I wear one of these down over my ears, and the ear warmers over it.

Also, depending on where you are – if it gets cold enough you might want a helmet cover. These go over the whole helmet and block the vents without affecting the helmet’s safety. Here’s a link to some.  They fit real tight so it takes a bit to get them on the helmet but they are worth it, they’ll make your helmet relatively toasty – especially if you are putting some some effort into the ride.

With one of these helmet covers, a biking cap, and ear warmers you are set for pretty low temps. I live in Northern NY near the Canadian border and we have some terribly cold, windy days when there’s no snow on the road so I will still break out the bike for a quick ride.  I use a helmet cover, biking skullcap, and a balaclava around my whole face, and maybe googles and ear warmers too.

But at that point my enjoyment of biking becomes problematic so I usually stick to the bike trainer or stationary inside if it gets that cold 😉

About warming your breathing air, etc – from what I understand of the mechanism of what causes problems, decreasing performance, and extra effort with exercising in cold air as well as problems with those with asthma is that it is primarily the cold moisture in the air that is the issue.

Just from my own reading and research, and my own experience as a person who bikes and runs outside in cold weather – a simple lower face nose/mouth face protector filters out the cold moisture.

Your lungs are still breathing cool air but now your body’s natural mechanisms that have evolved to warm the air in the lungs can do their job instead of trying to fight the freezing moisture droplets that are being inhaled.  It’s a huge difference when you put one of these on, and they don’t ‘clog’ up with ice like using a scarf or something like that. Though in very cold temps, below freezing, you do have to smack it occasionally to knock the ice off of it.

In very cold temps I usually use a balaclava that is made out of the same material and in addition to covering the my nose, mouth, and lower face it also covers the whole head except for the eyes as well as the neck – the neck of which I find affects how well my body can warm the air I am inhaling. I start riding at a good clip on a very cold day and my exposed neck gets very cold, and something around it like a convertible balaclava or modern-materialed neck protector makes a lot of difference too.

Gloves; I believe that that is something that you may have to try various ones out to find what works for you, and what works for you during one the first part of the cooler season probably won’t work for you later in the season.

Try a local sporting goods store or Walmart so that you can take the item back if it doesn’t work for you.

For the later Fall I usually just use regular fingerless biking gloves or full-finger mountain biking gloves. These are good to have when it’s just a bit cool, or earlier in the season when it’s cooler towards evening or in the morning, or just to have around in case you are taking a longer ride and your hands get sore, or you have a blister or other hand injury, or it’s raining and you need more grip.

But for colder riding some people use regular Thinsulate insulated gloves, some use sports gloves that give you more flexibility, some even use mittens, and (like my wife) have to have the mittens that have the fingers inside them – which gives you better flexibility and insulation.  Heck, you can even get hand protectors/bar end mittens that fit right over the ends of your handlebar.

Marc M

I am a web developer and fitness geek, but I have a heck of a lot of differing interests.  Biking, the Internet, technology, movies, fitness, running and walking and hiking, science fiction, photography, graphics, WordPress, flying and aircrafts, pets and animals, history, and much more.  I like to stay very fit but I don’t mind sitting at my computer for work and play either.  I live in upstate New York (that’s far from New York City) in a rural area, yet close to a small city, with my beautiful awesome wife, a bunch of beloved cats and dogs and chickens in a very old multi-century house.

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