Now that it’s cold, you need a better warm-up

As Chicago temps have now dropped to their traditional late-autumn 20’s and 30’s Fahrenheit, my hands and feet are now feeling quite cold at the start of runs.

Previously, it only took 1-2 miles before the generated heat of my running warmed my hands and feet back to normal. But during the last couple runs, I’ve found it taking as long as 30 minutes for my feet to warm up to normal.

That’s a long time to tempt frostbite in your feet. And keep in mind it’s been mostly dry. If I was running through slush or snow, the resulting moisture could have exacerbated the problem.

Did something change? Am I suffering from circulation problems?

No way. The answer is simple: I’ve gotten fitter, and that ironically has made warming up on cold-weather runs harder.

In previous years, regular runs required a greater effort from me than they do now. That greater effort means more heat, which with normal run-elevated circulation warms your limbs up sooner.

While better fitness means faster paces at easier effort, the easier effort doesn’t produce warmth as quickly, meaning those cold hands and feet are going to stay cold longer unless I push the pace hard (which for various reasons I’d rather not do in these runs).

Now, acclimation will help. As I grow accustomed to being out in the cold, my body will better sustain comfort or warmth in cold weather. By January I will probably not need 30 minutes of running to comfortably warm in clear conditions.

In the interim, however, this isn’t going to fly. With trail races coming up this winter, I will be facing some non-clear conditions and thus need to figure out how to warm up quickly.

I’m not about to tire and wear myself out with tempo sprints and strides before every long run, overheating myself before the real workout starts just to get my feet warm. There has to be a better way.

And there is.

Before every speed or tempo workout, you generally execute a warmup. Many runners even do a full warmup before every run. I generally don’t warm up unless it’s a speed or tempo workout. And even then, I still have that wait period of trying to warm up cold extremities, which still takes 20-30 minutes in the cold regardless of what strides or exercises I’m doing.

However, what if you did a warm up routine indoors and got yourself overtly warm before heading out into the cold?

This doesn’t necessarily require sprinting either.

If you have an aerobic routine that you know can quickly get you sweating in regular temperatures… how about doing 5 minutes of that in your home or wherever before you go outside to start the workout? Get yourself a little too hot, put on your gear, and then that will offset the bitter cold you step out into. Plus, with your circulation elevated, you’ll already have warm blood flowing through your hands and feet, preventing them from immediately getting cold.

Instead of trying to warm up through the first 30 minutes of a workout, I can front-load the warmth with a brief exercise routine like, say, exercises from Adam Rosante’s 30 Second Body routines, or the Runner’s 360 from Build Your Running Body. I could even do something less intense like Pilates, push ups, or relatively deliberate burpees.

I would just need to make sure I’m going just hard enough to break a sweat in room temperature. Obviously I’m not going to go all out, or too long, if I’m doing this to warm up for a run. I’m using full body exercises I know would kick my ass in a full workout, but only doing them for a few brief minutes to warm up.

I may be a tiny bit worse for wear when the run starts, sure. But most regular and warmup runs, even the long runs, are easy intensity anyway. It’s just a bit more physical demand on a typical workout.

Plus, if most of the effort is concentrated in the upper body, it won’t affect running as much since the lower body does the work on runs. Any incidental core or lower body work can also serve as a warmup for those muscles too.

For runners who like to strength train after their workouts, they can curtail that post-run training and maybe put a bit of it up front for their warm up. Keep it low stress on your muscles, but push yourself enough to break a sweat in room temperature. The cold air outside will cancel out any overheating.

If you have home equipment like an exercise bike or an elliptical, then doing this becomes easier. Just get on your machine and go at it for a few minutes. Break a sweat, then layer up and get out there.

So, if you hate cold hands and feet, your best bet is to take other aerobic exercise and use that indoors to warm up before you head outside. You won’t need that first mile or first 30 minutes to warm yourself back up if you’re already warm at your first step.

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