Running in the Polar Vortex? How to Stay Safe

If you’re determined to run outside during the winter, watch your step and dress the part.

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This time of year, the country is dealing with a massive Arctic blast of cold weather that has many runners heading to the gym for a treadmill. With wind chills plunging below zero degrees, a treadmill sounds like a fantastic idea. I personally can't stand a treadmill, but it's the best option during extreme cold and ice storms.

However, during regular seasonal cold weather, is running safe?

Most experts agree that running during cold weather is safe as long as we take precautions against illness and injury. Here are a few things to keep in mind when setting out for a long winter's run.

1. Watch your step. Keep to a route that is familiar to you. Exploring a winter wonderland is fun, but not when you're training for your next marathon. Save the exploring for a nice day hike. When you're running, so many things are happening at once and running while on edge can create a nagging injury. Watch for icy patches and snow-covered mischief. Puddles may not be puddles. A very thin layer of ice is almost impossible to see. Tread lightly in icy weather.

[Read: How to Exercise in Cold Weather.]

2. Dress for the part. One mistake many beginners make is wearing too much clothing. You want to wear layers that you can peel off as you start to sweat. What you do not want is a soaking wet cotton shirt against your skin. Wear clothing that wicks sweat and dries quickly. A good investment is a wind-resistant jacket for those days of sustained winds. Whatever you decide to wear, keep in mind that about 10 minutes into your run, you will be about 20 degrees warmer. Keep your feet warm with sock liners under wool socks, shoes with weather protecting materials like Gore-Tex and even disposable heat inserts.

3. Protect the extremities. Heat is rapidly lost through our heads. Even if we are adapted to the cold and need minimal layers, headgear is extremely important. Wear a sweat-wicking beanie or hat, preferable one that lightly covers the ears but still allows you to hear your surroundings. That's a tall order, but if I had to choose head or ears, I would choose to protect my head. As much as 30 percent of our body heat is lost through our heads during sustained cold exposure. After covering your head, find something for your hands. Frostbite starts with the body parts farthest away from your core. While you're running, your arms are often bent at an angle, which limits blood flow even on a great weather day. Add in subzero temps, and those fingertips are not getting adequate blood flow to protect from frost bite. Cover your hands. Start with a layer of wicking material. If it's extremely cold or windy, add a pair of wool or synthetic mittens.

[Read: What to Eat After Running.]

4. Protect your eyes. If there's snow on the ground, you want to prevent damage from the sun reflecting off the ground, especially at higher elevations. Polarized sunglasses will help. Keep a pair close by.

5. Warm up, but not too much. There are two conflicting opinions about warming up during cold weather. Warming up inside allows your muscles to gradually get moving and the blood flowing. Warming up slowly outside will prevent sweating. Use your best judgment. If you choose to do an inside warmup, keep it light. The last thing you want is to start a run already sweating.

[Read: How to Get the Most Out of Long Runs.]

6. Wind sprints. The rule of thumb is to run into the wind first. Save the tailwind for the second half of your run. Generally, you'll be sweating on the second half, and you want the wind at your back. In high-wind-chill degrees, make sure your face is protected. Use sunscreen, deep-moisturizing face cream and a scarf or full-face balaclava (think ski mask).

7. Stay hydrated. This is always a rule. Hydration is important in hot, cold, snowy, windy and perfectly calm weather. During the winter, take steps to protect your water bottle from icing. There are a number of containers that prevent freezing, as well as bottle covers to keep it cool, not frosty.

[Read: 4 Exercises Trainers Hate.]

No matter what your winter running preference, keep in mind that safety is key, injury is a slippery step away and bragging rights for braving the ice is just not worth months in traction. Be smart, stay hydrated and enjoy that post-run shower and mug of hot chocolate.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns and feedback.

Katrina Plyler is a full-time teacher and part-time runner, blogger and amateur photographer. She is a regular contributor to the Cooking Light Blogger's Connection and has been featured in Fitness magazine. Her food photography is regularly accepted in Tastespotting.com and Foodgawker.com galleries. For more information on the daily adventures of teaching, running and cooking, check out her blog, Katrina Runs for Food.