Chicago is an exceptional place for running in the summer and fall seasons. The city’s wide-open recreational trails, beautiful skyline scenery, abundant daylight, pleasant temperatures, and frequent race opportunities nearly compel Chicagoans to choose running as the go-to aerobic activity. However, when it comes to the winter (and even early spring) months, the running landscape in Chicago is drastically different, posing challenges, including frigid temperatures, icy roads, and limited daylight hours. In this Movement Memo, we provide tips and guidance for how best to navigate winter running in Chicago.
Indoor vs. Outdoor Running
In the cold season, runners regularly debate whether to take their runs indoors. While running in nature or traversing cityscapes is often a welcomed reprieve from being cooped up inside, there are some real advantages to foregoing the outdoors. Treadmills, for example, allow runners to avoid the challenges of weather conditions, provide the convenience of real-time distance and pace tracking, and lend runner’s a more cushioned (and stable) surface. Another alternative modality is the indoor track. Indoor tracks offer a better sensation of freedom of movement than treadmills and are especially useful if tackling a “speed” workout (i.e., a faster-paced, interval type workout). Running indoors may spare us the challenges of inclement weather but, at the same time, may present a mental challenge when tackling longer runs. However, if safety is in question, indoor running is sometimes the only option.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, temperatures below -8°F (-27°C) are considered to be unsafe for running. In these conditions, real injury to skin and body tissues can occur in 30 minutes or less1. Because what one runner deems tolerable may be entirely different for another, we suggest that you follow the recommendations below to help you establish your own threshold for which conditions make running outdoors unsafe and undesirable.
Preparing for the Outdoors
When making a decision to run outdoors, always be sure to check the weather; specifically, look at temperature and chances of precipitation as well as wind speed and direction. The climate along with hydration, route choice, dress, and warm-up are critical factors in determining the quality and safety of your outdoor running experience throughout the winter.
Consistent hydration may not be as top-of-mind in the winter, but it is important to remember that the body still loses significant amounts of water via both sweat and expiration even when the temperatures outside are lower. Remain diligent in meeting daily hydration goals and maintain proper electrolyte balance to avoid dehydration and cramping. As a general guideline, we recommend consuming half your body weight in ounces of hydration each day plus an additional 16 ounces for every hour of exercise.
Choosing an Optimal Route
In the city
Chicago is home to two excellent recreational running paths, free of motor vehicle traffic. The Chicago Lakefront Path, an 18-mile paved route running north to south along Lake Michigan, and “The 606” Trail, a 2.7-mile elevated path running east to west in Wicker Park, are two of the best locations to run year-round within the city. Both paths are regularly cleared and salted within 12-24 hours of snowfall, and both feature overhead lights to illuminate pavement in the winter darkness. When making your way to and from these paths, plan your route to run on roads that are sufficiently plowed, salted, and have limited traffic. Always be aware of your limited visibility to vehicles while running in hours of darkness.
(Pro-tip: When running an ‘out-and-back’ route, run into the wind for the first half to avoid getting overly sweaty before turning head-on into frigid winds. It is also a mental carrot to dangle in the first half to enjoy a warmer, wind-aided second half of the run)
Outside of the city
For speedier runners that may have the Boston Marathon on their spring racing schedule, The Morton Arboretum2 is a great winter training location. Just north of I-88 in Lisle (30–45-minute drive from downtown), it offers paved asphalt road loops on undulating terrain in a scenic nature setting. The roads are typically well-plowed and make completing high-quality, long training runs feasible throughout the cold season. The Morton Arboretum offers yearly base membership pass with unlimited visits per year for $65, or a single-entry pass for $16.
Dress Appropriately for the Weather
The most effective means of preparing for running in winter conditions is to dress for the current and forecasted weather. The following section offers suggestions on how to approach each component of winter running attire:
- Base layers. Choose a thick, breathable, yet ideally form-fitting synthetic material garment to wear as your innermost layer. This allows your body to retain heat and wick away moisture from the skin. An effective innermost layer for (sub-)freezing temperatures is a ‘dri-fit’ mock turtleneck long sleeve. Nike® and Under Armour® make excellent products of this kind of base layer. Cotton materials retain heat but also easily absorb moisture, which can saturate the garment during exercise. Be thoughtful in determining how many layers are needed on top of your core layer to avoid excessive heat and cold. Breathable materials also work well in layers.
- Outer layer. Look for an outermost layer that has a water-resistant or water-reflective material, especially if precipitation or high winds are in the forecast. This kind of material works best to keep snow, ice, rain, and wind out while also keeping heat in. When running in the dark, consider wearing additional bright or reflective clothing, such as a reflective vest, hat, or gloves. Clip-on lights also make you more visible to motorists, cyclists, and other runners/pedestrians.
- Hats & Gloves. Runners’ preferences for wearing hats and gloves vary. It is just as common for runners to “run hot” and not need hats and gloves as it is for runners to “run cold” and need heavily insulated coverage for extremities. There are many excellent active hat and glove brands on the market. We suggest you discover which materials and thicknesses work best for your hats and gloves in the different types of winter conditions.
- Pants/Shorts. Similar personal variability exists for coverage of the lower body and legs. The lower body tends to not require as many layers or as extensive clothing as the upper body to keep warm. Split shorts, half-tights, or full tights often suffice at lower temperature ranges than what is needed to keep the upper body warm at the same temperatures. Synthetic material sweatpants or a cotton-blend pair of “joggers” can keep the legs adequately warm at temperatures below freezing.
- Socks. Look for socks that provide the best balance of breathability and comfortability in your shoes. Excellent brands of performance running socks in various thickness levels include Balega®, Stance®, and Feetures®. Quality running socks that keep your feet blister-free in all conditions are paramount to your outdoor winter running enjoyment.
- Shoes. There may only be a handful of days in which running in a trail shoe, or water-resistant shoe model is necessary. Such days may feature snowy, icy, or excessively wet conditions in which snowmelt creates significant standing water. Given that Chicagoland features predominantly paved surfaces, it is rare that many runs in and around the city will require thicker-soled trail shoes. However, if needed, most major shoe brands offer trail running or a version of water-resistant shoes. We encourage you to conduct your own assessment about whether the cost of separate trail shoes is worth the benefit of having warm feet on particularly soggy or frigid winter days.
Warm-Up and Stretch Adequately
Develop a dynamic pre-run stretch routine to allow the body to warm-up and prepare before stepping out into the cold. Be sure to target muscles and tendons of the lower legs (i.e., calf muscles and Achilles tendon) as these can be most susceptible to tightness in colder temperatures. Excellent insights for proper warm-up exercises and routines can be found in our previous blog, here.
Running outside through a Chicago winter presents unique challenges to even the most experienced and avid runners. Following these tips will help set you up for a successful season of winter running. Remember: plan a safe and enjoyable route on paved paths in the city, be deliberate in choosing warm, yet breathable clothing, and prioritize hydration along with a dynamic warm-up routine. We hope you take pride in the accomplishment of running through a Chicago winter—enduring Chicago’s tough winter months is woven into the fabric of this great city! Wishing you happy and healthy running through everything mother nature throws our way this winter.
Questions about your specific winter running needs? Reach out to your SHIFT team for guidance and more individualized insights.
In Real Health,
1. ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine). Information On… Exercising in Hot and Cold Environments. https://www.acsm.org/docs/default-source/files-for-resource-library/exercising-hot-cold-environments.pdf?sfvrsn=1b06c972_4 Accessed February 10, 2023.