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I grew up in some downright cold places: Vermont and Maine, to be exact. And because it’s cold there pretty much seven months of the year, residents really have no choice but to face the weather and figure out how to get outside and enjoy themselves (it’s the reason why snow sports were invented)!
As a runner, I’ve found one of the best ways to force myself out into the cold is having a buddy who is ridiculously enthusiastic about doing everything with me, has no problem with cold, wet noses, and is always up for an adventure: my dog!
That’s right, having a dog can help motivate you to get off the couch and trade in those fuzzy slippers for some good old-fashioned running shoes. And the best thing about winter running is that unlike most winter sports, you and your dog come pre-equipped with just about everything you need—so the investment is minimal, but the memories and bonds you’ll create are forever.
Benefits of Winter Running
Winter is a time when we can fall into a more sedentary lifestyle, which has drawbacks for both us and our dogs. Just as it’s tempting for us to get cozy, cuddle up, and avoid going out into the cold, it’s just as easy for your dog to pack on the pounds in the winter if she’s enjoying all that leftover Christmas roast beef and not getting steady exercise.
While you can try any number of expert-recommended activities with your dog in winter (have you heard of skijoring?), if you enjoy running, with a few adjustments to your schedule, you and your dog can keep up your regular running routine.
Running helps to maintain a dog’s weight and keep her mind sharp, and maintaining a steady year-round exercise schedule can be very important for her overall health and hardiness.
For you, running is one of the best ways to work your cardiovascular system, get your heart rate elevated for a sustained amount of time, and build endurance. It is known for unlocking endorphins, managing weight, and helping to maintain healthy eating and a good overall lifestyle.
Besides these obvious benefits, there is the benefit of companionship and the special relationship that can develop when you and your dog do things together.
Of all seasons, winter and summer can be the most difficult for running with your dog, due to the extremes of temperature and weather. We’ll help you prep for what you might encounter in the winter season, regardless of where you call home.
Winter Running 101
Prepare for the Climate
Temperatures in the winter can have significant variability. In the summer, we are often asking ourselves, “How hot is too hot to exercise my dog?” In the winter, you’ll struggle with the opposite question. A good rule of thumb is: if it’s too cold for you, it’s too cold for your dog. Alternately, if you can tolerate the temperature, your dog probably can too.
The dangers of the cold are very real: frostbite, windburns, and exposure. Stick to known routes and have contingency plans. Do not venture too far off the beaten path in just your running gear. And remember that your dog is much closer to the ground than you, and can get cold much faster.
Hypothermia can be life-threatening, and it doesn’t take much to become vulnerable to it. Dogs can also be susceptible to hypothermia, and according to Ari Aycock-Williams, D.V.M, the symptoms of hypothermia in dogs is similar to humans. Stay dry, let people know where you are going, and keep a pace that is fast enough to keep you warm, but slow enough not to exhaust you.
Some regions such as the Northeast, upper Midwest, mountain regions and Alaska are going to be downright cold, so in these regions it’s vital to be prepared with the right gear, and to time your run accordingly. Running with a group is a great way to practice safety in numbers; areas such as New England offer various opportunities for dog-friendly outdoor fun.
The milder Mid-Atlantic and southern states can be ideal for running, and some trails may stay open year-round. Winter outdoor activities are usually not too hard to find, and there’s plenty of dog-friendly spaces for running.
The Southwest is one of those areas where runners enjoy outdoor activity year-round, however, be aware of the winter wildlife, especially on those warm days when reptiles love to come out and sun themselves. (Check out this important information preventing snakebites.)
Live in Hawaii or another region where winter is generally sunny and pleasant compared to the rest of the nation? Do us a favor, and when you go out, think of us and send well-wishes our way!
Warming up is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and your dog when getting ready to run in low temperatures. Cold bodies do not perform well and are more prone to injuries. A slow, easy warm-up is one of the best tricks to set you and your dog off on the right foot/paw (see my other running guide for detailed instructions on how to warm-up and stretch your dog; anything that exaggerates a natural motion is something that will work, such as a 30-meter acceleration, or chasing after a ball or frisbee).
I like to do what I call “active stretching” in colder weather, a combination of basic warm-up activities such as calisthenics, jumping jacks, and high knees with movements that help stretch me out, keeping me warm and my heart pumping. You could also warm-up with activities such as planks, push-ups, and squats, a set of lunges followed by some leg-swings, or just a 5-10 minute run at a slow pace, but always stretch after you have warmed your muscles up; this goes for you and your dog.
Your warm-up and stretching should be slow and deliberate (and you should select stretches that are done from a standing position to avoid getting wet, because wet=cold and cold=miserable. And you can’t enjoy yourself while miserable).
The worst thing you can do is start out fast. In the winter when there’s little moisture in the air and your joints and muscles are stiffer, it will wear you out early, and you’ll probably feel a nice burning sensation in your lungs from that cold air. And the more uncomfortable you are, the less likely you are to continue or to make a habit out of winter running. Don’t put the brakes on before you even start—be sure to do an adequate warm-up!
Once you are suited up, the last thing to do before you start your run is to check your pup’s paws, especially if there is snow or ice on the ground. Make sure the pads of her feet are clean and clear of any snow or debris.
Consider Available Running Surfaces
In the winter, depending on your location, good running surfaces will be more challenging to find. If you are running on the road, be aware of how much salt has been laid on the surface, and be sure to wash it off your dog’s paws when you get home. Blacktop can also be icy (hence the salt), and ice is probably going to be one of your biggest concerns (keep in mind chemical deicers can be harmful to your dog’s paws; it’s worth considering a set of booties for your dog if she’ll tolerate them).
A trick about running on the pavement is that all roads are highest in the middle and slope gently toward the sides. Because of this, the center of a road is often more clear of moisture and ice than the sides. If your roads are not busy, this may help you avoid ice.
Keep in mind you and your dog navigate ice differently; be sure that you have control over your pup so she doesn’t pull you faster than you want to go over potentially icy surfaces.
Running on trails will likely be your biggest challenge; look for trails and paths where a vehicle has already made tracks, such as a snowmobile, or a groomed surface for snowshoers or cross country skiers that allows for pedestrians and their dogs (usually a sign at the trailhead or parking lot will let you know). REI has more ideas here about how to prepare for the various conditions of winter trail running.
Keep a Realistic Pace
Pacing is always an important part of a running regimen. You may find that you need to tailor your expectations in colder weather, particularly if you will be running on less-than-ideal surfaces. Keep a pace and choose a distance that fits you and your dog’s ability and the limitations of the season (and remember that night comes early this season, so start early or be prepared with warm, reflective clothing to run at night).
Sometimes running in the winter is more about just the act of getting outside and enjoying nature (which is said to help with the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder in both humans and dogs) and less about going for improvements in distance and time.
Beware of Post-Run Chills
This is something that you won’t as easily encounter in other seasons, but it’s one of the side effects of running in cold weather. The sweat that builds up on your clothes and body will freeze pretty quickly once you stop moving. Be sure to time the end of your run so that you are near a place where you can get warm and dry.
The same goes for your dog! She will build up moisture from the ground (remembers, she’s way closer to the elements than you are just because of her height). Have a plan to get her warm and dry quickly if you are running in cold temperatures, keep an absorbent towel in the car or in the mudroom, and consider a waterproof coat. A cool-down period may be warranted, but make sure you do it close to home.
Have Fun and Proceed With Caution
Cold, ice, and snow: these are going to be the biggest concerns for both you and your dog when running in winter. Your dog can’t tell you when she’s cold, and she will be vulnerable to her instincts (exerting all her energy chasing wildlife; running through puddles or into water). You’ll need to make sure she has boundaries to her activity to prevent everything from exhaustion and dehydration to hypothermia.
In some regions, hunting season can extend into the winter months. Know the laws in your area and where hunting activity takes place. Go above and beyond to be highly visible, and consider reflective gear and lighting.
Remember that dogs are more sensitive to exertion in the beginning and end stages of their lives. Take special precautions if you have a young dog, particularly if she is a large breed, or a dog who is in the second half of her expected life span. Young dogs should be exercised with caution until they have reached their full size, as too many miles early on can cause damage to their growing joints.
Similarly, older dogs are going to be susceptible to injuries. Winter is probably not the best time to start an exercise routine or to increase miles, but it’s no excuse to avoid the basic maintenance to keep you or your dog in shape.
As always, if you have any questions about your dog’s exercise routine, ask your vet about what is best.
Top 9 Accessories for Running in the Winter With Your Dog
Now that you know how to go running with your dog safely in the winter, here are some helpful gear suggestions to help your pup (and you!) suit up for a successful winter run.
This simple, easy-to-put on winter dog jacket has everything you’d want for your canine winter run buddy: it’s waterproof, fleece-lined for warmth, has a convenient harness-attachment hole, and is reflective to keep her visible on winter’s short days.Shop Now
These dog boots come in multiple sizes and are secure, rugged, and adjustable. These booties help to keep your dogs’ feet dry and clear of debris on difficult terrain and wet surfaces.Shop Now
This protective wax helps to protect your dog’s paw pads from salt and snow and is specifically designed for dry and tough winter conditions. It contains vitamin E to help soothe and heal any injuries on the paws.Shop Now
This LED lighted leash is USB rechargeable and comes in six colors for visibility and safety.Shop Now
The Snout Soother is 100% organic healing salve that works to soothe chapped noses and to protect from further damage. Safe for humans too!Shop Now
This heavy-duty coat will help to protect against the elements, but also comes in bright orange to double as visibility gear. The coat is designed for maximum mobility, which is a great quality in a running coat.Shop Now
This LED harness can be set to any of eight colors and provides 360-degree visibility up to a half-mile. Adjustable and easy to put on, this harness is washing-machine safe, so no need to worry about getting it wet during your winter runs.Shop Now
These emergency blankets are small and lightweight (and could even fit in the pocket of your dog’s coat) and might be something to consider if your winter running takes you off the beaten path.Shop Now
Running hands-free can be quite helpful in the cold. This adjustable, heavy-duty, hands-free belt provides good-sized waterproof pockets for storage.Shop Now