Last month was National Running Safety month. But so is this month…and next month…and the next one. Safety is something to take seriously every day. As runners we put ourselves out into the elements, often times in extreme conditions. As the temps in the northeast get colder and winter settles in there are new challenges for keeping safe out there while we do that thing we love. Taking some simple precautions can make sure we get to the starting line alive and healthy, well-trained, and at our best.

Dress for Success

Dress for the job you want. I’ve heard that bit of sound advice for going into a job interview. The same holds true for running and this case the “job” I want is to be ALIVE.

First thing to do is check the weather. This may sound obvious, but there is a lot more to the weather than just the temperature. Pay attention to the relative humidity, wind chill, and how the weather will change throughout your run (especially if you are going long). I have taken 3-4 hour runs where it was 15 at the start and 45 by the end. Know what you may be up against so you can prepare.

Cold weather

The goal is not to dress for the temperature outside, but to dress for how I will feel after running 1-2 miles.  This takes a little practice. Maybe 25 degrees feels cold for just a base layer shirt and tights, but after I get moving I am perfectly comfortable.

Take into account the windchill! That same 25 degrees with a 15 mph wind means I’ll need an extra shirt or 3/4 zip over my base layer and thicker pants.

And the humidity! The higher the humidity the less sweat will evaporate. During hot weather this means you won’t cool efficiently. During cold weather all that extra moisture will get extra cold if you stop moving.

When your body gets cold the first place it slows circulation to is the extremities. Your body is smart. It will pull blood to your core to keep the organs warm. Your body knows you can survive without a hand or foot, but not without a heart or liver. So if you are going to err in your dress than err on the side of over dressing. You can always shed a layer or two.


Who has two thumbs and is alive in sub-zero windchills after running for 4 hours? This guy!

For me, gloves are a necessity for my when it dips below 50 degrees. My hands and feet are always cold. I have a number of different gloves and styles with varying insulating properties for what temperatures and conditions I’ll face on my run.  When it is really cold the mittens come out and hand warmers in those when it gets around zero or colder.


The cold, dry air can burn your lungs. Wear a buff over your mouth or a mask. It will help moisturize the air and  buffer these effects. Also, I use ski goggles in the extreme cold (under 10 degrees with negative windchills). Any exposed skin must be protected in some way in extreme conditions whether it be heat or cold. A layer of Vaseline smeared over the skin can help protect you from wind burn.

Don’t forget to hydrate! When it is cold it is easy to forget to hydrate. The cold, dry air can cause dehydration  faster than warm and moist air.  If you are running long and need hydration this can take special consideration in the cold. Your water may freeze! Plus drinking cold water will lower your core temp which may not be good if your dress is not on point. How to keep your liquid…well…liquid? Put room temperature fluids in your bottles. If there is a way to keep that bottle under a few layers close to your body that will help. Also, electrolytes drinks! It is just like salting the roads. The salt lowers the freezing point of water below 32 degrees and will do the same in your bottle.  I use Hammer Heed, but Gatorade or any other electrolyte drink will help.

The type of hydration system can also play in. If you are using a bladder you’ll want an insulated one with an insulated hose. After you drink make sure to blow the water out of the tube back into the reservoir. Your insulated water won’t help if the hose is a solid block of ice. Hip bottles will freeze quicker since there is a smaller quantity of liquid to cool. I will keep one or two bottles in a thin jacket under my first layer in extreme cold temperatures.

And finally, know your limits. Some temps are just too cold! Take it indoors on a treadmill or have a cross training day. As runners, most of us could use more cross training.

Lace Up

You have your 3 layers on, mittens, a buff over your face, two pairs of socks and now it is time to see if you are dressed properly. How do you do this with minimal risk? Keep it close to home, your car, or shelter of some sort. Choose short loops maybe starting out with only a 1-2 mile loop. You can add or lose layers and lengthen those loops out as you continue. Also, this can be a benefit for hydration. Keep a hand warmer and water in an insulated bag or cooler, but make sure to wrap that hand warmer in a cloth. They CAN melt your plastics.

Other Hazards

For us in the northeast weather is one of the most serious hazards this time of year, but there are plenty of other dangers to be aware of. Traffic, people, wildlife, and eating 23 donuts in a day because a chart told you that you could if you run a marathon. These are just a few things to keep in mind. Be smart out there with a few simple tips.

Can you see me now?

Wear high-visibility clothing

The brighter the better! The goal is to be seen. Whether you are on a country road or in a big city staying visible is vital to staying safe. Along with your hi-viz gear throw some flashy lights and reflective elements into the mix for night runs. Now that you look like a Christmas tree that went shopping for clothes at K-mart in 1985 it is time to adjust the frame of mind.

Assume no one sees you

You just went through all this trouble to be visible so why assume no one sees you? Simply put, some people won’t see you and all it takes is one! People are more distracted than ever when behind the wheel. With more and more folks gluing their eyes to a cell phone screen than the road take no chances!

Run facing traffic and stay on the shoulder or off the road as much as possible. This isn’t a hard rule though. The goal is visibility. So DON’T run facing traffic around a blind curve. Switch sides of the road so that a driver has the greatest chance of seeing you. Then switch back when it is safe to do so. Always look for spots to get off the road quick if needed.

Choose your routes carefully.

Maybe that winding country road with no shoulder isn’t the best place to run. If you don’t want to have to break your pace up look for a local trail where traffic and roads won’t be an issue. Here in Pittsburgh we have a few Rails to Trails paths that have limited elevation and are perfect for safe runs. The Montour Trail, Greater Allegheny Passage, and Butler-Freeport Trail are great for long runs and speed work. Many parks have walking paths and here is a secret…you can run on them too.

Let someone know where you are going, when you plan to be back, and carry a fully charged cell phone.


Especially in the city other pedestrians can be a hazard. Try and be polite to the folks out there going about their day. Cutting people off or expecting them to move out of your way isn’t helping you or them. I often attend group runs where I see runners forging out into traffic without the right of way followed by a small crowd. Follow the same rules you would if you were walking. No one likes breaking up their stride every few blocks, but that is part and parcel of running downtown.

Be aware of your surroundings and if you are running alone carrying protection like mace is a great idea both for humans and dogs. Have it someplace accessible. In your hand and ready is best, but a pocket will suffice. Just be sure you can grab it quickly. Look people in the eye. Let them know you see them. A good friend Alyssa will shout a hardy hello and good morning at anyone she sees. It is disarming.  Predators look for the timid, those they perceive weakness in so be fierce!


Whether running in town, the country, or on trails animals can be a nuisance or an outright risk. I know many runners who have been bit by dogs. If you see a dog and it is not on a leash it is best to stop, hold your ground, and be prepared to defend yourself. Here is where a can of mace can go a long way again. If the dog is on a leash try to stay further out than the range of the animal.

In the woods on trails there are other animals to be concerned with. In some parts of the country bear mace is an ideal addition to your pack. Again, it needs to be quickly accessible.  Make a lot of noise. Most animals will be gone long before you ever get the chance to see them. I have run into a bear while on a run once. I am certain both I and the bear almost soiled our drawers before we both turned-tail and ran in opposite directions. They are more scared of us than us of them, but there are conditions where bears and other animals can be dangerous. Be prepared.


As we head into training for the Pittsburgh Marathon and spring racing keep these tips in mind and get to the starting line safe and ready to put your training to work!