Raynaud’s and Running

Post-run Raynaud's It’s 45°F outside and I’m ready to run, dressed in shorts, a t-shirt, and … mittens? I can happily run into the mid-30s in shorts, but my hands need coverage if it’s cooler than 55°. And regardless of what I do, my fingers will become white and immobile about 15 minutes after every chilly run.

Sound familiar? You might be one of the estimated 28 million people who experience Raynaud’s phenomenon.

What is Raynaud’s?

Raynaud’s is a disorder that disrupts the blood flow to your fingers, toes, nose, and ears due to a spasm in the blood vessels. The affected area turns white, then blue, then bright red over the course of the attack as blood flow is restricted and then returns. The spasms can cause tingling, swelling, or painful throbbing, and can last from minutes to hours.

The condition can manifest in a few ways: when exposed to cold temperatures from either cold air outside or air conditioning, or even from holding something cold. Interestingly enough, breastfeeding mothers sometimes experience this condition in their nipples.

Despite being discovered more than 100 years ago, there’s still not a lot known about Raynaud’s cause or cure. According to the Raynaud’s Association, women are nine times more likely to be affected than men. Some researchers estimate as many as 20% of all women in their childbearing years have Raynaud’s.

And, at least based on my informal surveying, it’s very common in runners. Of course, part of why it’s common in runners is because we often run outside in the exact conditions that cause symptoms. But you may also be aware that when you exercise, your body diverts blood flow from areas it doesn’t need it as much (skin, extremities, digestive system) to areas it does (lungs, heart).

“Exercising may shift blood away from the skin to the muscles,” Dr. Fredrick Wigley wrote for the New York Times. “During exercise, body parts, including the hands, are in need of more blood. Even though you may feel warm, if your skin is sensing cold, then the shift to the muscles and other parts of the body may be exaggerated.”

Should you see a doctor?

The Raynaud’s Association estimates only 1 in 10 people suffering from the condition seek medical treatment. If your attacks are infrequent and easily treated (like, um, remembering your gloves), it’s worth a mention to your primary care doctor at your next visit, but likely not a critical issue.

However, Raynaud’s can be a secondary condition related to other diseases including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, carpal tunnel syndrome, or frequent jackhammer use (totally relevant). If you’re concerned you may have one of those conditions, or your Raynaud’s seems to be worsening or doesn’t respond to conventional treatments, GO SEE YOUR DOCTOR.

By the way, in severe cases, the area may develop ulcerations and infections, which can lead to gangrene. You don’t want that. If you’re concerned, GO SEE YOUR DOCTOR!

It’s also worth noting that some people’s Raynaud’s attacks are triggered by stress or other highly-emotional situations.

How to control Raynaud’s 

Illustration from the Raynaud’s Association Inc., a great resource for more information.

No surprise here, but keeping your hands warm is the number one way to avoid an attack. It’s an experiment to find what works for you. I can do cheap dollar gloves from 40-55°, but below that, it’s mitten territory. My favorites are Smart Wool Cozy Mittens, which fit snugly and are a tight knit that keeps the wind out.

I’ve tried running-specific tech mittens, including one with a fold-over wind flap and a pair that has a fleece liner and windproof outer layer. Here’s the issue: they’re usually too big. If you have small hands, you need small mittens. Big mittens won’t keep your fingers together so the air isn’t trapped.

Raynaud’s sufferer Rachel Boehm, who ran the JFK 50 miler in 2014 to raise awareness of the condition, collected data before her race to find the best solution. She found that she overdressed out of fear of having her hands suffer, but then her upper body would sweat and the sweat trickling down to her hands made her hands colder than the air alone. So don’t overdress!

Other tips for preventing Raynaud’s phenomenon:

  • Use hand warmers, but be careful that your hands don’t get sweaty and then get cold.
  • Try gloves under mittens, especially if your mittens are too big.
  • Wool tends to retain heat better when wet, so wool mittens or gloves and socks are good options.
  • Avoid caffeine. Although it has been shown to boost athletic performance, caffeine also restricts blood vessels, which is kind of what we’re trying to avoid here.
  • Layer up! You want to keep your body warm, because under-dressing can cause your body to redirect blood flow to your core and away from your extremities. But you don’t want to be so warm that you sweat a lot and then get wet and cold. Dress so that you can take some pieces on and off, and stash dry gloves if you can. (My friends are used to finding my shed vests and gloves in their yards. On the upside, someone usually has a pair of my gloves ready for me!)
  • Lather on a thick lotion before you head out — this will help block the wind. I use Aquaphor on my hands, ears and face.
  • Compression socks and arm warmers may encourage better circulation.
  • As soon as you’re finished running, TAKE THE SPORTS BRA OFF, and the rest of your damp clothing, ASAP. Obviously you’re probably not going to take your sports bra off and then put the wet stuff back on, but the point here is to get that damp layer off quickly. Pack a dry sports bra or go bra-less, nobody will know under your sweatshirt anyway. (Going to the grocery after a chilly run in damp clothes is a sure-fire way to trigger Raynaud’s. Believe me.)
  • Check with your doctor to see if any of your current prescriptions might be aggravating the problem. There are also prescriptions that can reduce symptoms, including Viagra (not kidding).

Do you suffer from Raynaud’s? What are your best tips?

Started running in my early 20s and ended up running my first marathon 15 months later. Managed to break 3 hours in my 12th marathon. Pilates instructor passionate about the importance of your powerhouse in running and the mind/body connection. One husband, zero kids, mama to one Australian Shepherd.

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39 comments

    1. That would be good, too! Any of those thick balms, like bag balm, udderly smooth, cornhuskers, aquaphor, vasoline, etc. (I apparently know a lot of hand balms!)

      1. LOVE bag balm. That stuff is magic for dry skin. I wear a thick layer with cotton gloves to bed at least once a week in the winter.

        Fingerless gloves or long sleeves with thumb holes also seem to help (keeping my wrists warm does the trick). I also have to regularly stretch my hands and wrists to keep blood moving.

  1. Yes! This is my life!
    On Sunday night I ran outside and was perfectly warm for the whole run. I came home, put on dry, warm clothes, but my hands turned to ICE. No joke, I went into my supply of hand warmers, tore open a pack, and held one in each hand as I fell asleep. #ReynaudsProbs
    Also, I’m the person who is always wearing multiple glove/mitten combos.

    1. I end up with my hands under warm water in the sink while making a cup of coffee/tea! But agreed, even changing clothes doesn’t help. It must have to do with the circulation returning, somehow. #mysteries

  2. Jasmine puts latex gloves under wooly mittens to keep hands dry! She’s the one running around in a bra and shorts with giant crab claws! haha.

  3. Love this! I have dealt with this for years and just figured it was some weird thing about me. Two years ago, a girlfriend noticed my hands and told me I had Raynaud’s (she knew because she did too!). The two most effective things for me: 1) taking sweaty clothes off immediately after a run or work-out and 2) When running in cold weather, while keeping my gloves on, I pull my fingers out of the glove/finger part and into the palm of my hand and make a fist. I should just wear mittens, but I like having the dexterity of gloves if needed. For my feet, I double layer my socks if below 30 and sometimes curl my toes while running to help the circulation (TMI, but it helps).

  4. So this is kinda weird, but I had pretty obvious symptoms earlier this winter – pain, tingling, white/yellow fingers and toes. I also had signs of low iron. Since I’ve been taking my iron supplements as I’ve felt those low iron symptoms dissipate, my Raynaud’s symptoms have disappeared and it’s even gotten colder here. So … coincidence? Can your body acclimate to winter or could iron have an impact?

    1. Low iron can contribute to poor circulation so that could be a factor! (Also a reminder that I’m supposed to go get that checked. Hmmm…)

  5. I have it – my doc said keeping your torso warm also helps. I find that when it is really cold out my hands are actually warmer because I have on more layers.

    1. Sounds like it is a fine balance — a warm torso but not so warm that you’re sweating a lot and thereby getting wet and cold!

  6. I like running in my double layer mittens- fleece liner with wind proof mitts. This allows me to put handwarmers (sometimes 2) in the inner mitten and I can pull my thumb out keeping all my digits toasty. Costco usually sells the hadn warmers by the case early in the fall/winter. Also- after affecting I find running my hands under warm water brings back the blood quickest with least amount of pain.

    1. Warm water helps me, too. And yes on the thumbs! I always end up tucking them inside my mitten! My fleece/windmitt combo mittens are all too big.

  7. Just started calcium channel blockers this year after worsening symptoms-ulcers and infection-it is no joke!my symptoms which bothered me my whole life got drastically worse in my late 30s.

      1. Yes, they are a huge help! I thought we’d have to relocate to a warmer climate, but if I take them the night before a cold run, it is amazing. I still wear prima loft mittens, glove liners under on our cold Maine mornings, but the difference when I come inside after-it’s remarkable. They don’t shut off!

  8. Gosh, Raynaud’s seems so scary. I have poor circulation to my hands, but I’ve never had it as bad as what I’ve seen with Raynaud’s. I can’t imagine! I sometimes get so cold, when I put my hands on people’s bare arms at work, they’ll squeal! (Something about working during the wee hours of the morning when your temp normally drops does it for me). I always wondered if it could turn into Raynaud’s. I hope not! Thanks for the informative article, though!

    1. Interesting — I didn’t come across there being a progression from poor circulation/eternally frigid hands and getting Raynaud’s … but you could certainly have both conditions! Interesting about the connection to basal temperature and circadian rhythms …

  9. I’ve actually been doing Rheumatology for the last couple of weeks and we were talking about Raynaud’s. Apparently if you develop it before 30 you’re less likely to have a secondary cause (i.e. one of the associated conditions listed in the intro) and if you’ve had it for several years without ulcers, progression, etc. you’re also less likely to have a secondary cause. If you also have horrible lifestyle-limiting Raynaud’s looking into what people with scleroderma use to keep comfortable can also be helpful! I get it too but like you guys as long as I warm myself up well immediately after I run it doesn’t bother me too much. I used to have to do a lot of work inside of a -80 degree freezer though, and that would kill my hands!

    1. That is great info! Again, dear readers, if you develop ulcers, the condition worsens, or you have other symptoms GO SEE A DOCTOR.

      A -80 freezer? Um, no thanks!

  10. So interesting about compression sleeves. I haven’t had any flare ups in my toes this winter and I wonder if it’s because I’ve been consistently wearing calf sleeves? How does the aquaphor feel on your hands after you warm up? I feel like it makes sense to use but might drive me crazy! I do put it on my face though.

    1. Oh! Could be! I don’t notice the balms on my hands … and your hands end up nice and soft as a result! Mine are so perpetually wind-chapped in the winter that it’s a two-for-one deal!

  11. I’ve had Raynaud’s for 30+ years. when I was in middle school I melted the toes of my ice skates trying to warm them near the fire! I avoided sledding and all that jazz as a result. when I started running 10 years ago I couldnt run outside if temp was < 30 degrees because my hands and feet hurt sooooo bad. a couple of years ago I bought a pair of mittens at REI – a brand called Outdoor Research. they are the best! I wear those in 20-30 degrees and if colder I wear skin tight UA gloves under the mittens and that does the trick. Below zero I often need to ball my hands in fists to get through the first couple of miles.
    On my feet I wear ski boot liners under smart wool socks and pull them up over the outside of my pants to make sure to cover my ankles. Still have an issue with my toes but its workable.

  12. Another vote for double gloves/mittens. I do a pair of wool blend gloves under big fleecy mittens and that mostly does the trick. The only problem is trying to change shoes in workouts with multiple pairs of gloves and immobile fingers!

  13. I’ve been looking for a post like this! I have Raynaud’s, but when running my problem areas are my toes and the balls of my feet.

    1. Glad we could help! A lot of the same ideas apply to your feet. Wool socks are good especially if there’s moisture of any sort. A balm can also help insulate, plus it makes your feet nice! Compression socks can also help by encouraging blood flow. They make those little hand warmers in a toe version. Also, any sort of “trail” shoe will have a tighter mesh and reduce air flow to your feet. Many popular running shoes come in a trail version, just look for something with similar support and without so much traction that you can’t run comfortably on the roads.

  14. I have really bad raynaud’s, and I think it got worse as I got faster — possibly also connected to losing weight, getting faster, getting older, insomnia, and/or sex hormone levels, and hydration.

    I even raced that 2:54 marathon in 28 degree weather in briefs, a sports bra, and WOOL MITTENS with HAND WARMERS!

    -I found calcium channel blockers to provide some moderate improvement. Improvement is small but notable. Specifically nifedipine ER.
    -real wool mittens when running, shoveling, etc. Not just something called “intelligent wool,” but actual real wool insulation with acryllic linings.
    -a layer of nitrile gloves keep sweat from making mittens soggy and also serve as a vaper barrier.
    -hand warmers, but they only last about two hours. If I were to race with hand warmers again, I’d plan to change them at either my 13 mile ar 20 mile water bottle (or both)

    1. This is great info! I should try the nitrile gloves. I also maybe possibly sometimes wipe my nose and forehead on my gloves/mitts so they end up damp. Womp womp.

  15. One more thing: I don’t have a problem with toes feet when I’m running. I think somehow the flexing or pounding of feet prevent vasiorestriton of those blood vessels. But I have a terrible time with toe raynaud’s skiing and biking – when my feet are strapped into ridgid shoes. Winter biking I wear shoe covers with nitrile covers over them, but that doesn’t help for more than 30 or 40 minutes.

  16. I’m another sport bra and thick ski mittens wearer here ☺. It looks a little ridiculous! My hands get colder when pushing the stroller than they do on normal runs, and I need to keep them functional in case my baby needs anything mid-run, so I started using Little Hotties in my mittens this year and it has made a world of difference!!!

    1. Oh! That makes sense. The stroller handle is cold, plus you’re getting less blood flow to your hands because you’re keeping your arms in one position. I do find that I drive with my knees a lot when my steering wheel is cold in the car! (Probably not going to work with the stroller lol.)

  17. Yup, have had it since I was 14 — it is what has made me hate winter! I used to call it “dead fingers” before I understood it was an actual thing 🙂 There is a Facebook grp where people post great tips, reviews of products etc. https://www.facebook.com/groups/1581821442115046/ Great grp of people over on that page! One of the best tips I read there was that hand warmers are somewhat reuseable — if after a shorter run (not a marathon or something where they have already been going for hours) you out them in a ziploc, they will last another day or two. I also got a great gift from my BIL — not for running, but for regualr use — heated insoles that are battery/remote control operated. LOVE THEM!