Winter Running: What to wear

Running outside when it is cold, wet (or both) can be a challenge. Choosing the appropriate garments can make the difference between a good run and a bad one. The following is a list of items that I found to be useful for winter running.

Winter running is all about clothing

Dressing correctly for when it is cold is an art form. There are people who make a living off educating others on how to dress for when it is cold and how to decide what layer to use when. There are some websites that offer “formulas” for how many layers to wear, at which temperature. Here are some layers that I consider when I go on a winter run. These are best when it is not raining:

  • Hat. This is a link to the hat that I use. It is a Pearl Izumi thermal run hat. I think it is great. It keeps me warm and very importantly covers my ears. For people with pony tails, it also has a hole to let the hair out.
  • Face mask. I use a micro fleece face mask. It is great because it is versatile. I can fold it up over my head (instead of just a hat) or pull it down to serve as a sort of scarf (to block the wind). An alternative to a face mask can be a thermal Neck Warmer. I use mine when the weather is in-between (when a face mask is just too much).
  • Neck warmer

    A neck warmer is great to block the wind

  • Gloves. Running gloves come in all sorts of shapes and quality. When the weather is not too bad, it does not really matter which gloves you use. But when it is cold, I recommend getting wind blocking running gloves. The wind blocking component may be key to your fingers feeling fine after a run.
  • Base layer thermal shirt – Layering is the secret of proper winter dressing. Layers trap air between them and air is a great insulator. Layers also offer the chance to peel them off if you get too warm. The bottom layer needs to be thin but warm and has to be able to wick sweat (similar to a dri-fit shirt, just warmer). Under Armour have a thermal shirt that has these properties.
  • Top layer shirt. The top layer shirt serves to capture the air that will insulate you and also adds another layer of protection. I typically use a bright dri-fit running shirt. It helps me stay visible, wicks away sweat and is usually comfortable.
  • Windbreaker. I actually use a windbreaker meant for riding and the Pearl Izumi windbreaker is really versatile.
  • Winter running

    This windbreaker was bought at a bike shop

  • Tights. Long running tights are an important garment to have if you are planning on running outside in the cold. Every major running gear company has several lines of tights. This is actually a garment that you should shop for in the store and not get online. You should actually try it on. The most expensive is not necessarily the best for you. I actually like my Nike running tights and they are considered their cheapest. Another matter to remember with running tights is that they come in various thickness levels. I have two kinds – One for when it is cold and the other for when it is colder. I guess choosing also depends on how sensitive you are to the cold and how cold your town is.
  • Socks. Winter running socks should have several characteristics. They should cover your heel (because cold makes the Achilles tendon vulnerable to inflammation and injury). They should be warm but still be thin enough so they do not cramp your foot in your running show. And they should also be able to wick away the sweat. A lot to ask from running socks, isn’t it? Well, I like the Drymax running socks.
  • Shoes. Most serious shoe companies make shoes that are also fit for the winter. Brooks have a gortex line for their Adrenaline brand, for example. These shoes are supposed to offer better traction, better insulation and more warmth. I run with my regular running shoes and with the appropriate socks they have always been fine. I have used them when it was as cold as 20 degree Fahrenheit (-5 Celsius). The only thing to remember is to get out of them the instance the run is over and warm your feet.

TIP: Don’t over-dress for a winter run

Dressing for a run is not the same as dressing for a walk in the park. This rule is no different when it is cold outside. Remember that you will probably tend to over-dress because the first few minutes of the run may be intimidating. A useful rule of thumb would be to dress in such a way that you feel just a bit chilly when the run starts. That will ensure that as you warm up you will feel perfect. If you do notice that you have overdressed, don’t forget to peel off layers. Sweating when it is cold can actually over-cool your body because of the moisture.

On the other hand, remember that there are layers you will never want to peel off during any winter run. Running with gloves can keep your fingers safe from frostbite (believe me, you don’t want to go there). Keeping your ears covered is another must.

How many layers do I need?

I have seen various websites offering tables that suggest how many layers to wear for a typical winter run in various temperatures. I don’t know if these tables are that useful. The way I look at it is that different people can tolerate the cold in different ways. As long as you use layers and are willing to peel them off if you get too hot or sweaty, and as long as the layers are appropriate (as I have listed above), you can basically wear whatever feels right. But just in case you do want a “recipe” for what to wear when running in the cold, here is my very broad-stroke suggestion:

  • 60 degrees and above – This is not cold. Keep running.
  • 50-60 degrees – This may be a bit chilly. Most would like to wear either a long-sleeve shirt or long running pants. It may not be intuitive, but long pants are the right way to go. Keeping the working muscles warm keeps them healthy.
  • 40-50 – Same as above, just with a light hat. If it is windy, I would add a thermal Neck Warmer. If you are more sensitive to the cold, consider a long-sleeve dri-fit shirt and long pants.
  • 32-40 – Anything above 32 is better than anything under it. When temperatures are below 40 degrees, I would suggest wearing more layers. Choose whatever feels right from the list above. I usually go with a hat, thermal shirt, dri-fit short-sleeved shirt, long pants, warm socks and light gloves.
  • 20-32 – I basically use any variety of layers. I usually like to use thicker running tights when running below in 32 temperatures.
  • Under 20 – I do not like to run when it is colder than 20 degrees. Sorry. But if you do, layer up. Use more of the layers I have outlined. Think about a windbreaker. Use wind-resistant gloves. Warm your shoes up before heading out…

Read more about winter running

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