With the official arrival of winter, and a few weeks of winter-like weather already, a frequent question we get from runners looking to train in the cold is “what should I wear?” The best answer is: it depends. We know, that’s not very helpful. But the truth is, every individual runner will manage their body heat differently. Have you ever seen two folks out for a run on the same day looking like they live in two totally different climates? One may be wearing short shorts and the other is in fleece tights? Two different people, on the same run, in two different outfits.
The goal is to dress for the run, not how you feel when you step out the door. This takes practice, and some planning. Unfortunately, if you are comfortable when you start your run, you will probably be uncomfortably warm a mile or two into your run and wind up as sweaty as you were during the summer. At the same time, you don’t want to freeze over the first mile and call it quits over how cold you are.
Let’s Break it Down
Running generates a lot of body heat, and the faster you go, the more heat you generate. It will take some personal experimentation since everyone has slightly different responses to the cold, but here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Keep Your Hands and Ears Warm
This is the easiest place to start and the one that can really make or break an otherwise comfortable run. During the run your body should warm up quickly, but if your fingers and ears are cold and exposed, you can still wind up feeling miserable. Running gloves and ear warmers are pretty lightweight and easy so remove so even if you realize you don’t need them mid run, they’re easy to remove and carry with you. Many of these gloves also have added wind protection, saving your fingers from cutting through the air and drying out your skin. When in doubt, just wear them, better to be a little warm than too cold the entire run. That said, the best option is a shirt with mittens built into the sleeves like the Nike Thermo Sphere Half Zip!
Spend enough time in enough gear and you realize it’s the little things that matter most. Materials like wool and Nike Therma will keep you warm despite being very lightweight. The Therma jackets also have the added benefit of built-in mittens (see above) so you can ditch the gloves when it’s not too chilly. Plus they come with or without a hood, so there something for everyone in the hood versus hat debate. Alternatively, we have a Tracksmith Brighton base layer, which is not only snazzy but also great at regulating body temperature. Plus, antimicrobial properties of wool keep you not just toasty and looking great, but smelling your best. Modern fabrication processes make wool soft to the touch, so say goodbye to the scratchy sweaters of yesteryear. Both materials are available in men’s and women’s cuts.
The Temperature Progression
You’ll want to avoid wearing too much too quickly. You’re going for a run, not shoveling snow. Meaning, you want apparel that fits well and moves with you. A few light layers, like long sleeve shirt and light jacket will be pretty warm once you get moving, even if it doesn’t have the bulk of a puffy insulated winter jacket. The Nike Essential Flash Running Vest is great for this, boasting a filled core section that keeps the heat where you need it. This is essentially a deconstructed combo of a thermal fleece layered with a quilted vest. However, a jacket with these qualities is less bulky, more breathable, and water repellent for your winter needs. Many new runners buy a running jacket that is overkill for their climate, and while these layers can fulfill their promise to keep you toasty, a jacket designed for running in Maine is going to be a bit much for most of DMV winters. That’s not to say they don’t have their place post run or during a polar vortex, but they’ll spend more time hanging in the closet than on your body.
A little extra breeze can be deceiving, so be sure to dress based on the “feels like” temperature. Wind chill can also change dramatically during a run (or depending on the direction of your run), even if you don’t feel it when you step out the door. If you’re running in the city, you may find it to be fairly calm, until you reach the Mall or run by the river and feel it hit you in the face. Similarly a run into the wind can feel unbearably cold, only to turn a corner (or turn around) and find yourself overheating. A Brooks LSD jacket for men or a Canopy jacket for women are just the ticket to staying protected from the wind. Both jackets can be stowed and easily carried when stuffed into a built-in pocket, allowing you to adjust to breezy conditions. They are also water resistant and the Canopy jacket has a rollable hood that is easily twisted into the collar. Wind resistant fabrics work great for cycling too, or as an extra layer to wear to the gym.
On Your Feet
Your running shoes should be fine for most chilly runs on dry streets. However as the temperature gets colder, the cushioning in most shoes will get firmer. If they were already getting toward the end of their life, the winter will only make the cushioning feel even stiffer. A thicker pair of socks, and especially wool socks can help keep your feet warm. Choosing a crew or quarter length sock can keep the awkward gap of exposed ankle between your pants and shoes warm as the mercury drops. If it does snow, you’ll want shoes with more grip, which makes it a good time to pull out your trail shoes with deeper and more widely spaced lugs than a running shoe designed for pavement.
Pay Attention to How You Feel
Sure 40 degrees feels cold today, but only because it’s been warmer up until now. A few weeks of colder temps will make that same 40 feel pretty warm by comparison. After a few days of running outside you’ll feel better acclimated to the colder temperature (and probably have a better sense of what you need to wear for that weather). Everyone is different and someone raised in the far north may be comfy in a sweater while Virginia’s faithful may be reaching for something a bit heavier. When in doubt, layer until you find something that works for you!
Last But Not Least, Plan For After
While all these recommendations should keep you warm on the run, they are designed for thermal comfort while running. If you have to walk to meet your friends, you’ll probably still want something warm to wear over what you plan to run in, and will definitely want something warm and dry to change into if your post run plans don’t include an immediate hot shower. Remember we advised you to dress for the run, but if you plan on heading out after, be aware that you are dressed for the excess heat that you’ll have while on the move and are vulnerable to standing around while sweaty at cooler temperatures. We’re big fans of the Tasc City Park jacket for women and the Tahoe half zip for men. As a company, Tasc uses bamboo fabric, a natural fiber that can reduce your post-run funk when compared to synthetic fabrics. There’s no point in going from a run to brunch if you’re going to smell like it! Whatever your post-run plans, be smart and always toss an extra layer into the car just in case.
Get out there, stay warm and enjoy your run. We’ll see you out there (we run year round).