It’s December here in the Northeast and very recently the cold weather finally settled in. When the temps dip it can be quite challenging to maintain the motivation required to get out for your run. Well, we’re here to tell you that cold weather is nothing to be afraid of, and with a little planning and layering know-how you might actually discover you really enjoy running in the cold.
First let’s cover some basics. In the context of this article “cold weather” refers to anytime the temperature drops below 40 degrees. Also, please keep in mind that everyone and every situation is unique and some experimentation is going to be necessary before your cold weather running system is completely dialed.
Below are some general tips that should get you headed in the right direction:
- Think Warm & Start Cold – Once you get going you are going to warm up, and this is something you need to take into account when deciding what to wear. A good rule of thumb is to dress for weather that’s 15-20 degrees warmer than the actual temperature. Now, no one likes starting off freezing, so when it’s really cold consider doing something inside to warm up… squats, lunges, etc…
- Dress In Layers – This is going to be especially helpful when you’re first starting out. It’s always better err on the warm side and dress in multiple thin layers that are easy to adjust. You’re not going to nail it every time, and on longer runs you’re going to want to have some insurance in case you get caught out.
- Wear A Hat & Gloves – Your head and hands are some of the most heat sensitive parts of your body, and they have a very strong effect on your perceived level of comfort. If they are cold, you’ll feel cold. If they are warm, you’ll feel warm. Because of this our hat and gloves are some of the first things we remove when we start feeling too warm. This is effective at making us feel more comfortable, but it doesn’t do as much as it could to solve the underlying problem. Instead we’d recommend keeping your hat and gloves on and removing a layer or wearing less on your torso. This will do a better job of regulating your body temperature while still keeping you comfortable.
- Synthetics Or Wool NO Cotton – When you work out you sweat. Sweat is mostly water. Water makes you wet. Being wet when it’s cold out is a bad thing. Cotton absorbs and holds onto water making you cold. Synthetics and wool hold less water keeping you dryer and warmer. When deciding between wool and synthetics consider your activity level. Synthetics move moisture and dry faster than wool. So, the higher your activity level the less wool makes sense. At the highest levels of sport everything is always synthetic. Have you ever seen a wool speed suit? In our opinion wool is great for moderate activities such as hiking, but for running synthetics almost always perform better.
- Cover Exposed Skin – Subjecting your skin to cold temperatures, wind, and dry air is hard on it. Even wearing a very light non-windproof layer will often provide enough wind protection and warmth to keep you considerably more comfortable.
- Bring A Phone & Cash – Ice is slippery and things happen. Getting caught out when it’s 10 degrees and you’re 4 miles from home is a recipe for a bad time. Be prepared. Have your phone to call for assistance, and bring some money to compensate a good samaritan or a friend that comes to your rescue.
Now let’s take a look at a few specific scenarios. Again, everyone is going to be a little different, but hopefully the following information can help provide a decent starting point.
Above 40 Degrees
At these temperatures you shouldn’t have to change much. Shorts are still acceptable, but you might consider wearing long sleeves instead of short sleeves, or adding gloves and/or a thin hat.
Now we’re getting into temperatures where some subtle adjustments can make a big difference for your comfort. As we approach the freezing point long sleeves, a hat, and gloves should be the norm. You might also consider breaking out the tights, but many people can still get away with shorts. If it’s windy out a lightweight nylon vest is a great addition.
In this range our go to outfit includes a long sleeve shirt, windproof vest, gloves, a thin hat or buff, and full or 3/4 length tights.
Now it’s starting to get pretty cold. At these temperatures we’ll be wearing a thicker long sleeve shirt or thin fleece covered by a light windbreaker. Our gloves are getting thicker, and on our head you’ll find a fleece beanie. Lower down we’ll be in winter tights, or running pants.
Below 10 Degrees
There’s no such thing as too cold… You just need the right clothing. When the temps plunge into the single digits, or lower, it’s important to cover as much skin as possible. At these temps we’ll add a light fleece vest over our long sleeve top. Over that we’ll layer a wind breaker, and if it’s really cold we might add yet another vest. On our legs we’ll definitely be in running pants (nordic ski pants are also amazing) and will likely add tights or a thin pair of long johns. On our hands you will find gloves or mittens designed for nordic skiing, and on our heads we’ll use a buff to cover our neck and face then top it off with a fleece beanie.
ProTip #1: Clothing designed for nordic skiing works just as well for running. We especially like nordic ski pants that have a windproof front combined with a breathable back. Also, cold weather nordic gloves and mittens often provide the perfect balance of warmth and performance for those really cold days.
ProTip #2: You can make a fleece vest that is perfect for running by cutting the sleeves off a mid-weight fleece zip-t. A vest is such a versatile piece and just about everyone has an old fleece that they don’t use anymore.
A Note On Footwear: In general you can wear the same shoes running in the cold as you do on any other day. That said trail shoes are a great choice for running on snowy roads and sidewalks. Also, waterproof shoes can also work well. They can keep you dry when running in slushy conditions, and provide some additional warmth on those really cold days.
Train Smart. Run Well. Do Good… And Stay Warm!
Update: Recently here in the Northeast we’ve been experiencing some pretty frigid temperatures. Today we headed out for a few miles and wanted to share exactly what we wore to stay warm and comfortable on an hour long run when the thermometer was reading -4°F and the windchill was around -35°F.
Feet – Salomon Speed Spike CS Shoes and Darn Tough Mountaineering Over-The-Calf socks. The speedspikes are great winter running shoes. They provide incredible traction on snowy/icy roads, sidewalks, and trails. Also, the upper offers some protection from the elements and warmth. The Darn Tough Mountaineering socks aren’t your typical goto running sock, but they offer a substantial amount of cushioning and come up over the calf. So long as they fit inside your shoe without being too tight they’re quite warm and will help keep your feet happy.
Legs – Salomon Intensity 3/4 Tight under a pair of Salomon RS Warm Softshell Pants. The 3/4 tights provide a little bit of additional protection and warmth for the knees. The pants have a windproof front and breathable back, and were plenty warm enough for the frigid temperatures we’re currently experiencing.
Torso – Patagonia Capilene Thermal Zip-T, Salomon Fast Wing Jacket, Outdoor Research Ascendant Vest. This combination was perfect for the subzero conditions. My arms were a touch cool to start, but that’s what you want. The Fast Wing Jacket has a great hood that I used at the start, but eventually lowered. The Ascendant Vest keeps the torso warm, but not too warm. Today was cold, and this combination was more than enough to remain comfortable.
Head – Fleece Beanie, VTRunCo Buff, Julbo Sunglasses. In conditions as cold as today you really need to protect your face, cheeks, nose, etc… Also, frosty eyelash pics are awesome, but you really should cover your eyes as well. It’s not uncommon for eyes to freeze shut when you blink. I used the buff as a balaclava to cover my neck and face, and a pair of sunglasses to protect my eyes. On my head I wore just a typical fleece beanie. I was perfectly comfortable for the duration of my run.
Hands – Black Diamond Stance Gloves and CAMP Wind Mittens. Hands can be especially hard to keep warm and we actually have a whole post dedicated to just this topic. For today’s run we opted for the warmest option we have outside of wearing our giant puffy arctic winter mittens. Suffice to say this combo worked well today. Again… it was a little cool in the beginning, but never cold. Eventually I did take off the overmitts once my hands had warmed up.
Now we’re not trying to tell you that to be comfortable you need to use the exact kit above. We just wanted to stop talking in generalities and provide some specifics. Hopefully you will glean something useful. Stay Warm!