Winter running follows the old adage: there is no bad weather, only bad gear. (However, ice or temperatures well below zero are bad running weather!) If you do not dress correctly, you will either be uncomfortably cold or sweating heavily (which in turns causes you to be uncomfortably cold as sweat dries). Learning how to dress for winter runs makes them significantly more comfortable – and more enjoyable.
The key to how to dress for winter runs? Layers, functional fabrics, some traction in your footwear, and the right attitude.
The Great Lakes region is known for its bitter winters. We regularly see single-digit windchills, heavy snowfalls, and icy days for months. After enough winters in the Midwest, you learn how to dress for runs on snowy sidewalks with zero degree wind chills. If you are looking to brave the elements (and remember, there is nothing wrong with opting for the treadmill!), I recommend the following pieces of gear.
Dress as If It’s 10-15 Degrees Warmer than the Windchill
You will warm up within the first 10-20 minutes of your run. Over-dressing will quickly cause you to start sweating, which will make you feel cold and clammy.
I recommend dressing as if it is 10-15 degrees warmer than the windchill. This may equate to the actual temperature outside. You should feel a bit cold during the first mile or so, then more comfortable throughout the rest of the run.
Every runner is different! A seasoned Midwesterner or New Englander may not need as many layers as a Floridian even if they are running in the same weather. Women may notice that different phases in their menstrual cycle affect their temperature regulation. You may need to tweak based on what works for you.
Start with a Base Layer
A base layer functions exactly as its name implies: as a foundation for your winter running outfit. A base layer serves the purpose of wicking sweat and adding an extra layer of warmth. Most base layers are thin yet warm, designed to be layered underneath bulkier pieces.
Fabric matters. Merino or a merino blend is best for cold weather running. If merino is not an option, pick a wicking tech fabric that will pull sweat off of your body. Avoid cotton at all costs, as it holds onto sweat – which means you will feel cold throughout your run.
(A note: do not overwash merino. Most merino pieces can be worn four to five times between washes. As a bonus, you can often get away with having just a couple of high quality merino items. It is antimicrobial, so you can simply hang it to dry between wears.)
Add a Top Layer
Depending on the temperature and your preference, a quarter zip or jacket layer keeps you warm. If you are running in precipitation, opt for a jacket to provide some water resistance and wind protection. On cold but dry days, a merino or tech-blend quarter zip provides warmth without bulk.
If it is extremely cold, you may want both a quarter-zip (or second top) and a jacket!
Trail Running Shoes
Crampons and spikes are highly effective on snowy terrain. However, they are not the most practical if your winter runs features clear patches interspersed with snow and ice. Pavement will quickly ruin crampons, not to mention that you will feel uncomfortable running on it. If you know your route will be entirely covered in snow, Yaktraks or Stabil-icers will provide optimal traction.
However, if your winter runs often feature a mix of clean pavement, snow, and ice, you want to look beyond crampons. Trail shoes are the ideal winter running shoes. They are designed for wet conditions and slippery surfaces. They can handle pavement with ease. Best of all, you can use them beyond the winter months!
Trail shoes provide more traction for snow and ice. Depending on how much snow you deal with, you can choose varying degrees of traction. You can even find trail shoes that feature Gore-tex or another waterproofing to protect your feet from becoming wet from snowfall.
For a bit of extra protection from snow and slush, wear a gaiter. Most trail shoes feature attachments to secure a gaiter on. Gaiters prevent water and snow from entering the top of the shoe, thus keeping your feet warm and dry.
Leggings Made to Handle Conditions
You can layer up on top to stay warm, but the same does not apply to your bottom half. Double layering leggings is impractical and hinders mobility.
Generally, your legs require less insulation than your upper body during a winter run. You generate more warmth in your actively working muscles (legs and core). However, you want to provide enough insulation to prevent injury and optimize performance. Cold muscles strain more easily. If your legs are too cold, your blood vessels constrict and your heart has to work harder to send adequate blood to the working muscles.
Pick leggings designed for cold temperatures. As athleisure has exploded in popularity, more leggings are being made for milder temperatures – and these will leave you shivering on cold-weather runs. Look for thicker, warmer fabrics. Fleece-lined tights and merino-based fabrics offer a balance of warmth and mobility even in bitterly cold climates.
Breathe Easier with a Gaiter
A gaiter pulled over the nose and mouth does prevent the spread of Covid-19. However, it’s a useful winter running trick even outside of a pandemic, especially if the cold air irritates you.
Bronchoconstriction can occur from breathing in cold, dry air – especially with the increased ventilatory rate of running. This narrowing of the airways can cause coughing fits, asthma-like symptoms, and a general feeling of discomfort. A loose-fitting and breathable gaiter or balaclava warms and humidifies the cold winter air before it reaches your lungs.
Typically, you start a run with the gaiter pulled up so that the cold air does not shock your airways into bronchoconstriction. Once you feel comfortable, you can pull it down. I find it particularly helpful to pull back up when running directly into a harsh winter wind.
Warm, Wicking Socks
The colder it is, the higher your sock should go. At a minimum, opt for a quarter crew to cover your ankles. As with tights, you want to keep tendons warm to prevent strains, especially as you run on unstable surfaces like snow and ice.
Again, fabric matters. Merino socks provide warmth and comfort; you can find some from brands such as Smartwool, Darn Tough, or Feetures. Prolong the life of your socks by air drying them (never put merino in the dryer!) and darning any holes (it’s easier than it sounds!).
For the coldest of winter runs, I dig out my ski socks or hiking socks. Tall compression socks function similarly. If I am snowshoe running or trail running, tall socks are essential to protect from any snow that kicks up on the back of the legs.
Add Extra Protection with Accessories:
Once you are dressed, add a few accessories. Hats and gloves will protect your extremities. Eye protection matters just as much in winter, especially since snow reflects the sun. If you are running in the dark (which is more likely in winter), take precautions to be seen with a headlamp and reflective vest.
My Go-to Winter Pieces
I opt for higher quality pieces for winter; you really do not need many pieces if the pieces function well and last for seasons.
- Patagonia Houdini Jacket (for snowfall, cold rain, or windy runs)
- Tracksmith Brighton Base
- Smartwool Baselayer Crew
- Smartwool Merino Quarter-Zip (below 20*)
- Patagonia Capilene Quarter Zip (20-30*)
- Smartwool Merino Sport Glove
- Tracksmith Turnover Tights
- Tracksmith or Buff merino gaiter (I like the Tracksmith one as it’s tapered to easily stay up over the nose)
- Smartwool Merino Reversible Headband
- Darn Tough Micro Cushion Crew Sock
- Saucony Peregrine trail shoes
Most of all, you need a positive attitude! Dwelling on how cold it is never sets you up for a good run. Instead, dress appropriately and focus on enjoying the fresh air and movement.
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What are your go-to pieces of winter running gear?