Beast Mode: ON! How to Run in Winter Weather

cold weather Jan 20, 2020
I wrote this post way back in 2013 using feedback from people on the Power of Run Facebook page. I've updated it to include some new ideas.
Now that we’re seeing snow and freezing temperatures in many parts of the country, I’m getting lots of questions related to dressing for cold-weather running. And, I am the LAST person you should ask because, like a bear, I hibernate in the winter. (Did you know that Bears can go for more than 100 days without eating, drinking, or passing waste, living off of stored body fat? Sigh. Don’t they have all the luck?! I wish my winter desire to sleep and burrow under warm blankets left my body lean and muscular in time for swimsuit season.)

Anyway, since I am not a fan of cold weather running, I took this question to Facebook, where as always, the beastly runners came through with layering and product suggestions.

Let’s start with the basics. If you spend too much time scrounging for gear in the morning, you’ve wasted your time to run. Set your clothes out the night before, including all the gloves, hats and layers.
Rob uses a chart he’s created to take the thinking out of clothing selection. “I have a whole mish mash of stuff. What I also have is a piece of paper in my dresser drawer with the temperature running up the left side by 2 degrees. O, 2, 4 … 16, 18… 36, 38, 40… You get the idea. Next to various temperatures I have what I wore that worked. At 48 degrees: running windbreaker with turtleneck, lightweight gloves, and shorts. At 42 degrees, I change to running tights and add a t-shirt. At 38, I go to a heavy running jacket, heavier gloves, skull cap, etc…. The thing that stops me from running, especially in the morning when I am half asleep, is what to wear. This way, I look at the temp and then at my sheet and I know how to dress. I have even added extra notes like: need skull cap when windy.”

Clothing On a Budget

What brand keeps you warm, and is a great value? There were so many mentions of Target’s C9 brand (for every category of running apparel), I have to mention this. Probably more due to convenience (Oh, and the fact I “need” to run into Target several times a week to pick up something one of the kids “must have” for school the next day, I own a lot of Target gear. I’m not a great bargain shopper. I just have problems with impulse control… and who can resist that hot pink shirt with thumb holes… Look! A matching ….) Target has a nice selection of quality running apparel, leggings, jackets, and socks.

For runners on a budget, Cyndi has some solid suggestions that do not include brand names. “I don’t have money for big-name items so here’s a go at some generic stuff a pair of soft cotton thin gloves with hard shell mittens on top. I layer those second skin type shorts with a pair of synthetic fabric running pants and a pair of sweat pants on top for layers I have a silk undershirt with a tee on top and a thin jacket which I may layer a sweater over. A soft beanie type hat for my head, and a scarf for my neck.”
A tip I added in 2017: Have you seen the Carrie Underwood brand? I found the most awesome, most comfortable leggings ever at Dick's. They were more expensive than my favorites from Target, but the comfort is AMAZING.

How Do You Keep Your Feet Warm?

The big question was “How do you keep your feet warm?” Warren said, “Warm upper body and warm legs should = warm toes. If the person with the question is warm everywhere else, maybe try different shoes? Tough question. You also can try warming up inside with all gear on for a minute or two. Just don’t get sweaty before going out.”

The majority agreed that every runner needed a pair of SmartWool socks. Merrill and Icebreaker were also mentioned as “must-have” brands. And, readers suggested ski socks, duct taping the tops of your shoes, or buying less-ventilated shoes to run in over the winter months.

David added, “May need to look into a pair of winter running shoes. Different companies make a windproof and or waterproof version of some models. Also may try a thin moisture wicking base layer sock then a thicker outer layer. Good Luck. Keep Running.”

How Do You Keep Your Head Warm?

We didn’t get as many suggestions on specifics for keeping the head, face and ears warm. Vicki suggests, “The key is a nice wicking beanie. Head warm, heart warm, you’re golden!” Denise recommends the balaclava.  “I live near Buffalo, NY. Layers, but my first layer is always Back Pocket Sports Top for the bra and pockets. My fave head ware is a balaclava that easily pushes back when I overheat and is raised when I get cold. I like layers on top that have zippers for adjusting as I heat up. Arm warmers are great as well as insulated leggings.”

Jill reminded us about the importance of warming the air we breathe on cold days. “To prevent the runner’s cough induced by cold, dry air, be sure to wear a scarf or balaclava to aid in warming and humidifying the air. The material will allow you to recycle your natural water vapor that gets trapped in the scarf when you exhale. The bank robber look may not be the fashion statement you were going for, but at least you won’t be hacking up a lung. And be assured, if you do hack up a lung, it won’t be frozen. If you’re in doubt or feeling under the weather, don’t run. One day of rest won’t cost you a Boston qualifying time but a couple of weeks off with pneumonia might.”

And, the Hands?

How do you keep your hands warm? Buy a variety of thicknesses of gloves. Some even recommended mittens over your gloves on really cold days. A few suggested stocking up on hand warmers to use in gloves, shoes… and sports bras.
Jodi’s trick: “I like to put one of those small hand warmer things, I think they are called Hot Hands, in my sports bra. If my heart stays warm, it pumps warm blood to the cold parts of my body. They come in sets of two so alternate where the other one goes.” And Jodi says go with alpaca. “Alpaca knit hat and gloves….alpaca fiber is a wonderful insulator. Under 30 degrees.”

Other Tips

PANTS: Karol says compression pants with light fleece keep her warm in the winter. “Love my Sugoi running pants. Really pricey. Really warm. Target has Power Core. Compression with light fleece. Worked well for me last Sunday 6 am in 7 degrees.”
Lucien suggests Northface flight pants.
Cynthia suggests tights. “Tights for running 30 or below – Athleta Polar Techs, pure heaven. They also have a ‘core warmer’ tank that I now use as a base layer. Love it.”
Amy (my hero!) solves a problem for those of us who are shorter. “Being on the petite side, all of my cold weather running pants have come from Athleta because they have different lengths. The hubby has tried many brands and Brooks is the best to-date. Smart wool socks are a must.” 
I am also a big fan of layering. A light base layer under my standard fleece-lined leggings keeps me comfortable on the coldest days.

Have trouble deciding what to wear? Take notes as you run this weekend, and create your own clothing chart! Keep it on a 3 x 5 card where you keep your winter gear, or add it to your running journal. 
JACKETS: We had several people suggest that women check out the jackets at lululemon. (I will say my favorite rain/wind jacket is from lulu. It’s probably the best piece of running gear I’ve ever bought.) This will also depend on the warmth of your base layers and how cold it actually gets where you are.

LAYERING: It seems the key is in the layering. Ebby likes to layer thermals. She says, “Being from Edmonton, my runs require layering thermals, Icebreaker (expensive, but requires little care/washing, lasts forever), I can’t recommend them enough, it’s the only thermal I’ve ever worn that ends up having me taking off or unzipping layers in -30, the 260 grade tights with an additional normal running tight over top, a tech thermal top, plus a lighter random wicking layer over it. Depending on the day it’s an additional 320 grade Icebreaker outer layer coat, or a wind breaking shell. I never get cold with Icebreakers, in fact, I sweat like a beast in the craziest of cold temps. Only Merrell socks (best sock ever for winter running)”

Michael included several tips. “It doesn’t get too cold in Los Angeles, but I often go out into the wind & rain & higher elevations in snow. In below zero temps, you should start with a skin snug base layer. They wick and give warmth in layers, so you can easily take off or add as you get colder or hot. … Eddie Bauer fleece is lightweight, warm, very soft, comfy. Also a baselayer from Cabella’s. Bones beanie from The North Face, very warm. Wool knit gloves from Army surplus store, inexpensive & they work. A blended wool sock; Eddie Bauer trail socks are great, but I also have some from the Army surplus store too which are fine. [I also have] a Hooded windbreaker from Salomon that fits very nicely and does its job.”

Anne is also a fan of layering, which includes a running skirt as the top layer. “I wear Icebreaker when the temps are in the 30s. Colder than that and I’ll layer an Icebreaker singlet under an Icebreaker long sleeve with a light long sleeve over that. On my feet, SmartWool or Wrightsocks. For my legs, I wear running tights with a running skirt or shorts over them when really cold.”

Mitch has a problem many tall people face. “I am a tall runner so everything must be long enough. Compression is best, less chaffing and I feel it keeps me warmer. CWX tights, north face flight series jacket (arm length) layer up depending on temp. 40 is shorts, short sleeve shirt and arm warmers. 30’s are tights tight base shirt and light jacket and gloves. 20’s are heavier jacket and mittens. I have mittens that are two layers, gloves just don’t work at all in the teens.”

Thank you to everyone who contributed ideas for this post! If you see something we missed, send me a note at [email protected] and I'll add your comment to the list!
Stay warm! And run strong!
Ready to train for a new distance in the coming months? Check out my online coaching options. I can help you work one-on-one or in an online group setting so you can run your first 5K, train for a half marathon, train for a marathon, or learn to run for fun!

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