Photo: Stephen Matera/TandemStock

What To Wear For Cold-Weather Running

Run Through Winter With the Best Cold-Weather Gear

The first hurdle is mental: Deciding to go outside when it’s cold, snowy, or rainy. But embracing the elements lets you experience the quiet of winter, serves up a critical dose of fresh air and vitamin D, and helps you stay fit and happy all season long. Plus, facing the cold helps prepare you for other challenges—in running and in life. But that doesn’t mean you should needlessly suffer. Here’s how to dress for cold-weather comfort.

DON’T OVERDRESS

While you may be tempted to throw on six layers, don’t. Overheating during your run generates excessive sweat, which can then freeze on your body and create an arctic micro-climate. It’s best to start a little cold, as you’ll heat up within a few minutes. Finding the balance between “a little cold” and “too cold” will take some trial and error, as the sweet spot depends on your body, the conditions, and how hard you’re working.

LAYERING PIECES

Base layer: What you wear next-to-skin should wick sweat and help regulate your body temperature. Wool feels great in cold weather, as do soft, brushed synthetics (avoid cotton). Baselayers can be crewneck, zipneck, or mockneck. Crewnecks are the easiest to layer.

Midlayer: Depending on the temperature and precipitation, what you wear over your baselayer may be an outer hardshell, a softshell, or a fleece, insulated top, or a second long-sleeve shirt or shirt-like piece. Fleece or lightly insulated (think thin puffy jacket) layers provide breathable warmth for cold temps.

Soft shell: When it’s cold and windy, but not too wet, softshells are perfect for running. They breathe better than waterproof hardshells, and have a softer, more comfortable feel. Most softshells will repel snow just fine, but will leak if exposed to extended rain.  

Hard shell: Heading into the wet? You need a hardshell, but make sure it’s breathable and light, or you’ll be soaked from sweat on the inside. Look for minimalist designs with few features and pockets, to save weight and bulk. For the best performance, fit should be trimmer than you’d get for hiking with bulky layers underneath. 

Wind shell: Lightweight nylon windshells are a good shoulder-season layer, as they block wind but don’t have much insulation. They won’t be warmer enough for frigid temps, but they’re so light and compact they’re easy to stash in a pack or pocket. Also, look for tights, running pants, softshells that feature windblocking panels combined with more-breathable fabrics.

Tights: Tights are a great choice for all but the coldest days. They come in everything from thin, single-layer synthetics to fleece-lined synthetics. Choose tights with a smooth exterior face that sheds snow. 

Pants: Running pants, which are cut looser than tights, are usually thicker and warmer than tights. Waterproof shell pants are also an option. Pants can be layered over tights or baselayer bottoms, or worn on their own (though waterproof shell pants will stick to your skin, so they’re best worn over a layer).

Long socks: Wearing long socks under tights provides another layer of warmth. At the very least, wear socks that bridge the gap between your shoes and tights so as to not leave your ankles bare. Wool or wool-blend socks do a good job maintaining warmth.

Gloves/Mittens: Gloves range from thin synthetics to thick, insulated models with windblocking shells. For more protection, look for an overmitten that blocks wind and moisture and can be tucked away when not in use. Seriously cold? Mittens tend to provide the most warmth, as they let your fingers share warmth. 

Hat: A wool or synthetic beanie is a great insulator, as you lose a lot of heat from your head (which makes taking it off a great way to cool down). A cap is best for moderately cold temps, as a beanie will be too warm

Gaiters: If you’re running in snow, lightweight ankle gaiters keep powder out of your shoes.  

Waterproof/breathable Shoes: In wet snow and rain, waterproof shoes will help keep your feet warm. Tradeoff: They can be heavier, more expensive, and less breathable than non-waterproof shoes.

DRESS FOR THE ELEMENTS

Let the conditions, not the calendar, dictate your layering choices. Consider the elements you’ll be heading out in and dress appropriately. Here’s a guide to what works best.

  • Rain: baselayer + waterproof shell + tights + cap + thin gloves + (maybe) waterproof shoes
  • Snow: baselayer + midlayer or softshell + fleece-lined tights + beanie or cap + fleece gloves +  (maybe) waterproof shoes
  • Frigid, dry or humid temperatures: baselayer + warm midlayer, softshell or all three + fleece-lined tights + beanie + fleece gloves + long socks + (maybe) waterproof shoes
  • Freezing rain: baselayer + midlayer + waterproof shell + tights + waterproof shell pants + light beanie + cap + gloves with overmitts + long socks + waterproof shoes
  • Cold wind: baselayer + midlayer with wind-resistant fabric or windblocking softshell + windblocking tights + beanie + windblocking gloves or mittens + long socks + (maybe) waterproof shoes

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.