What to Wear: Outdoor Winter Runs

Sometimes, it takes more than motivation to get out and run in cold weather. You need the right clothes, too.

running in winter illustrationWinter running illustration via Shutterstock

It’s freezing. And unfortunately, running outdoors right now is not as desirable as it is in the warmer months. This is the point when your motivation begins to dwindle, and your runs become less frequent. But just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean you have to become a prisoner to the treadmill. By investing in the right running gear, you can protect your body and your health. To be comfortable running in winter you need to keep your skin dry and your body warm. Here’s how to do it:

Protect your ears, hands, and feet. They are the most susceptible to frost bite. To avoid this, wear a hat or headband made of a warm material like fleece or wool to keep your ears warm. You’ll want gloves made of moisture wicking material to keep your skin dry and thermal socks to keep your feet warm.

For the upper body, stay warm without overdressing. You’d be surprised at how warm your body gets after just minutes of running. If you are all bundled up you risk overheating. Avoid wearing clothes made of cotton at all costs. It won’t keep you warm once you start sweating.

Layer, layer, layer. Layers work well because you can easily take them off and back on as needed. Your layers should consist of a base layer, a middle layer, and a top layer.

  • The base layer is most important because it is the layer that is going to keep you dry. Anything labeled Dryfit, Thinsulate, or Coolmax will do. These materials soak up perspiration, keeping it away from your skin. The dryer you stay, the warmer you’ll be.
  • The middle layer, also known as the insulation layer, is important when you’re running in extremely cold temperatures. You should wear a loose fitting Micro or Thermofleece that sits comfortably on your body. Having this extra breathing room allows small amounts of air to flow in and act as insulation. If you feel your body overheating all you have to do is strip down to your base layer.
  • The outer layer is what protects you from the weather elements like wind, rain, snow, and sleet. This layer should both repel water and be wind-resistant. Look for something made of Gore-Tex or Nylon with built-in ventilation so that your body doesn’t overheat.

For the lower body, layering is not as important. Your legs generate a considerable about of heat. I’m sure you’ve seen the occasional runner wearing shorts in 30 degree weather. I’m not suggesting you do this, and I certainly don’t. But the point is that runners stay warm because their ears, hands, and feet are covered, and because the upper body is properly layered. I suggest investing in a good pair of running tights made of Thinsulate or a similar material.  If the wind chill brings the temperature down below 20 degrees consider wearing track pants over your running tights.

When thinking about running gear you should also factor in the time of day you’re running. If it’s early morning or evening it will most likely be dark outside, and so safety is a priority. Wear some sort of reflective gear on your outer layer so that oncoming cars and motorists can see you. Keep in mind that exercising in the cold winter elements is not for everybody. It can be quite shocking to the system, especially if it’s your first time out. If you have any conditions such as asthma or heart disease you’ll want to discuss it with your doctor first, and then they may give you some additional precautions to follow.

— Kristen Mercier

Kristen Mercier is a cancer exercise specialist, personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and full time manager of the Corpbasics Fitness and Training Club in Somerville. You can read more on her personal blog, Be Fit With Kristen.