For the uninitiated cold weather runner – as with any new activity – making preparations can be a bit daunting. What gear and apparel do you really need? How much do you need? When do you need it?
There’s no one-size-fits all answer to these questions. Although you can start with general guidance to make more informed decisions, you’ll need to undergo a little experimentation to find the best apparel solutions for your specific body and weather conditions. HOKA pro triathlete Sarah Crowley provided some insight into her favorite apparel items as someone who trains all around the world, in all conditions.
Before you start, consider the following:
Get specialized cold weather running apparel
Cold weather running comes with its own unique set of challenges that specialized apparel is designed to address.
Running too warm may cause profuse sweating, leaving you vulnerable to dehydration and drops in body temperature as excess moisture cools in the winter air. Run too cold and – there’s no delicate way of putting this – your nipples may chafe painfully.
So you need clothing that moves without causing chafing, insulates and breathes simultaneously, repels outer moisture, wicks inner moisture and still helps to regulate your body temp under a variety of conditions and pacing.
Specialized running apparel is built mostly from synthetic fibers with these concerns in mind, and tends to perform more comfortably than a mix-and-match “Frankenstein” approach. Your goal when setting out on each cold weather run is to combine the exact right set of specialized layers for the conditions you face, with some wiggle room as your core temp rises in response to exertion.
You can start with the basics and work your way up to a full complement.
Add cold weather running layer basics
You may have already assembled a full complement of comfortable warmer-weather running apparel which you can use as a base for winter runs. If not, consider upgrading to more run-specialized tank tops, performance tees, shorts, sports bras, socks, and (of course) shoes.
The number of additional cold weather layer options you’ll want to consider as “basic” depends on how cold it’ll get near you. You may not need to go for a full subzero puffer jacket if you live in Florida, for example.
Arranged from cool-to-cold, start with the following:
1. Performance long or ¾ sleeve tops – These versatile options can be worn with either shorts or running tights, making them the “first line of defense” option for when the weather turns cooler. They also serve as a great bottom layer under a variety of weatherproof and wind-resistant outer shells. It’ll help to have multiples.
2. Warmer socks – A few pairs of well-padded specialty running socks in half-calf lengths can serve as an easy intermediary bottom layer option between shorts and the next step up.
3. Running tights – Tights are the primary cold weather option for your bottom half and a strong base layer option. Although warmer top layers combined with shorts can make it easy to look past a pair of cold knees once you get up to speed, elevated core temps can lead to more sweating, and tights are a great way to mitigate this. As with any base layer of workout apparel, multiples will come in handy.
4. Running hats – Just having a thin, breathable layer on your head can change a lot, and even a small bill can come in handy in the rain. You have a lot of hat options, but consider the convenience factor of running hats designed for easy stowing without having to be carried. Sarah Crowley suggests using a hat or a small headband to cover the ears when the chill picks up.
5. Jackets and windbreakers – A thinner “shell” jacket or anorak layer is the next step up in added weather protection up top. These options work great as an outer layer in a variety of conditions, from a perfectly sunny warm day with wind gusts, to rain sleet and snow, to a helpful layer of heat retention on a downright chilly morning. As an outer layer, you can mix and match without needing multiples, but it’s nice to have options for wind vs. wet.
6. Joggers – Think of joggers as “windbreakers for your legs” in that they can be the right outer layer for a variety of conditions and temperatures – they work well over underwear, shorts or tights. Multiples are more of a nice-to-have than a “must” for starters. Sarah Crowley uses joggers over leggings when it’s super cold snowing and you just need to go outside for a run.
7. Headbands – Sometimes the little things make the biggest difference. Headbands insulate your most heat-intensive body part (your head) while also letting it breathe, and they’re also small and portable, making them no problem to add or remove during a run. Consider a headband as the easiest way to build “wiggle room” into your layering during a run. Multiples aren’t necessary, but if you stuff them into every pocket, finding them later when it’s chillier than expected can be better than a $20 bill in an old pair of jeans.
8. Half-zip pullovers or hoodie tops – When the thermometer dips to “officially brisk” territory, these thicker, versatile combo top layers become a better option. The half-zip and hoodie features allow some wiggle room for adding or subtracting insulation along your run (zip or unzip, hood up or down), and each comes in a variety of thicknesses and outer layer weather protection features. You might not need multiples of each, but it’s good to have an option or two. Sarah Crowley enjoys the flexibility of the half-zip pullover as it can easily be either unzipped or removed and tied around the waist if things heat up.
9. Full hats and beanies – When it’s cold enough for the “convertible top” aspect of a headband to not be enough, throw on a beanie. You can even add a layer with an additional headband.
10. Puffer jackets – The nuclear option for when you’re absolutely going on an invigorating run and you don’t care how cold it is. A running-specialized option helps keep you warm while also flowing without restricting movement. If you’re not sure whether or not you need one, keep in mind that a puffer jacket also works as a coat for when your “run” is more errand-based.
To help guide you make your selection, below is a list of temperatures and possible clothing combinations:
* 60+ degrees: tank top/shirt and shorts
* 50–59 degrees: short sleeve tech shirt/ 3/4 sleeve shirt and shorts
* 40–49 degrees: long sleeve tech shirt, shorts or tights, gloves (optional), headband (optional)
* 30–39 degrees: long sleeve tech shirt, shorts or tights, gloves, and headband to cover ears
* 20–29 degrees: two shirts layered–a long sleeve tech shirt and a short sleeve tech shirt or long sleeve half zip pullover and thin shell jacket–tights, gloves, headband or beanie and neck buff (optional)
* 10–19 degrees: two shirts layered, tights, gloves, headband, and thin shell jacket and joggers
* 0–9 degrees: two shirts layered, tights and joggers, puffer jacket, two pairs of gloves or mittens, beanie, neck buff to cover face
Consider running shoes with additional traction
If you live in an area where cold weather running is likely to involve snow and ice, you might want to upgrade to a trail running or trail/road hybrid shoe option with additional traction features.
Of course, you’ll want to gauge your own comfort level with regard to safety, and find routes that won’t present as much of an issue under freezing conditions. No shoe can guarantee perfect traction on ice. Sarah Crowley’s favourite shoe in challenging weather is the Speedgoat 4 GTX, as it has great traction, cushioning and is waterproof.
For those who live up north (in terms of latitude or elevation) and/or are particularly hardcore about getting in that daily run no matter what, you may also want to look into spike attachments or snowshoes. Guidance on highly specialized snow and ice footwear options is best sought from local runner communities.
Shop HOKA Trail Running Shoes
Experiment with layer combinations as you go
As you try out your cold-weather apparel, keep in mind that you may find gaps.
Maybe you don’t have a great layer combination for a day that’s not so much cold as blustery. Maybe your wet weather gear overheats you, and you need to reduce your base layer under your outer shell or find a more breathable option.
Some gaps can be filled with new apparel, some with different layering combinations, and some with additional preparations. Remember that your clothing isn’t the only tool you have to make your run comfortable as possible. Vaseline, balm or powder can be especially useful for reducing chafing and blistering in all the body parts where that’s frequently an issue.
As you get out there in the winter weather, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to get it right the first time. Gaining experience always requires a learning process.
And remember that these are clothes. If the worst case scenario is buying something comfortable you look and feel great in, that’s not so bad.
Good luck, and happy running. It’s Time to Fly™