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How to Dress for Cold-Weather Running

Just because winter has settled in for the season, doesn’t mean you have to hang up your running shoes or retreat to the indoor hamster wheel.

And while a frigid jaunt around the park or on the trails can sound pretty darn daunting, outfitting yourself with the right gear can make all the difference. In fact, you might find yourself enjoying cold-weather running.

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What to Wear—From the Bottom Up

Socks

Okay, so socks aren’t the most glamorous place to start, but they’re effectively the foundation for your feet. I highly recommend merino wool socks to any who ask (or those who don’t), as merino wool not only provides subtle warmth, but it regulates your temperature, wicks away moisture, and dries quickly. In other words, merino wool socks are the original high-performance piece. Additionally, I’d recommend choosing crew socks or even lightweight ski socks. Taller socks will protect your ankles and provide extra warmth when you need it most. As a former Vermonter, I have a soft spot for Darn Tough socks; they come with a lifetime guarantee and are built to last.

Shoes

Whether or not your shoes have the capacity to tackle slushy and varied terrain can make or break your mileage, so choosing the right shoe is crucial.

Tread: Road vs. Trail

Start your shoe selection process by thinking about what kind of conditions your town or city frequently experiences, and then consider where you will most likely be running (e.g. trails, pavement, or a mixture of both). This will allow you to choose a running shoe with the appropriate level of tread. If you’ll be doing mostly road running on clear surfaces, your regular road shoes may do the trick. If you’re somewhere with sidewalks and roads that are frequently iced over or snowy, I’d recommend going with trail running shoes to combat the slick terrain.

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Lining: Gore-Tex vs. Weatherproof

The next course of action is to find a shoe that is lined with Gore-Tex or a weatherproof equivalent. Most companies will indicate whether or not a shoe is weatherproof by utilizing the terms “GTX” or “Shield” in the title. Either technologies will allow you to confidently tromp through slushy puddles without immediately saturating your socks, which ultimately prevents wet, cold feet and in turn assures a more comfortable running experience.

I live in Salt Lake City where the conditions vary from slushy and muddy to super icy. I also run a mixture of trails and road during the winter season and have found the Brooks Cascadia 11 GTX to be the most dependable shoe for the job. Plus, I can wear it during the muddier spring season, effectively killing two birds with one stone.

Shoe Accessories

While the term “accessories” might send you straight to the hills, don’t worry—these addendums are far from strange little shoe jewels. Items like gaiters, which can come already attached to the shoe or entirely separate, bolster your protection against deep snow and slush—making them ideal companions for long-distance trail running. Additionally, items like Yak Trax or running-specific crampons can help you get a  grip on icy, uneven terrain. It’s important to note that products like Yak Trax aren’t for everyone. Personally, I dislike the loss of ground feel underfoot, however some runners swear by their stabilization and performance.

Clothing

Wearing the right clothes on a cold run can go a long way, and as a result can make you go an even longer ways too.

Next-to-Skin Layers

You essentially have a choice of merino wool or synthetic-based products for baselayers. Either way, you can’t go wrong. However, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, merino wool is ideal for aerobic pursuits and thermoregulation. You know, if it works for sheep, it must work for humans in some way, shape, or form. It not only provides subtle warmth, but it also wicks away moisture and dries quickly. I often wear a merino wool T-shirt layered underneath a thermal top. This layering system quickly pulls sweat away from my skin, so I stay dry and comfortable.

When it comes to bottoms, depending on the weather I’ll go with either a really thin thermal (preferably wool) layer under pants on colder days, or just tights on warmer days. I prefer somewhat heavier tights, like the Swix Warm thermal tights or the CWX Insulator models, which provide both support and warmth.

Midlayers

As my Dad, a former trainer and marathon runner, used to say, “Vest is best.” A vest maximizes on your core heat, without getting in the way of your mobility. Additionally, you can layer atop a vest or wear it as a standalone piece. I prefer vests filled with synthetic insulation, as they still provide warmth even when wet. This allows me to stay comfortable no matter what Mother Nature throws my way. My personal favorite is the Patagonia Nano Air Vest: it’s stretchy and filled with a lightweight synthetic insulation that also  stretchy.

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Outerwear

There’s a bevy of options to choose from when it comes to outerwear. For me, my choices are largely dependent on the conditions that the day presents. However, I can always depend on my outerwear to fall into a three tangible categories.

Hardshell: A jacket or pant with a woven fabric can come in handy when the weather is really raging. Hardshells offer varying degrees of protection depending on design: ones with a waterproof/breathable membrane are designed to be totally weatherproof, meaning they protect you from wind, rain, and snow. However, you’ll sacrifice some breathability for that protection; for greatest comfort, look for a lightweight version like Gore-Tex Paclite, which is designed for more aerobic activities. Lighter-weight ‘wind’ shells will be somewhat less protective in serious weather but more comfortable when you’re working hard. Either way, you’ll want to make sure they include some kind of zippered vents. These can be found on the underarm or on the side of the leg, and are designed to release excess body heat quickly, without having to compromise protection.

Softshell: In my humble opinion, softshell products are the bee’s knees and the happy medium when it comes to protection. Softshell material is highly breathable, stretchy, and wind-resistant. Additionally, softshell material is usually equipped with a DWR treatment that fends off light precipitation. I find that the adaptability of softshell jackets is especially convenient for varied and ever-changing conditions, particularly trail running.

Hybrid Design: Pants or jackets that feature a hybrid construction are especially beneficial, simply because you get the best of both worlds: protection and breathability. Non-insulated hybrid clothing is often constructed with a WindStopper or softshell material in the areas that require the most defense (think chest or front of your legs), while the back or underarm panels consist of stretchy, breathable fabric for moisture management. This design offers weather-resistant protection and temperature regulation, meaning you don’t become a windblown, sweaty mess. Insulated hybrid pieces aren’t so different than their non-insulated siblings, however they’re equipped with down, synthetic, or wool-derived insulation in addition to the stretch panels. These insulation types ensure you stay warm without overheating.

My go-to items for a bluebird day? The Patagonia Wind Shield Hybrid Softshell Pant and Jacket. But, on days that I need a little more insulation, I reach for the Arc’teryx Atom SL Hooded Jacket and Patagonia Houdini Running Pant.

Head, Hand, & Eye Protection

Wearing a hat is an easy way to conserve heat, and therefore energy, while you run. Another option is to wear a headband, which I have found to be a wonderful companion on cool days. It protects those super-sensitive ears, but still allows excess heat to escape.

BCBenC_161202_0304Hand protection is another key component. Mittens or gloves vary greatly, and so might your preferences. If it’s really cold out and you tend to get cold hands, ski gloves might be a good bet. For most people, though, they tend to be too warm for running, in which case running-specific gloves (usually softshell) offer the best combination of protection and breathability. A lightweight glove is great in milder conditions; whichever way you go, touchscreen-compatible fingertips are a great bonus, so you don’t have to take off your gloves to fiddle with your motivational tunes.

Optical defense: now that might sound a little intense, but safeguarding your eyes is equally as important as wearing the right clothes. Running in the winter often means running in snowy conditions, which is difficult when you’ve got snow pelting you in the face or when the sun is reflecting off the snow itself. For sunny days, I recommend a polarized pair of shades best protection – Suncloud Optics are entirely polarized and they won’t break the bank.

On overcast days, sunglasses with interchangeable lenses so you can swap in orange-tinted or clear lens are ideal. While it may seem silly to wear a pair of sunglasses on an overcast day, the added protection from cold air and wind can improve your overall experience. Though, beware of fogging – make sure you have ample airflow between your layers and the sunglasses, otherwise you’ll wish the shades came fully equipped with a pair of windshield wipers.

Random Tips—Because Learning the Hard Way Isn’t Fun

At some point, we’ve all said, “Shoot, I wish I knew that” or worse, hearing some horror story from friends who made a dire mistake and wished they hadn’t. So, these are just a few things to keep in mind as you get ready to head into the great, cold yonder.

  • Starting off your run feeling a shade chilly is your best bet: you’re bound to warm up as you increase your miles and in turn have a more pleasant running experience.
  • Shorter days means you’re bound to go for a run in the dark at some point. Choose brightly colored products that feature reflective details that aren’t limited to the logo. Also, don’t be afraid of donning a headlamp like the lightweight Nathan Fire Halo running headlamp to not only light the way but to ensure you’re seen by motorists. And, if you’re like me and run with your furry friends on the regular, make sure to grab a clip-on light for Fido, too.
  • Speaking of Fido, protect his or her paws from ice, snow, and sidewalk salt with booties like these. However, don’t be surprised if Fido isn’t keen on them immediately. Mitigate their discomfort with treats and praise as you see fit, and they’re bound to come around.
  • How your clothes fit is entirely your call. However, one thing to keep in mind is mobility. Wearing a lot of ill-fitting layers or really baggy clothes may inhibit your range of motion or cause chafing. Personally, I prefer slightly relaxed fit pants and jackets with a drop tail hem. A slightly relaxed fit pant allows me to layer underneath should the conditions call for it, while the drop tail hem provides extra coverage from brisk winds or slush.

Geared up and ready to go? Get on out there and start enjoying those cold-weather runs!

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