Once upon a time, I had a tendency to overdress on my winter runs. The air outside always felt like an arctic blast compared to the cozy comfort of my living room and, in preparation, I donned every layer and winter accessory I owned in an effort to get myself out the door.
Without fail, a mile or two into my run swaddled up like a marshmallow, I’d overheat under all those layers and start shivering from my base layers being drenched in semi-frozen sweat.
Since then, I’ve honed my winter running-apparel approach a great deal. You can learn from my mistakes by following these guidelines to keep yourself dry, warm and comfortable on all your runs this winter.
The Golden Rule
It’s better to be slightly cold and dry, than overly warm and sweating (which can freeze and lead to hypothermia). If you already feel toasty on the first mile of your run, you’re probably overdressed.
My ears get cold fast, particularly in a slight wind, so I almost always like to have something covering them. Unless it’s below freezing out, though, I prefer a simple headband rather than a full beanie. If there’s any chance of rain or heavy snow, I’ll pair that headband with a brimmed cap; the brim helps keep precipitation from pelting you in the face.
*Pro Tip: A multifunctional neck gaiter—the style originally made popular by Buff—is my favorite all-purpose head warmer for winter runs. Throughout my run, I can wear it balaclava-style for the most warmth, or rotate it as needed between my neck, face, head, ears, wrist or just about anywhere else I might need a little extra barrier against the winter air.
Bear in mind that at the beginning of your run, your hands and feet will tend to start off the coldest—but they’re also generally the fastest to warm up once you get moving. A pair of lightweight fleece or wool gloves goes a long way in locking in warmth. (Unless it’s well below freezing out, mittens or heavily insulated gloves can be overkill for running.) If you like to run with a phone or other device, look for gloves with touch-screen compatible fingertips.
*Pro Tip: Many long-sleeve running shirts or jackets now come with thumbholes or even embedded “mitts” in the sleeves, which are a terrific way to keep your hands warm early on in your run.
Zippers are a winter runner’s best friend because they allow for quick, on-the-go venting when you need to let out excess steam. My favorite base layer is a long-sleeve top with a half-zip collar. I prefer midweight merino wool for its warm, comfy feel and natural anti-stink properties. Many days, this alone—or paired with a lightly insulated vest to keep my core cozy—provides me with sufficient warmth. If the weather is super cold or stormy, I’ll pile on a lightweight, breathable running jacket—either a soft shell (like the one pictured) for dry weather or light snow, or a water-resistant, windproof shell for rain or sleet.
*Pro Tip: Tuck your shirt into your running pants to seal in maximum warmth around your core.
Nothing beats a cozy pair of full-length running tights. If it’s much above freezing, though, I’m also a huge fan of stretchy, three-quarter-length tights (capris, if you will). Especially when paired with tall socks, these offer great versatility for the kinds of rapidly changing conditions so common to the Rocky Mountains where I live, where it can be snowing one minute, then warm and sunny the next.
Abide by the “cotton is rotten” rule here, and opt for merino wool or synthetic moisture-wicking socks.
If you plan to run primarily on packed snow or icy sidewalks, don the same running shoes you usually wear, but think about attaching a lightweight pair of traction devices to them. These handy wired-coiled or steel-spiked accessories boost your traction on slick surfaces. Look for styles that include a strap over the top of your shoes, which will keep them from sliding off while running.
On the other hand, if you plan to run primarily in soft snow (or rainy weather), consider instead one of the following approaches:
- Swap out your no-show or low-cut running socks for a pair of tall socks for added warmth and to help prevent your ankles from turning into icicles.
- Invest in a pair of short running gaiters to carry your commitment to icicle-free ankles to the next level.
- Waterproof or water-resistant running shoes can help prevent snow or rain from soaking through the otherwise airy mesh of running footwear. Plus, if you tend to get cold feet, waterproof shoes are inherently warmer.
- For running in deep, untracked snow, consider a pair of running snowshoes for extra flotation in the powder.
Don't forget to download the Trail Run Project Mobile App on iOS or Android to track your run.
Have any additional winter running tips? We'd love to hear them in the comments below.