Dressing for Winter Running

What do you wear for winter running?

Up in my neck of the woods (Central Maine), shorts and a cotton t-shirt and regular road running shoes just ain’t gonna cut it during most Winters.

While this year has been very unusual, I have been wearing shorts almost all of the year, usually running around “heah” in shorts and a t-shirt from late November through the first part of April could be hazardous to your health. Some years even sooner.

There are a couple of things to consider when running in the winter that is not a problem other times of year:

  • Hypothermia
  • Slipping and sliding
  • Ice and snow
  • Frostbite

This post is about my thoughts on what kind of gear to use when running outside during the winter and some these ideas can be used for many other outdoor activities during the winter, beyond just running.

Shoes

In regions where there is snow, slush or even wet conditions, I strongly believe that you need a running shoe with a great tread. I have had good luck running in winter using aggressive tread trail shoes, you never know what kind of weather you will run into during the winter and for me they do the trick. I have used regular running shoes during winter runs and landed on my ass far too often, which hurts both your ass and your ego among other things, especially when you look around to see if anyone saw you fall.

Look at the treads on the bottom the shoes you have now, how do you think they would handle snow, slush, wet roads or muddy conditions? Think about it and it might save you from landing on your ass, with people around you applauding your acrobatic skills.

The second thing if the conditions are really slick and you still feel the need to be out running, wear something like YakTrax (or whatever you find that you like that is similar – Disclaimer I am not being compensated to recommend YakTrax, it is something that I use that works for me).

I like YakTrax because they are light and only slightly interfere with your stride and can be put on or taken off quickly when you need to.  Warning if you are wearing these you need to slow down and be very careful when you hit bare tar or loose gravel. Also they tend to wear out after one season of use, but they are a good investment if you feel that you need to run no matter what.

If it there is a lot of snow on the ground where you are running, you can also add in a small set of gaiters to help keep the snow/wet out of shoes. Dry feet are happier feet, but I pretty much expect my feet to get wet when running in the snow and rain.

Socks

Like I said plan on your feet getting wet during the winter and you need something that is going to retain warmth even when wet. I like to use a synthetic sock or wool blend sock in the winter time – definitely no cotton. Personally once it gets colder, I use Merino Wool Hiking Boot Socks, yes they are a little thicker than your regular running socks, so your foot might be a little snugger in your shoe, but they do keep my feet warm in most conditions.

When buying shoes that I am going to run in the Winter time, I take the socks I am going to wear with them, so that the shoes fit correctly and are not too tight when wearing my winter socks or if I am going to wear gaiters very often with them, I bring the gaiters with me also. I want to know that my shoes will fit correctly and the equipment all works well together.

A good example was when I while running in a Nor’Easter right before Thanksgiving, my feet were not cold at all, even though the wind was blowing 30-40 mph and I was running in snow up to 8 inches deep at times.

I don’t know about you, but if my feet are cold, it is no fun running.

Below the Waist

After a while you just shouldn’t wear shorts, your legs will thank you and you will be injured less, in my opinion. Good old fashioned lined wind pants are not sexy (as long as the liner is not cotton), flap in the breeze and work well to keep you warm. However, I prefer to wear synthetic running skin tights or looser fitting winter running pants that have a layer of windstopper material (my personal preference), they just feel more comfortable when I am running. I have had several pair and found they work just fine for running in nasty conditions. You just have to think about how cold it will be and how much of a fashion plate you need to be while running.

But if you are like me and chafe your inner thighs too easily, you either have to grease up between those babies (vaseline, body glide, etc.), wear compression shorts or clean out the blood that will drip from excess chafing and not be able to run comfortably for a week or so.

Personally I go with the compression shorts for three reasons:

  1. compression shorts help prevent chafing,
  2. they are an extra barrier to keep your junk away from the cold and wind,
  3. they are a lot less messy – just think about sitting down on something after greasing up your legs to run – yechhh or after someone else who has greased up and didn’t clean up their mess – gross.

I prefer the models with the built in compression shorts, it is a matter of convenience and cost – think about it.

Then there is a certain problem for guys. Have you ever just worn a pair of shorts or tights and got caught out on a cold, windy day? That external plumbing can get pretty cold. Unfortunately, it is not a pleasant experience, during the re-warming phase, even with your favorite partner helping to warm things back up.

If you don’t have the chafing problem and just need underwear (not worried about lines on your running tights), guys ensure that the underwear has a wind panel in the front to protect the family jewels, you will be glad that you did.

If you need an emergency windstopper panel or if you don’t want a line in your running tights – a baggie does a great job and they come in different sizes all the way up to gallon bags to protect those who think they have that much junk and need more much protection from the cold.

Upper Body

Dress in layers using synthetic materials. Personally I like a skin-tight synthetic base layer without any sleeves – hey no one can see the unsightly bulges of fat underneath everything else, I want to ensure that this layer wicks away moisture to the next layer. Another synthetic or wool blend, layer only this time a long sleeve version if it is cold enough. Then dependent upon how cold it is I add a synthetic fleece vest and a windproof shell.

I have had good luck with my GoreTex shells and like how they breath fairly well, while I am running so that I don’t get sweaty and become a puddle under the shell. Other benefits of the GoreTex shell are that they stop the wind (well most of it), which always seems to be howling during the Winter time and keep you mostly dry from rain and snow – even though after awhile in a downpour you will soak through.

Head

There is a lot of personal choice here and many people run without much of anything to help cool themselves down. People just wear a knit hat of some type that covers their ears.

Most of the time I run with a head band to cover my ears, with my Brooks Hi-Vis ball cap (see the picture at the top of the post). If it is extra cold, like below 10F I have a neoprene face mask that I wear (that I have had and used for years), but that fogs up my glasses, so it is a catch-22 sometimes.

Wearing a ball cap/head band combo makes it easier to vent excess heat quickly if you begin to overheat – just stuff the ball cap in your pants (also works as additional wind stop for “junk” protection – the hat will wash). That way your ears still stay warm, and when you start to cool down you can put the hat back on.

Hands

I usually have a pair of fleece gloves (liners) to run in and when it gets colder, a mitten shell to go over the top of the gloves. I guess you could just wear the mitten shell and add the gloves when it gets colder, but for me the other way works fine. If my fingers get cold while wearing the gloves, I take my fingers out of the finger holes and curl them up in the palm area.

If it is really cold, I just wear my ski mittens and a liner, they haven’t gotten cold resorting to this.

Visibility

This is not something to take lightly, when running you need to be seen by those driving in motor vehicles (you know – cars, trucks, buses, semis and around here dump trucks), especially since days are a lot shorter and it is dark when many of us run.

WEAR REFLECTIVE GEAR and a have a light. yes I yelled – so sue me.

I also drive a 4WD truck and a car. When I come up suddenly on runners wearing their favorite black or dark colored clothes, without reflective gear at dusk or dark:

  • First I get pissed because they startled me and I probably almost hit them
  • Second I feel sorry for their next of kin, because sooner or later they are going to either be killed or maimed for their stupidity.

I hate reading about runners being hit because the driver couldn’t see them, it gives our sport a bad name, especially when this kind of accident is usually preventable.

Glasses

One of the biggest problem I have with running in the cold weather is that I wear glasses and they fog up or like the picture (even when wearing a hat) they get all spotted from rain or snow.

I haven’t found any of the anti-fogging stuff that actually works for me and I no longer wear contacts, which means my ability to see is compromised in bad weather.

So a ball cap of some type is standard for just about all of my running, year round. The hat helps keep rain, snow off them and combats bright sunlight when I forget my sunglass clips.

And no going without glasses is not a real good choice, I enjoy seeing what is going to hit me. Yes I am blind as a bat without my glasses.

Overdressing

I tend to overdress more often than not. I prefer to be a little too warm than not warm enough. If I get too warm I can take something off, if I am cold I have to just suffer through it, until I get home or cut the run short.

Summary

Those are my general ideas for how to dress while running outside during the Winter time. There are some lessons that I have learned the hard way (using baggies in front of your junk when it is really cold), good tread design for your shoes, (I have fallen and ended up like a pretzel more than once), and all the other experiences I have had while running in the winter, which enabled me to learn what works and more importantly what doesn’t.

If you decided that you want to enjoy the benefits of running during the most challenging time of the year (in my opinion), think about what you are wearing before you go outside. Stopping for that short look to see what you have on, before you step out the door, may make your run more enjoyable and ensure that you come back safely and uninjured.

How you dress when running during the Winter is completely your choice, after all you are responsible for what you do when you step out that door, these are just things that I do.

This was originally part of my 6 Rules for Winter Running post over on “One Foot In Reality” and when I went back and thought about it – I felt that it should be its own post and re-wrote and edited the post for publication here on “A Veteran Runnah”.