Winter Running Gear – Get Layered In The Cold

Amid the rumors that 2011 gave us the coldest summer in 20 years here in the UK, and with September now here, it is time to think about plans for the winter running season. It is always tempting to taper off through October and then take months off when the weather gets bad, only to return to running in February. The other alternative is to get yourself on the treadmill, but let’s face it, running on treadmills can be a serious bore. The answer is to start gathering a good set of winter running gear so you can keep on running in the winter, whatever the weather, wherever you happen to live. By making just a few simple changes to your kit, and by layering your running clothing, it is easy to feel the exhilaration of going out to grab some exercise, even if you are bounding through snow and ice. And the best bit comes in February when you start racing against people who took the winter off. They’ll be out of condition and in need of a month or two to build up their fitness again, while you will just need to find your light spring and summer gear, and burn off the competition!

Tops – Winter Running Jackets and Shirts

A certain degree of care and attention should be placed on choosing the right cold weather running gear, as it is never as simple as just piling on a heavy coat and hitting the trail. In very cold weather, when there is snow on the ground, you need to keep warm, but must also wear clothing that allows you to regulate your sweating when exerting yourself. It is particularly dangerous to allow yourself to get wet while running in the cold, especially if you are miles away from home. So thin, lightweight, technical running tops are ideal. These will wick sweat away from your skin surface to keep you nice and dry. Remember to ensure all your layers have moisture wicking characteristics, and aim for three or four layers in total:

  • Base Layer or Compression Top – I normally opt for a long sleeved compression top, which allows me to keep cool in the summer, but acts as a good base layer in winter. Take a look at Under Armour Coldgear, which is a great start when it comes to warm winter running base layers.
  • Running Shirt – the next layer is your standard running top. Again, I ditch the t-shirts when the cold weather appears, and use my long sleeved technical tops. Depending on the temperature, how hot you normally get when jogging, and the type of base layer you select, you might decide to abstain from wearing your running shirt.
  • Running Jacket – there are tons of running jackets on the market, and it pays to get a good one and look after it. The features you require in this garment will ultimately translate into the price tag. For example, you can buy cheaper jackets, which are kind of “boil in the bag” cheap togs which might well be waterproof and windproof, but are not breathable at all. It’s probably best to avoid these, unless you turn up to an event where the weather suddenly changes – in that case, it’s better to have something rather than nothing to keep the rain and wind at bay. By choice, though, you should be looking for something which lets moisture out and therefore is breathable, but which gives you excellent protection from wind and rain. Gore Tex apparel is ideal, but expensive. The mid-priced alternatives are sufficient most of the time, and will offer windproofing, combined with some water resistance (not to be confused with being waterproof).

Wearing all three layers will let you exercise outdoors in winter with the minimum of fuss, while staying mainly warm and dry. Don’t worry about feeling the cold initially, as that’s perfectly natural, and you will soon warm up once you have got into your running stride. If you get too hot, you can just take the jacket off, and if you chose a good one, they often fold away into their own small pocket and can be carried until needed again. Imagine if you’d simply thrown that big heavy coat on! Too hot for running in, but you’d freeze in no time if you took it off. So layers, layers, layers are the best way to go.

Bottoms – Winter Running Tights and Pants

Since it is your legs that do much of the hard work during your runs, they tend to get very warm even on cold days. So although it is feasible to continue wearing shorts, it is generally not much fun feeling the tingling numbness when there’s snow and wind buffeting you. Protection for the legs then becomes important for comfort and to help you keep going. It can take only one really bad outing to turn you off the whole idea of winter running, so it does pay to look after yourself and give yourself the best possible experience when out in cold weather.

Just as with your top half, the clothing you choose for your legs should ensure you stay warm, but also regulate your sweating by offering moisture wicking features. One or two long layers will be sufficient:

  • Compression Running Tights or Shorts – once again Under Armour Coldgear comes to the rescue, with their cold weather running tights. These are full length and skin tight, which allows sweat to escape, keeping your legs dry and warm. For some people – myself included – they are not really a ‘good look’. So if you look ridiculous wearing tights and are self-conscious about it, then do what I do and opt for two layers instead. I wear Coldgear compression shorts as a base layer, but if you are going to wear a top layer, then there’s nothing stopping you wearing tights underneath where nobody can see them!
  • Running Pants – a lightweight pair of running pants or track pants can be worn as the top layer over any base garments. Ideally you want to avoid thick, heavy materials, especially the types of jogging bottoms that soak up sweat like a sponge. Lightweight technical materials are the way to go, and as with your running outer top layer, aim for windproof and waterproof if possible but always with breathable fabrics to let sweat find its way out and away from your skin. I like the Adidas Supernova Wind running pants, but Pearl Izumi Infinity are also meant to be pretty good if you can find them.

That covers most of your main kit, but there are some other essentials which you leave at home most of the time, but when it’s icy or there’s snow on the ground, they are very welcome indeed!

Winter Running Shoes and Accessories

In general, the shoes you wear will depend entirely on you, and where you do most of your running. Many people like to do their road running in the warmer months of the year, and switch to cross country or trail running in winter. If this sounds like you, then you’ll probably already have trail shoes, which tend to be more robust, and definitely more waterproof, than regular road shoes. The treads are normally more aggressive also to help you stay on your feet in slippery mud and uneven ground.

Sometimes though, it is nice to carry on running in the parks or on country roads, especially after fresh snow. And whether you simply get the thrill of making the first trail of footprints as you run, or you prefer the macho image of being the guy (or gal!) who people point out as the maniac who still jogs in sub-zero temperatures, the last thing you need is to slip on ice and wind up injuring yourself miles from nowhere.

An excellent product to keep you upright in the snow and ice is a contraption called Yaktrax, which you can attach right onto your normal running shoes. In fact, you can pretty much attach them to any shoes to prevent those winter slips which could easily land you in the hospital. Yaktrax provide significant traction when you run on icy ground, and mean you do not need to spend a fortune on different pairs of running shoes hoping to find a pair which lets you stay upright when sprinting downhill in snow. They are not ideal if your route involves a lot of treated hard ground because the tracks can dig into your feet and feel a little uncomfortable. Otherwise, even for multi-terrain, including ice and snow, or mud, these are great and I’d much rather have them than not. It’s also easy and quick to put them on and take them off.

If you go for a pair of Yaktrax yourself, it could still be worth the investment buying some trail running shoes. This is because you will need more weather protection in winter than you will usually get from a regular pair of road running shoes. Warm and waterproof are the main features to look for. But you will also probably wish to augment this with a decent warm pair of winter running socks. Most running stores and online retailers will be able to accommodate you in this respect, and you should be seeking out a pair which has some wool content – you will see names like ‘durawool’ or ‘merino wool’ and these will provide warmth along with other more usual features such as moisture wicking technical fabrics. Brands to look out for are any of the main running brands (Asics, New Balance, Brooks, etc) but also X-Socks and Thorlo.

Be A Hot Head With Running Hats Plus Other Accessories

It is often said that people lose most of their heat through their heads. Well, kind of, but only because that’s the part of us we rarely cover up. Apart from that, there’s nothing special about the head. Nevertheless, to go running in cold conditions, it is sensible to wear a few extra accessories in order to keep comfy.

  • Headwear – as long as it is warm and preferably moisture wicking, it really doesn’t matter what you wear on your head during your cold weather jaunts. Beanies are ideal though, and far better than running caps because you can pull them down over your ears when the wind starts to nip at them. You might even decide to run ninja-style with a balaclava covering your face, which is also useful for at least partially warming up the air that you breathe in during your exertions.
  • Neck Gaiters – one of the talking points in English soccer last year was the wearing of neck gaiters by some of the players during cold games. But whatever your views of soccer or the pampered players in the English leagues, wearing a neck gaiter is an excellent way to keep yourself warm while out on a snow run. Just pull it down and tuck it into the neck of your jacket, and pull the top over your mouth and nose, and you’re good to go!
  • Winter Running Gloves – it is so easy to forget about our hands when outside doing exercise, but for runners, the very action of running and swinging the arms means that hands can become painfully cold pretty quickly. Running gloves are a very welcome addition to the inventory, and there are plenty to choose from. Lightweight and breathable are best, but many runners will just wear super cheap gloves which they can throw away afterwards.

As with most things in sports, everybody has their own opinion on what is best. Running and winter gear is certainly no exception, and what works for me might not be best for you. The best way forward is to slowly build up a collection of winter running apparel and keep a logbook of your runs. Write down the usual information such as the route, distance, time, etc, but also make a quick note of how you felt and what kit you wore. Did you feel too hot? Shivvering cold all the way, maybe? This will allow you to design your own winter running plan including all the best gear for you, and you will emerge into the spring still in great shape and ready to take on all those other lazy runners who cowered indoors gaining weight all winter!


Neil (nickname Ironman) is an avid runner and sports fan, who writes about all things triathlon-related, especially running and cycling. He also writes about sports injuries and regaining fitness – mainly from personal experience rather than academic knowledge – although he does study that too!

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