Running in winter isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds. Especially with help of modern gear, it’s really pretty easy to stay comfortable on a run no matter what the weather’s doing.
Remember that your body generates a great deal of heat when you run, especially when you’re running hard. You’ll probably find that you actually perform better than in hot weather, because you’re not forced to use energy to cool yourself. When you’re hot, your body has to shunt a substantial supply of blood to the skin for cooling. That blood is no longer available to your legs, so you’ll work harder or you’ll be slower.
In the winter, that extra heat you generate won’t slow you down. It will actually keep you warm. This is why even in frigid temperatures, you won’t need nearly as much insulation as you do when walking or standing around.
What you’ll absolutely need is coverage, to protect your skin from the cold air, especially at your extremities. Your face and fingers may require the most attention. If you have circulatory conditions, your toes may need some extra help as well.
It’s also important wear fabrics that wick moisture off your skin and that are breathable. During hard efforts you can sweat, even in the most frigid conditions. You want that moisture carried away from your skin so you don’t get chilled later.
1. A thin, synthetic moisture-wicking base layer next to your skin. This will include tights, a performance-fabric long-sleeved shirt, a hat, thin gloves, and socks (probably a bit thicker and taller than your warm weather socks).
2. Wind protection. At the minimum, this this will be close-fitting, wind-proof, water-resistant, breathable jacket. In colder conditions you may also want wind pants or warmup pants. Ideally, your wind shell should be very compact, so if you get too warm you can remove it, scrunch it up, and stow it in a pocket.
3. Insulation and additional coverage for your mid-layer. In very cold conditions, you may need a bit more insulation. You’ll never need anything like a down jacket or a heavy Nordic sweater, but you may appreciate an additional thin layer, like a fleece or wool shirt over your undershirt, and possibly wool or fleece tights under your wind pants. For colder and windier conditions, you may want a slightly heavier hat, possibly one made with wind-blocking fleece, and similarly heavier gloves. When it gets extremely cold, you may need face and neck protection. Consider a neck gaiter, a thin balaclava, or even a partial face mask. Beware that full face masks work poorly for running or other situations that involve heavy breathing. They tend to ice up with moisture from your breath, and will encourage your glasses or sunglasses to fog.
4. Shoes. In milder conditions, your regular running shoes may be fine. When things get colder, you’ll want to wear warmer socks, so it’s important that your shoes are big enough to accommodate them. Don’t make the mistake of stuffing your feet and winter socks into too-tight shoes. Your circulation will be impaired, and you’ll be colder than you’d have been with thinner socks. Make sure your toes have wiggle room.
When conditions get snowy or icy, you may appreciate the added traction you’ll get from trail running shoes. These tend to have deeper lug patterns for biting into loose surfaces, and softer, sticker rubber compounds that grip wet surfaces. Some trail running shoes have a waterproof/breathable membrane to help keep your feet dry in slushy and wet conditions.
Some shoes also take metal or carbide studs for ice traction. Alternatively, you can improvise studs by screwing short sheet metal screws into the soles of any running shoes. Trail running shoes and studded shoes will do a bit better than regular shoes on ice, but don’t expect miracles. Please be very careful if you encounter icy conditions.
5. Other considerations. You may like to have pockets, not just in your shell jacket but in at least one other piece of clothing. It’s easy to overdress for winter, which will lead to you getting hot after been on the road a few miles. You’ll want a place to stow any layers that you peel off. Days are short in the winter, so you’re more likely to find yourself out after dark. Consider a headlamp. Even in areas with street lights, a headlamp will help you see into shadows, and will make you more visible to cars. Finally, don’t forget to hydrate. You’ll sweat more than you’re aware of in very dry winter air.
6. Finally, if the weather is too unappealing or the roads are too unsafe, there’s always indoor training. You can get a great workout any time of year on a treadmill.
We hope you’ll stay warm and safe this winter, and that you’ll keep running!