Running in the coldest weather is more straightforward than you might expect. You generate plenty of heat when you run, especially when running hard. You’ll probably find that you actually perform better than in hot weather, because you’re not forced to use as much energy to cool yourself.
Even in frigid temperatures, you won’t need nearly as much insulation as you do in most other sports. Skiers have to sit still on lifts and wait in line on the mountainside. Cyclists have to contend with fierce winds they generate. Ice climbers have to sit still to belay their partners in some of the coldest spots on earth. As a runner, you can keep running until you get home—so you’ve got it relatively easy.
What you’ll need is coverage, to protect your skin from the cold air. You’ll need it especially at your extremities. Your face and neck and fingers may require the most attention. If you have circulatory conditions, your toes may need some extra help as well.
Here are the Cold Weather Dressing Basics
- 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).
- 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.
- Insulation and additional coverage. 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.
- 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. Trail running shoes will do a bit better than road shoes on ice, but don’t expect miracles. Please be very careful if you encounter icy conditions.
- 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.