The issue with winter running: What do you wear to handle the cold (and deal with slippery surfaces, if you get those)?
Or so it seems. Worrying only about handling the cold is, too easily, a way to go wrong.
The main question, actually, is how to strike the right balance between the microclimate of your body and the outside conditions: How to be dressed just warm enough to get heated from being active, but not get so sweaty that the wetness would make you cool out.
When or if you expect times you will not be so active, then – and pretty much, only then – does the warmth delivered by insulating clothing really become an issue.
Let’s go through that in a bit more detail…
Winter is a time when it becomes really obvious that fast-drying, breathable, wicking materials are a necessity for sports.
That advice not to go running in cotton T-shirts?
In summer, it might not matter so much that they get wet and cool you down. In fact, this may be good for summer, contrary to popular opinion.
In winter, though, you’d notice quickly how problematic that would be. Anything that keeps water close to your skin will cool you out, at least once you go slower, and that will hurt you.
Wool can work, as it warms even when (slightly) wet, if it is a modern version that also breathes/wicks well; it is something I’m also trying out more and more.
Polyester-ish materials are still the go-to for cold-weather running, especially if rain or snow are to be expected, though.
You will still find me use quite a bit of Windstopper clothing, as the Burgenland, where most of my running takes place, tends to be windy all the time. Wind protection thus tends to be necessary, but it depends on the conditions you will find.
To be able to adjust as necessary, layering is the go-to approach.
Layers and Layering
You will start out cooler and then warm up, maybe have to take it slow later and cool down.
Conditions may change and with that, you will need more breathability or more protection.
Good as some gear has become, this is nothing that a single piece of clothing will handle well.
So, layering comes into play.
Your legs don’t usually need quite as much protection (witness the girls in the Baltics or Japan who still wear nothing but miniskirts and tights when it’s freezing).
Your usual running tights, if they are decent ones, will likely be good for winter running as well as for other seasons.
Full-length tights are recommended, though; if there is a chance for heavier precipitation or stronger wind, I would recommend bringing a pair of (pull-over) rain pants, just in case.
Gaiters over the shoes may also be a good idea if you get into deeper snow.
On top, things are a bit more difficult and more important.
Above freezing, with no or light wind, I personally still go for Windstopper (in an N2S – next-to-skin – variant), but that has become almost impossible to get.
If you can count on there being no wind, your usual long sleeve running top will probably suffice. Just bring a light rain shell in case you need more protection.
Most real winter conditions, you will probably want to wear a thin wicking layer and something windproof above that. Just don’t make a cozy wool pullover/shirt your base layer.
The simple rule to try out is that you should be slightly cold as you go out, not already warm and toasty, or you’ll be sweating badly in no time. And that’s what will get you in trouble.
In my winter (and mountain) experience, bringing that light rain shell along is always a good idea, just in case the wind gets stronger or it starts to snow (or rain); the extra layer can come in handy even on breaks, but is essential in many situations (and light enough not to weigh you down as much as hypothermia would).
You should only need an insulating (puffy) layer if you expect that you will move at very low exertion, if it gets colder than you’re used to, and/or you want to take regular rests.
Another help with microclimate balance to consider:
You may not want to have three pieces with a zipper above each other, but for a rain jacket I would really recommend a jacket (or a smock if you know you’ll only use that in a downpour) for a bit more flexibility.
For the top layer, I would definitely go for something with a long zip in front so that you can vent it.
The baselayer should just be one piece to avoid seams and zips that could chafe against the skin.
The Small Things
A wicking top, a protective-breathable top, a layer of waterproof rain (and wind) protection, some tights (or pants) – these are easy to think of.
Easier to forget but highly helpful:
Windproof and – depending on conditions and how much you sweat, how much your hands cool out – waterproof ones would be my advice.
Here, if you are anything like me and have hands that “freeze”, it can be worth it to go for warmer gloves rather than slightly cooler gear (unlike what you should get for your upper body, upon starting out).
Use a neck warmer, hat, Buff,…
Take your pick. I will usually have a Buff around my neck (since I can also pull it over my nose if need be) and either another Buff or a (Windstopper) hat on my head.
For more-extreme conditions, a neck gaiter or even a balaclava is helpful.
Remember hearing that we lose a lot of body heat through our head?
We do, so taking off a hat (and having one that can be taken off) can help regulate heat, protecting the head is important for staying warm enough.
Sunglasses are also a recommendable piece of gear one may not think of so much in winter.
They are obviously needed when there is snow and sun (or you risk snow blindness), but they also help counter the effect of wind and cold on one’s eyes.
When you just have a cold clean road in front of you, the shoes don’t have to be anything special.
Winter running hopefully means ice and/or snow for you, at least sometimes, though.
For such real winter conditions, consider shoes that offer a better grip like Icebug’s RB9X sole, at least, or Vibram Arctic Grip – or, for real ice, spikes like with Icebug’s BUGrip.
Gore-tex waterproof lining (and gaiters) or even higher boots rather than shoes can also come in handy.
Here, again, we get to situations in which you’ll have to know what conditions you can expect to encounter.
This winter, I am (with support from Icebug in the form of free products) trying out the Icebug Oribi GTX, which are running shoes with “only” their grippy RB9X sole and Gore-Tex waterproofing, as well as the Pace2 boots, which are really hiking boots with spikes.
I also have been running in Icebug Anima3 shoes, which also feature spikes and are thus very secure on icy surfaces, but those only have an upper that is non-absorbing, meaning it does get wet when there is too much moisture.
And I, in winter, like to hike up and run down hiking and snowshoeing trails and skiing slopes. (Video coming ;) )
To summarize: With shoes, the usual surface on which you run, wetness and/or snow depth will be the major considerations.
Like on top, what you want to achieve is to have gear on you that keeps you safe and dry; wetness is the major enemy to be avoided.
Sounds like #dadadvice…