What to Wear for Cold Weather Running

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There’s something very satisfying about running in the cold. It’s like conquering the weather—you start out freezing, your breath billowing in front of you… And by the end of your run, you’re warm, sweating, and running at a time you never thought you could in such weather!

Getting out of bed and into the cold is challenging for most people. Understanding what to wear for cold weather running is the first step to being comfortable and safe in wintery weather.

Let’s jump in and discuss what running gear is appropriate for what kind of weather so you’re always in peak condition.

Is Running In the Cold Dangerous?

There’s nothing wrong with running in the cold… If you’re well-prepared for it. But running in cold, wind, rain, or snow without proper gear can be a nightmare.

Exposure to wind or rain for prolonged periods of time can impact your immune system, leading to colds and flu!

Running in wet weather often comes with slippery surfaces and poor visibility, leaving you open to injury due to slipping or not being able to see where you’re going or hazards in the way.

Plus, running in cold weather without being prepared is just plain uncomfortable!

However, if you’re wearing the right gear, running in cold weather should be perfectly safe, and your performance should be unaffected.

Why Layering Is Important

Layering is handy for many reasons. In the cold, using two to three layers of carefully chosen clothing traps heat between each layer, keeping you warmer.

It’s important to choose proper technical running gear, as these garments are designed to wick away moisture and offer a high level of breathability.

But there’s another factor many runners don’t consider—or don’t realize. When you run, your body temperature increases, which means that although it may be 50°F outdoors, the “real-feel” temperature is about 10 degrees higher than that.

You’ll get warmer than you might expect as you run. To cool down, you can remove your clothing layer by layer to prevent suddenly going from warm to too cold.

What to Wear for Cold Weather Running

While layering is a super system to keep you warm and protected during cold-weather runs, it’s important to cater to the actual weather. If it’s only mildly cold, there’s no need for serious layering.

On the other hand, if you only wear two layers in freezing weather, you’re probably not going to be warm enough. Here’s a quick guide to what you should wear in various weather conditions.

40 to 50 °F (5 to 10 °C)

You can choose between shorts or tights, depending on what suits you better. A long-sleeved technical shirt—compression shirt or normal fit—is ideal for the upper body.

You can also wear a lightweight running jacket—water-resistant and wind-resistant if you’re out in wet or windy weather. You don’t need a middle layer in this weather.

If you suffer from cold hands, wear light gloves in this weather, especially if it’s windy. It might be worthwhile to carry a pair in your pocket if you aren’t sure.

Runners prone to cold ears or developing earaches after windy or cold runs might want to consider a headband that covers the ears. It keeps the sensitive spots warm without your head overheating.

32 to 40 °F (0 to 5 °C)

This is just above freezing, so we advise wearing tights instead of shorts. Alternatively, you can wear sweatpants, but remember that wind and water can sneak into the space between the pants and your legs.

A technical compression top, covered with a long-sleeved shirt as a middle layer and a light, windproof and waterproof jacket to top it off, would be ideal.

Depending on you, you might want to choose a headband or a beanie. Gloves are also advised, but we recommend choosing a lightweight pair to take them off and stick them in a pocket if you get a little warm.

20 to 32 °F (-6 to 0 °C)

It’s a good idea to go for thermal running tights or compression tights to boost circulation in your legs in this weather.

On your upper body, you’ll want to wear a technical base layer—like a compression shirt—followed by a long-sleeved shirt. A weatherproof jacket will protect you from the elements, and a hood is a good idea if the weather changes.

If your jacket doesn’t have thumb holes or extra-length sleeves to provide protection, it’s also a good idea to bring a pair of gloves.

A headband or beanie is essential to protect your head. You lose a lot of heat through your head, so a beanie might be best. But if you’re prone to overheating, a headband protects your ears while allowing heat to escape.

Don’t forget to pay more attention to your socks in this weather. They’ll need to effectively cover the gap between your shoes and your tights, stopping any breezes or splashes from reaching your skin.

Don’t go overboard with the thickness of your socks either—they should be thicker than summer socks but still need to wick away moisture.

20 °F and Below (-6 °C and Below)

This is cold! Go for winter-weight tights, and make sure you wear decent socks that cover the ankle gap properly.

A mid-weight should follow a snug base layer on your upper body to a heavy-weight long-sleeve shirt. On top of that, a thick weatherproof jacket will protect you from whatever weather you encounter.

In cold air, you may want to consider wearing a running mask or even a balaclava. A beanie might be more appropriate than a headband here as well.

Heavyweight gloves are probably also a good idea to prevent your hands from freezing as you run.

Running In Cold Rain

Rain can quickly soak you to the skin, which means it’ll be tough to maintain a warm core temperature even as you run.

For cold rain, you should consider a water-repellent jacket or a completely waterproof one if possible, depending on how heavy the rain is.

We also advise waterproof shoes if you’re running in the rain—running shoes with a Gore-Tex layer are an excellent choice. Running with soggy, squelchy socks is just not fun! You can also get water-repellent socks.

Running In Icy Wind

Wind can be worse than rain! Not only can it blow you off course and slow you down significantly, but if you aren’t prepared for it, windy weather can lead to sore ears, a sore throat, and watery eyes.

Stay safe by dressing appropriately if you notice it’s windy outdoors. Aside from your regular layers, it’s a good idea to protect your throat by wearing a neck gaiter or a running mask. If you want full face coverage, a balaclava is a good idea.

Look after your ears by covering them with ear muffs or a beanie. It’s also important to cover all small gaps that could let in a breeze, so make sure you’re wearing long enough socks, and a jacket with thumb holes is great for underneath your gloves.

Other Considerations for Cold Weather Running

Wear Reflective Gear

With cold weather often comes dreary conditions. Motorists may have poor visibility, especially in rainy or windy weather.

Choosing reflective clothing or accessories can help give you just a bit of extra safety when running in this weather.

Use Ice/Snow Cleats

If you’re running in extra slippery, icy, or snowy conditions, we highly recommend using a set of cleats to give you a better grip as you run.

You should be wearing shoes that cater to the terrain you’re running, but this isn’t quite enough in some cases.

A set of cleats can give you added traction that keeps you safe on your feet in poor conditions. They’re easy to add to your shoes and well worth buying if you often run on icy or slippery ground.

Use Hand Warmers

Hand warmers like these can be a great accessory for cold weather, at least until you’ve warmed up properly. You can place one in your pocket once it’s activated to add some warmth and place your hands in your pockets if necessary.

You can also buy gloves with pouches on them specifically for hand warmers. You shouldn’t place them directly against the skin, so you might need to get creative with how you use them.

Go for Merino Wool

We can’t recommend Merino wool garments enough. They may be a little pricey compared to others, but Merino wool has almost magical thermo-regulating properties.

That means it’ll keep you toasty in cold weather, but it is also surprisingly breathable and moisture-wicking. Thanks to these properties, it can regulate your body temperature in all weather, helping you stay cool when it’s hot and warm when it’s cold out.

It’s also naturally antimicrobial, anti-odor, and extremely soft and comfortable against the skin. A great choice!

When Is Cold Too Cold?

If you’re prepared to run in the cold, you can run safely and comfortably in low temperatures. But how do you know when it’s just too cold for safe exercise?

The American College of Sports Medicine sets the limit at -18 °F (-27 °C). According to a comprehensive study, in such low temperatures, soft tissue injury can occur extremely quickly.

If you’re out in this kind of cold for 30 minutes, even if you’re running and have the blood flowing, tissue damage will likely occur.

Unless you’re planning on doing a quick, 10 to 15-minute HIIT workout, it’s probably not worth exercising outdoors in these conditions.

Remember, even if the temperature seems to be within acceptable ranges, the wind chill factor can take up to 10 degrees off the reported temperature.

It’s a good idea to calculate the wind chill before you go out if the temperatures are extremely low. You can calculate it here if you know the temperature and the expected wind speed.

This will give you a good idea of whether or not the “real-feel” will be acceptable for you to run in—and if so, what to wear to protect yourself properly.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.