I’m a big proponent of running outside in the winter. We spend so much time indoors during the short days from November to March that the dose of fresh air while we exercise is great for the body and mind.
Being ready for winter running will keep you getting out there.
But what do you really need? Walk into a running specialty store, or, even more overwhelming, a big box sporting goods store, and hundreds of brightly colored options scream at you.
Yes, you can run in your sweats from college. You can run in your yoga pants, your favorite cotton t-shirt, even your pajama pants. But you’ll be warmer and more comfortable—and therefore, enjoy your runs more—in a few key pieces of winter running gear.
Here’s a look at what you really need to make sure you have for outdoor winter running.
A pair of gloves.
Pants that breathe well while keeping you warm, and don’t get in your way.
A shirt that wicks sweat and doesn’t chafe you.
A jacket or midlayer of some sort that breathes and keeps you warm and protected.
KEY WINTER RUNNING GOODS
If you’re going to buy yourself one piece of gear for cold weather running, make it a pair of gloves. The distance blood has to travel from your heart to your extremities—hands and feet—means that they get cold quickly and are hard to warm back up.
Running gloves range from thin liners made out of synthetic materials, wool, or wool and synthetic blends to wind blocking, to thick, fleecey gloves with wind blocking fabric. For frigid climbs, consider lobster-claw gloves or mittens—both capitalize on the body heat of your fingers to keep each other warm. And gloves with a wind blocking mitt that stashes into the back of the glove when not in use are super versatile over a range of conditions.
Okay, I may have said you can run in yoga pants, sweatpants, or pajama pants, and you certainly can. Yoga pants function fairly well for running because, like running pants, they’re made to wick sweat. They just might not be as warm for winter running, and if they have flared legs, the material might get in the way and cause annoyance while you run.
Sweatpants might be warm, but they can be bulky and become wet and bulkier with sweat. And pajama pants…brr. And also, who runs in pajama pants? (My 14-year-old son would.)
Tights and pants made specifically for running work hard to wick sweat/move moisture from your skin to the outer layer of the fabric. They’re made to be breathable, eliminate any chafing seams, and sometimes block wind or provide added warmth with soft, fleece-like interiors (and smooth exteriors). They also have reflective detailing that helps keeps you visible from cars and such, which is important.
Tights can be warmer than pants because of their close-fitting nature, eliminating space for any air to circulate between your skin and the fabric. Layering tights under running pants that have the ability to block wind is a good strategy for runners living in frigid winter environments.
You’ve maybe heard this phrase before: “Cotton kills.” Because of all the air pockets found naturally in cotton, moisture (aka sweat) leaves your skin and fills those pockets. Your cotton shirt then because heavy and cold. If you’re out for a run or run/walk for 30 minutes or so, your cotton shirt isn’t going to kill you.
The phrase is more applicable to hikers and backpackers who are out sweating in the cold for hours or days on end. But wearing a shirt made to wick sweat can keep you a lot more comfortable through the winter.
“Technical” running shirts—ones made of synthetic fabrics or synthetic/wool blends—range in fabrication, design, and price. Some inexpensive running shirts may not have smooth seams or extremely high wicking ability, but they should do a good job pulling sweat off your skin and drying quickly.
Higher-end running shirts have features like flat seams to avoid irritation, long-cut sleeves with thumb holes to help keep hands warm, wicking fabric that is soft and feels great against the skin, styling that allows you to wear the shirt for other activities or even casually, etc. A good running shirt can definitely make you look forward to running.
If you run in just a running shirt and no jacket, especially in low light on busy roads, make sure that shirt has reflective detailing or wear a reflective vest of light.
Depending on where you live, a jacket might be necessary to shield you from rain, wind, snow, etc. Jackets range from “hard shell” (having the ability to block moisture), and “soft shell,” which provide warmth and some protection from moisture. Hard shells are imperative in rain. Soft shells work great in a light rain, dry snow, and cold.
What you may think of as classic running jackets are thin nylon zip-up jackets without hoods. These do a great job of blocking wind and providing a layer of warmth over a running shirt, but, unless they’re treated with a high-end Durable Water Repellency (DWR finish), they won’t keep you dry from the rain.
They tend to trap warmth instead of breathe, which can be a good thing in the cold…unless they trap your warmth and make you sweat more than necessary. Your sweat can freeze in the cold and make you colder.
For cold without moisture, you can get away with wearing a sweatshirt, a fleece, or heck, an old wool sweater. The goal is to stay warm but not too warm. You likely have one of the above in your closet already. I might start calling my wool sweaters “soft shells.”
See the note above about reflectivity. Consider brightly colored jackets and tops or highly reflective items.
Floppy beanies with football logos or ski poms on top work fine for run/walking and runs in general, but they may make you overheat. Lighter weight, thinner beanies will let more heat escape from your head and keep you comfortable for longer, and when you get too hot, you can more easily shove them in a pocket or in the waistband of your pants.
Long socks made from material other than cotton are a good investment. Bridging the gap between your shoes and your pants can make a big difference in comfort.
I see a lot of people in expensive running tights and tops, but with bare ankles and think: Brr! Especially in cold climates, good, long socks are worth the money.
Wool and wool-blend socks are great for winter running as they provide a layer of warmth, naturally, while breathing great.
And focus on fit: bulky socks that bunch up in your shoes are going to cause discomfort.
All of these tips are meant to make you the most comfortable through outdoor winter running. The more comfortable you are, the more often you’ll want to go, and the more enjoyment you’ll get out of your running when you are out there.