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What to wear when running in the cold: layers, layers, layers

Posted Dec 07 2011 1:07pm

I wore three shirts, thick gloves, and tights during the 2009 Cowtown Marathon in Fort Worth. I wore a hat during some portions of the race, but when my head got too hot, I took the hat off.

Here in Texas, the most comfortable time of year to run is between mid October and mid December, that’s when the morning temperatures are consistently in the 40s to 60s, a refreshing reprieve from the brutal summer, yet not cold enough to break out the gloves and tights.

From now until about late February, though, the morning weather can get freakishly cold, and I was reminded of that during today’s 8-mile run in 25-degree temperatures.

When I tell my non-running friends that I run in this stuff, they give me weird looks and say, “but aren’t you freezing?”

My answer: If you dress right, running in the cold beats running in the summer ANY. DAY.

And by cold weather, I mean temps below 40; anything warmer than that and I’m wearing shorts, a singlet, and maybe gloves because my hands get cold easily.

The answer to how you dress for cold weather running can be found in the science. When you run, your body temps can go from 98.6 degrees to 103 or even 104 degrees. In the summer, that’s like running in hell – thus you have to slow down and drink plenty so you don’t have a heatstroke. But in the winter, your inner furnace keeps your core comfortable (as long as you are wearing enough of the right clothes to keep all that heat from leaving your body too quickly.) Every runner knows that you run faster in the cold than you do in the heat.

A good hat

When it is below 40 degrees, I like to start with a nice hat to keep my head warm. You can lose a lot of heat through your head if you don’t cover it up. If I’m running more than an hour (and there is little wind) my head tends to overheat though and I may take my hat off mid-run. It was in the low 30s with wind chills in the 20s when I ran the 2009 Cowtown Marathon in Fort Worth. But if you check my race day photos, you’ll see pictures of me with and without a hat. When I ran that day against the wind, my face and head were freezing, so I kept the hat on. But when the wind was not blowing or when I ran on areas of the course not covered by shade, it might as well have been 60 degrees out.


The other thing that’s important are thick gloves. My fingers get really cold, even when temps are in the 40s. The gloves I wear are so ridiculously thick that my hands sweat in them when I run, but that beats the alternative, which is having my fingers get so cold that they ache and get so weak that I can’t open a GU during a long run or even turn the key in my door after a run.

Shirting responsibility

Every shirt I wear during a run (when I actually wear a shirt) is a technical shirt with that wicking fabric that keeps you dry. Sometimes, if it’s a short race and its in the 40s, I will wear a singlet and gloves. If it’s a long race or it is below 40 I wear two wicking shirts. Today, when it was 25 degrees (and during the aforementioned Cowtown Marathon) I wore three wicking shirts. They keep me dry and warm. (Some runners wear those cool running jackets and if I wasn’t so cheap, I’d go buy one). And if you get to hot, you can always take one of the shirts off. That’s why it is important to dress in layers.

Tights or no tights

Again, the line of demarcation is 40 degrees. If its warmer than that, I’m wearing shorts. If it’s much colder than that, then I’m breaking out the tights. But the thing is, I’ve run in shorts with temps in the low 30s and my legs don’t get very cold. Still, I feel very cozy wearing tights in cool weather. They keep my knees and hamstrings warm and wick away the sweat.

Earlier in this post, I said running in the cold beats running in the heat. The only time that IS NOT TRUE is before and after you run. In July, when you are waiting on your friends to meet you for a Wednesday 8-miler, you get out of your car, stretch, fidget with your Garmin, and chat with others around you. In the December cold, you sit in your car with the heater blasting and you don’t get out of the car until the entire group has arrived and is ready to run. Standing around in the cold – before and after your run – is not fun. AT. ALL.

But running in the cold is a blast!

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