Maybe it’s a combination of body chemistry (I warm up fast while running) and my Midwest upbringing that makes me love winter running so much. I grew up understanding the power of lake-effect snow, having lived in cities on both sides of Lake Michigan, and appreciating even the coldest of cold temperatures (that would be in Minnesota, where I worked for several years in the late 1990s), which weren’t feared, but rather celebrated with things like elaborate ice sculpture contests and fun and frigid outdoor festivals. Long, cold winter? Bring it!
Today, back living in northern Michigan, I continue to embrace the chill, both with my family—we especially like snowshoeing and downhill skiing together—and definitely when I’m running solo and with friends. The trick, of course, is dressing right for the weather. And though I’m accustomed to towering snow banks, gigantic plow trucks and dangerous black ice, I went through plenty of trial and error once I became a runner and decided I wanted to run outdoors as much as possible, even in (go ahead, call me crazy) sub-zero temps and blowing snow. I’m a big believer in the old running adage, “There's no such thing as bad weather--only inappropriate clothing.”
Whether you’re an experienced winter runner or a relative newcomer to heading outside when the temps really dip, we figured a winter clothing and gear primer could aid all of us in ensuring a warm and safe season ahead. Here’s what worked for me, as well as for some of my Michigan running pals--since if anyone knows the ins and out of winter running, it’s them—and please let us know what’s worked well for you, too:
Starting at the very top: A breathable hat will keep your noggin warm but not sweaty. I really like my creme-colored SmartWool cap because it’s lightweight, soft, breathable, and fits over my ears (nothing worse than tugging a hat down mid-run). Since I have long hair, having a ponytail hole is pretty important, too, though on really cold days I’ll forgo the hair-up thing and simply wear a hat and let my long strands keep my neck warm. I’ve also worn a Turtle Fur neck-warmer in sub-zero temps (or when the wind chill makes it feel like it’s below zero). This keeps your neck cozy as well as helps you breathe better—pull the neck warmer up so it covers your mouth slightly so that you’re breathing in warmer air. Friends with cold weather-induced asthma have said this aids their breathing while running.
All about layers: A great base layer is a fitted long-sleeved top, worn over your sports bra. I’ve gotten by the past few winters with one black, one white v-neck top from Under Armour. These wicking, breathable tops are absolute staples. In 30-degree weather I might top one of these with a tee or light jacket. Colder weather will find me using these base layers beneath a thicker jacket or hoodie—always made from wicking fabric that’s water- and wind-proof. I have two favorite running coats for runs in ridiculously cold weather: a greyish-black reflective Brooks coat that fits like a glove; and a blue-and-grey Columbia coat with zippers running the length of each arm starting beneath my arm pits—the perfect solution for long runs that get me so warmed up that an infusion of cool air is pure heaven mid-run. My friend Krista sometimes runs a warm-up lap around her ‘hood, then sheds a layer at her house before continuing on.
On the bottom: Breathable bottoms also are essential. Some mother runners prefer the yoga pant-style, while others like the more fitted tights variety. My friend Catey dubs her winter tights with brushed fleece on the inside “very comfy.” I’ve been wearing reasonably-priced, quality running tights I found at Target for the past few years, and they’re perfect. It’s a little thing, but I like that they have zippers at the bottom, making it easier to strip ‘em off after runs.
Don’t forget reflective gear: Catey, of the brushed fleece winter tights, is all about wearing a reflective vest as her top layer. “Even in day light I want people to SEE me … I had a close call last year, not fun. My motto is I'd rather someone say ‘look at that dorky girl running,’ than "Wow, didn't even see her.’ Agreed.
Fingers & Toes: Gloves or mittens? Maybe both, I found after polling running friends. Seems the breathable fingerless gloves with a mitten flap are a popular choice (I’m thinking I’ll try a pair this year; I’d like to have a way to quickly adjust and make changes to my NikeGPS+ on my iPhone). I swear by SmartWool socks, especially the ones that have a touch of built-in cushion in the toes. Another key piece: traction for your running shoes, such as YakTrax, to help prevent slips and falls. Speaking of shoes, I recently learned more about proper shoes come winter--wearing those with waterproof materials or heavier, supportive overlays and little or no mesh paneling is important. Makes sense since the porous mesh on lighter-weight shoes will let wind, snow, and water seep inside, quickly freezing your feet. And this from Denise, about how to keep muscles toasty and working well: “I've found that wearing knee high compression socks not only keeps me warmer, but also helps to prevent soreness that can sometimes happen when you're muscles never really warm up.”
Finally, a few wise words from my running buddy Cassy (who also rocks it out mountain biking, even in snowy weather): “If you are cold when you walk outside, you are perfectly dressed for a run. Your body will warm up efficiently! Before a winter run, while my Garmin is trying to find ‘the mother ship,’ I get everything on, go to the front door, do 20 push-ups, 40 crunches, and 60 seconds of plank. Nice and warm and ready to get out there!”