Coach’s Corner: What Winter Running Gear Do I REALLY Need??

“How does a gal living in the tropics of Singapore have any business writing about winter running gear?”

Dealing with uber-humidity? Sure, she can totally write about that.

But freezing temperatures, icy winds, and blowing snow?  Give me a break.

But wait-wait-wait just a second, and give me a moment to explain.  You see, prior to living in Singapore, I spent six years living and running in Rochester, NY – which is, quite literally, just across the lake (Lake Ontario, to be exact) from Canada.  My qualifications for writing about winter weather running can be explained with just a few Rochester statistics.  Rochester, NY experiences:

1. Average low temperatures below freezing for five months of the year (this is where they usually sit for 6 AM runs);
2. Nine hours of daylight on the shortest day of the year.  That’s, like, 7:30 AM – 4:30 PM; and
3. An average yearly snowfall over 90″.  This ranks it as the 11th snowiest city in the US; five of the cities ranked above Rochester are within a 2 hour drive of Rochester.

Yep, that'd be some wintry weather.  Also, take note of the jacket - we'll come back to that shortly.  Photo Credit: Barb Boutillier

Yep, that’d be some wintry weather. Also, take note of the jacket – we’ll come back to that shortly.
Photo Credit: Barb Boutillier

So with that, and with apologies to Karen at la chanson de ma vie (who doesn’t like this kind of repetitive list/advice – I generally agree with her, but am making an exception here), let’s talk about winter running gear.  [Unless, of course, you live in Singapore, or you still doubt my credentials.  Then click on textfromdog.tumblr.com, close this window, and go enjoy general dog-text hilarity.]  I’m making an exception in writing this post simply because I’ve received so many requests for such a topic lately.

Usually, these requests go something like this: “Hey, I just started running this spring.  I paid a lot of money for new sneakers, and some tech shirts, and (maybe) a fancy GPS watch.  I don’t have much money left to spend on running gear, but winter is coming and my GPS watch doesn’t keep me warm.  How should I spend my limited remaining funds?”  And really, this is a great, practical question.  Keeping in mind a few simple rules (dress in layers, avoid cotton), here are my answers, in order of importance:

[*Note: Any brand references and links are provided by me, for your convenience, because I love the product.  I get nothing from these companies if you click the link or buy the product.]

1. Safety equipment.  With shorter daylight hours, the likelihood that you’ll be running after dark is much higher than in the summer.  A reflective vest or belt is a necessity, and a headlamp is important if you’ll be running in an area that lacks streetlights.  An additional blinking red light for your back is optional.  Headlamps come in all price ranges; personally, I like Black Diamond products, but anything will do to get you started.  Amphipod makes the best and most comfortable reflective gear that I’ve found (their Xinglet is amazing).

Winter Trail Racing: Headlamp? Check! Xinglet? Check! Cheapo gloves? Check, check!

Winter Trail Racing: Headlamp? Check! Xinglet? Check! Cheapo gloves? Check, check!
Extra safety pins? Missing, apparently.
Photo Credit: Barb Boutillier

I'll admit that I eventually had more than one weatherproof outer layer (as you can see in these pics).  But this jacket was by far my favorite.

I accumulated more than one weatherproof outer layer – but this jacket was by far my favorite.

2. A warm, light, water-resistant/proof jacket.  I suggest a running or cycling jacket, as these tend to be less bulky than “every day wear” jackets.  Purchase one in a slim cut, but with a little extra room for a few layers to be worn underneath.  Reflective stripes/strips/spots/panels are a bonus, as it will likely be dark when you are out at this time of year.  This will probably be the priciest item you purchase ($100+) – but I urge you to save your pennies first, then splurge on a high quality product when you do buy (only exception would be if your climate gets two days below freezing every year).  You will probably wear this piece for every outdoor run, for many months.  Most of the typical running/cycling brands make a good product. My Sugoi jacket and I passed many happy miles together, and even just looking at the photos of it (see right) makes me a bit nostalgic.  That was a great jacket, and it would still be going strong for me, if I hadn’t moved to the tropics…

3. Thick running tights.  In the beginning, any kind of “bottom” will do – warm up pants, yoga pants, etc.  A tighter fit is preferable, and some wind/water resistance might be beneficial, but just wear what you have.  When you’re ready to purchase, I suggest selecting a pair of tights that will be appropriate for the average winter conditions where you live, and I strongly recommend tights over pants (less bulk, less annoying, less to get wet in the slush/snow, and often warmer).  On the very coldest days, you can fake an extra layer with a pair of cheap “warm up” pants or your running capris/shorts on top.  If the fitted profile makes you uncomfortable, wear shorts or a cover-up athletic skirt on top.  On warmer days, your capris should to fine.  Again, stick to a typical running apparel brand and you won’t go wrong, and expect to pay $50-80.

4. High quality winter socks.  Running shoes have lots of breathable mesh, which allows a cold wind or icy puddle to sabotage your toasty toes.  While a double layer of your regular socks might do the trick for awhile (and except in the coldest places, your toes will warm up after a few miles), the best protection against chilly feet is a pair of wool-blend winter socks.  If you’re on the taller side, I especially suggest a higher cut (usually found as “Hiking” not “Running”), to help protect your ankles when your tights ride up.  Smartwool and Darn Tough are two great brands – these socks don’t come cheap (~$8-25/pair), but you will wear them for many years to come, and your toes will thank you!

5. Long-sleeved top-half base layers.  The trick to dressing for cold weather running is layers.  If you have any technical gear from your warmer weather running (bra, tank, short-sleeved shirt), then put that layer closest to your skin.  On top, add one or two or three (as the temperature dictates) more layers, preferably technical gear, but whatever you have will do.  Bonus features on this layer include a higher neck and/or thumb holes (especially for those with long arms!)  Finish with your jacket (see #1).  You can get as simple or as fancy with your base layer as you want; usually, mid-quality base layers can be found for $20-40.

6. Hats/gloves.  These are essential items that you should be wearing as soon as the temperatures drops – in fact, I’ve been known to wear shorts, short sleeves, and gloves:

But gloves and hats are at the bottom of my “to buy” list because, in my experience, it’s not usually worthwhile to spend extra money on these layers, especially at first.  Go digging in your closet for an old earband or hat, and see what kind of gloves you find while you’re at it.  Usually, the items you find will be made of some sort of synthetic anyway.  I grab the cast-offs (ones I wouldn’t normally wear in every day life), and banish them to the running basket.  This is where the hats in the above photos originated.

And frankly, after losing 2-3 pairs of pricey winter running gloves (when my hands got warm, I’d take the gloves off and shove them half into my shorts/pants), I gave up and bought a pack of obnoxiously colored, one-size-fits-all gloves.  I’d double them up if it was very cold, and I’d add a layer with the “finger mitts” on a few of my technical tops.  And I did keep a pair of wind-resistant mittens around, for the very coldest days.

Also on the coldest days in the coldest climes, you may want a scarf or balaclava to protect your neck and face, and to help warm the air slightly before you breathe it in.  You can fashion this with an old scarf wrapped over your nose/mouth and tied behind your head, or splurge on a specialized product.  This really depends on how cold it gets where you live.

Now, the final question: Where should I buy this gear?

I MUST start by recommending your local running/walking store.  I don’t mean a big-box sporting goods store – I mean a specialty running/walking store.  Shopping at such a store lets you try on various brands/sizes, feel the fabric options, and talk to the staff.  Seriously – the staffers at such stores are usually amazing resources – they should be runners themselves (if they aren’t, find another store), and can talk you through the details of each product in far more detail than this blog post can provide (materials, wind/water-proofness, pockets, reflectivity, etc.).

[Personal plugs: If you’re in Rochester, go to Fleet Feet Sports Rochester.  If you’re in Central NJ, go see Meghan at Princeton Running Company.  And on the off chance you happen to be near Gig Harbor, WA – then go visit Alexa at Route 66 Running & Walking!  If you’re anywhere else and need a suggestion, drop me a line.  I can’t make any promises, but I’ll do my best. :)]

Once you get a feel for the products, what you like, what sizes you wear, etc – of course you can go online.  There are lots of benefits to shopping locally, and I urge you to do so.  However, I can’t deny that I stalk my favorite apparel sites at the end of the season (at the end of this winter, you can get great deals for next winter!), and I do order my fair share of discounted apparel from Sierra Trading Post.

And that, I believe, is a cold weather wrap (or Snuggie, whatever you prefer).  If there’s interest, I’ll talk about dressing your feet (beyond socks) for winter weather running in a future post.  But for now, my temperate-climate-dwelling friends, grab some hot tea and a slice of pumpkin pie, prop your feet up, and have a great evening.  Here in the tropics, I’m off to put on a running tank, and chill an isotonic beverage for post-sweaty-run rehydration. 🙂

Tell me about the coldest/nastiest condition you’ve ever run through.  What piece of apparel did you want to marry at the end of that run?

Did I miss any essential winter apparel items?  Think I made a mistake in the order of importance?  Feel free to discuss and disagree in the comments!

Any winter-weather-topics you’d like me to blog about?

 

32 thoughts on “Coach’s Corner: What Winter Running Gear Do I REALLY Need??

  1. Meagan

    Love the Text From Dog reference 🙂 That website always makes me laugh! I read your tips on dressing for winter running, but I also clicked over to Text From Dog… I couldn’t resist!

    When it gets really cold (i.e. gale force winds) out I will sometimes wear compression shorts and knee-high compression socks under my tights for extra layers. The coldest/nastiest run I can remember was my very first 13 miler back when I was training for my first half with TNT. There was a group of about 8 of us, but only me and another lady showed up on this particular day. I don’t know the exact temperature, but I know it was well below freezing, 30+ mph sustained winds, and icy/snowing. At one point we were running down a hill that curved and went under a tunnel and I did not think we were going to make it to the tunnel, I thought I was going to die from exposure right there on the trail I was so cold. But we made it. My least favorite weather to run in is when it’s hovering just above freezing, raining, and windy. Yuck! Thank goodness I have Sven 🙂

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      I’m not even a big dog person, but some of them totally cracked me up…There’s one about shaking…gonna shake…gonna shake it like a Polaroid picture…WHOA! Who got the living room all wet?!?!? I’m cracking up just thinking about it….

      I didn’t dwell on it in this post, but you are absolutely correct – that 33*F RAINY weather is the worst. Actual snow is so much less wet than rain – I would always emphasize to my runners that November was much harder than January. Because by January, you were almost guaranteed snow!

      Your TNT run sounds pretty intense. But I bet you felt pretty bad-ass when you were finished! 🙂

      Reply
  2. Brielle

    Thank you for this. You know I requested it, although I must admit I am starting to chicken out on the winter running thing- but maybe, just maybe this blog post put a spark in my cold step :-p hey if not there’s always the treadmill. Womp womp.

    Ang and I ran on a cold and rainy day about a month ago and I wanted to marry my sweatshirt with finger holes. I totally underestimated the importance of these things

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Don’t chicken out until you try it! Yes, it’s chilly at times – but you have to at least give it a shot. And there’s nothing – nothing – like getting out on a snowy day, when the whole world feels quiet, and you can see the newly fallen snow before anyone else. Plus, there’s a terrific feeling of accomplishment to head out on a really yucky day!!

      Trust me – that rainy day is actually worse than once the snow starts. Snow is much better (less wet) than cold, damp rain. [My least favorite running condition is 35-40*F and rainy.] Give it a try! I’m tossing around some ideas for a winter running support group (although that seems awfully funny coming from someone living in the tropics) – just not quite sure how best to do it. Thoughts/input appreciated!! 🙂

      Reply
  3. Allison

    So I am in Texas, and a few weeks ago we had a cold front come through. It was 50 degrees. I had on pants, 2 tops, a hat, and gloves.
    Do you think I could handle running in 6 degree weather?? 🙂

    I am such a weakling when it comes to cold weather running, but I am trying to get better. I need to invest in some better running tights….the ones I have are old, and don’t do a great job of keeping me warm.

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      The initial adjustment is the hardest part; if you lived in a colder climate, you would definitely adjust. [I’m not saying that you would learn to love winter running the MOST MOST MOSTEST OF ALL! Just that you would/could learn to handle it.]

      I use this example: Think about the temperature at which it’s “chilly” enough for a sweatshirt in the Fall. Now think about the temperature at which you eschew that sweatshirt in the spring. Those temperatures are NOT the same. Relativity and expectation matter A LOT.

      Good gear definitely matters. What part of you is getting cold? Once you have a full layer of decent gear, it’s time to see what’s causing the most cold angst. For example, I can handle my legs getting quite, quite cold – my when my arms and shoulders are cold, I’m miserable. That’s why the gloves and long sleeves come out LONG before the tights do, for me!

      Reply
  4. supergenericgirl

    Nice list! I’m so glad it never snows in Auckland – don’t think my love for running would actually survive through the winter months, but definitely need thick tights and running gloves in August/September.

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Hahaha – you never know. There’s something really badass about coming in from a run with sweat frozen to your face hair, and a layer of snow frozen onto your hood (as in, “head hood”, not “car hood”). 🙂

      Reply
  5. Jules

    The coldest I’ve even ran was probably about -2oC in London when it was snowing. It was quite nice actually…apart from trying not to slip, fall and break my neck on the icy sidewalks. It was only nice though, because I wore all the right gear (I don’t wear hats though, only ear warmers…).

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      As long as you were warm, a hat wasn’t necessary. 🙂

      I think the chance of slipping is LOWER when out running – because we’re all paying very close attention to our feet and footfalls! And there’s something amazing about enjoying the first hours of a snowfall – before it gets touched, plowed, salted, and trampled. I have a very fond memory of some similar runs from Rochester…

      Reply
  6. Grace

    Oddly, despite living in New England for five years, I didn’t do all that much running through winter. I can however tell you about the best gear for winter HIKING (for me, gloves are key. and layers…layers that zip down all the way, with side vents, because I overheat. and rent or buy those crampons, folks, they will save you from slipping and falling to your death when you are on an icy mountainside in a blizzard with strong winds). My only advice for both hiking and running is: don’t overdress, because you will get sweaty and then freeze.

    Reply
  7. Sheila

    OH I went back home from SoCal to the Midwest last winter and was DYING. I had on a bazillion layers. But the one thing I didn’t layer – my BUTT! I will never run outside in the cold without a pair of underwear UNDER my running tights ever, ever again.

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      You were dying because your change was abrupt! I promise it’s much easier to be eased into cold weather than thrown into the biddle of a blizzard. But…yeah, always wear the undies, and just be thankful you are a lady who made that mistake, and not a guy. =)

      Reply
  8. Char

    I don’t have to run in extreme cold ever. I think the worst it’s gotten on a run was 4C – that’s really not that bad. All last winter was so mild that I didn’t even break out the long-sleeved shirts. But hot, on the other had, is something I’m very familiar with.

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Wow…that is definitely a mild winter. 🙂 But again – it’s all relative, and if 4 degrees is as cold as it gets, then that feels cold to you, yah?

      But I’ll bet you know plenty about running in dry heat…hello, hydration! 🙂

      Reply
  9. misszippy

    Let me start by saying…so glad I don’t live in Rochester! But anyhow, I do live in MD where we do get the occasional pretty cold morning in January. My go-to is a shell that has detachable arms, and a pocket in which to stow them. I love that jacket. Yaktrax kind of rule, too, for keeping one off the treadmill in slick conditions.

    Please do feel free to laugh at all of us come January, btw!

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Detachable arms can be great – and increase the versatility of that shell layer, especially in milder climes! I’ll admit that I was never a bit fan of a sleeveless jacket (because my arms always feel colder than my core), but I know plenty of Rochesterians who love this layering approach in the fall/winter. Thanks!

      Reply
  10. Amy

    I found it hilarious to have a post come from you about Winter running gear. Having gone to college on the PA/upstate NY border, I KNOW winters in that area. And I used to run in cotton fleece sweatpants in the winter back then. And I can live to tell about it. I do prefer my gear today, though.

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Hey, this wasn’t intentional, but I actual have experience training in a pretty broad range of climate conditions. Need to figure out how to work this into my resume… 🙂

      Your survival of sweatpants emphasizes on thing I’m trying to say – you can still run in pretty much any clothes. If you have the resources, these things may make you more comfortable. 🙂

      Reply
  11. Jess

    I complain about Australia’s winter weather for running and find it annoying to dress appropriately. Hahaha. It doesnt get close to freezing. I’m pretty sure I might die if i lived in Rochester!!! Haha. Great post, I like list posts they can be super helpful. Singapore weather must have been a big adjustment! 🙂

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      You wouldn’t die; you’d just adjust. And you’d realize how hardcore you feel after finishing a sleety six miles! 🙂

      I had a transitional 8 months in Los Angeles before moving to Rochester. Although, LA is pretty hot and very dry…so that was a different beast altogether! Honestly, I adjusted OK (although it did genuinely take 6-8 weeks for my body to catch up), but got to invest in a pretty serious wardrobe shift. 🙂

      Reply
  12. John

    Holly, just wanted to let you know we’ve teamed up with Heat Max & we’re giving away Free packs of HotHands (with purchase) that easily insert into our sQoosh pouch for those reeeeally icy days,

    -John

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Good to know! I actually juuuust arrived at my parent’s house for Thanksgiving: And my first set of Sqoosh bands were waiting for me. Unfortunately, I’ll have to wait to try them until I get back to Singapore – and for now, I’m embracing a few miles done with chilly fingers. Very cool way to give the product an “all seasons” functionality.

      Reply
  13. Debbie @ Deb Runs

    To me the perfect running weather is a day that I can wear shorts and a short sleeved top, but need to wear gloves! My favorite winter running clothes are my vest over a long-sleeved shirt and capris. Most winter days around here are cold, but since I’m always on the warm side that’s usually plenty warm enough for me.

    Now to answer one of your questions… It was about -2 degrees when the Cruisers met one Saturday morning a few years ago. It was the only time I’ve ever run with hand warmers. Of course I had gloves and mittens on, but that wasn’t enough and I was thankful that we had hand warmers left over from cold nighttime college football games. Our water even froze in our water bottles. But we were toasty warm in our layers, and happy to be able to run together!

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Sounds like we favor the same attire, Deb! I’ll rock shorts & gloves with you on any weather-appropriate days!

      Oh…the frozen water bottles…and to think, we put them in the freezer in the summer months to help keep them icy! What we wouldn’t give for some hot water on such a day! 🙂

      Reply
  14. Karen@ La Chanson de Ma Vie

    I’ve got a pretty broad range of places I’ve lived and I think I actually prefer the cold. Oklahoma was a moist, disgusting heat and winter was all ice storms. Michigan was all about wind chill. Then I moved to Alaska and found the cold there was the best for running….around the first of the year, it doesn’t get above -30F. I think my coldest run ever was -49F. The good thing about Fairbanks is that it doesn’t get a ton of snow like Rochester and rarely has wind, so it is easy to seal out all the cold with a few key layers. I think the best piece of gear one can have is a good attitude. If you think it’s going to suck, it will. I made the cold temps into a game, “how cold can I go?” As for actual gear, it was all about the balaclava and face mask. Frozen lungs are a real thing when it’s that cold. Also, going up half a shoe size to accommodate the extra sock bulk.

    So with your winter running cred, want to join me for the Little Su 50K this year? Here’s the link: http://susitna100.com/ 🙂 🙂

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      I had to crack up over the race website – after detailing the temperature fluctuations, they then note that, “The Susitna basin isn’t Buffalo, New York; a snow storm often leaves as little as 6 inches accumulation,” Given my associations with upstate NY, I burst out laughing. That race sounds pretty intense – but I’ll bet it’s gorgeous. Unfortunately, the 50K is already sold out. Otherwise, I might consider it. I’m very impressionable when it comes to races. 😉

      And you certainly braved some colder temps than we had in Rochester – although I LOVE your comment about attitude. I may have to steal it for an upcoming post, if you don’t mind! 🙂 And although I downplay the need for a balaclava, in those temps, it would certainly be an essential item.

      Reply
      1. Karen@ La Chanson de Ma Vie

        Well darn, it was open just a couple of days ago! The 100 hardly ever fills up, guess you’ll need to do that instead 😉

        PS- Is there a way for me to see your followup comments without having to come back to the blog each time? A few other blogs have auto replies to the email I provide when making comments. It makes things a lot easier.

        Reply
        1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

          I’ll consider it. Endurance races in the tropics and in Alaska both in the same year… 🙂

          At the moment, using the Comments plug-in that I do, there’s no way for you to subscribe to see JUST my reply. [The only alternative is to subscribe to ALL comments, which would be pesky.] But I agree that this is a terrific functionality (although might require migrating to a new commenting system). So for now, I can only apologize and ask for your indulgence; I have Website Revamping on the ToDo list for my return to Singapore – hopefully I can sort things out to a more user-friendly system then. And if you have any suggestions, feel free to send them my way! 🙂

          Reply
  15. Alyssa

    I, for one, loved the Rochester stats! I need those Yak Traxx to run there, because the runs I’ve tried to do there around Christmas time are basically more like skiing. It’s hilarious working at a running store in Maryland after having grown up there – people pile on minimum 3 layers for runs in the 40s! Running in Rochester I think is the only time I’ve had 3 layers and even then usually I do two. I swear by UnderArmour Cold Gear. It’s the best and really keeps you warm.

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      It’s true…getting a good winter RUN is all about knowing where the plows start working, and having the right footwear. Personally, I prefer a pair of heavy duty trail shoes over YakTraxx, but that’s a personal preference.

      I definitely think that the number of layers required is relative. You should hear Singaporeans gripe about the mere THOUGHT of visiting a place where the temperature dips below 70*F…. [Note: Such a place, wherever it is, is automatically SO COLD.]

      Reply

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