Category Archives: Coach’s Corner

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, 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?