Running in the cold isn't as tough as it looks. With the right gear, your fingers and ears can stay toasty while you jog through a winter wonderland. Illustration by Jim Cooke.
I fell in love with winter running while I was training for a spring marathon. It wasn't a choice at first: Some weeks, the weather was bad for days on end, and if I stayed home I would fall behind in my training. Everybody else in my training group was braving the elements, so I did too — with, as it turns out, no regrets.
I got to run on quiet mornings with snow softly falling. I signed up for a winter race that herded finishers into a heated barn for hot chocolate and soup. I set a personal record at a spring race where I could push myself hard without breaking a sweat. So I find it sad when somebody tells me they're afraid of the cold, or they would run in the winter but don't know what to wear.
Sure, you may need to buy some new gear, or repurpose things from elsewhere in your closet. And yes, the first few minutes of your run will feel chilly. But if you're wearing the right shoes and clothes, and planning routes with a few extra factors in mind, winter running is not just feasible, it's actually fun.
Protect Your Feet
Your feet need to be warm and, if possible, dry.
Warm socks go without saying, but there are some extra considerations when you're picking socks to run in.
First, the socks have to be able to fit into your shoes. If you've been running in super thin cotton or synthetic socks all summer, thick socks may not fit. The Smartwool PhD Run socks that we love are available in a thin version that can fit no problem — but you may want to keep sock thickness in mind if you shop for a new pair of shoes just for winter running.
Wool socks are ideal because they keep your feet warm even when they get wet. You may not think of winter as a wet time, but any snow that meets up with your body heat will turn into water. If you don't have wool socks, synthetic wicking fabrics are a good second choice. Cotton is a no-no.
With warm socks, you can make do with the same shoes you wore in the summer. Your feet will stay dry if the weather is dry and you stay out of puddles. If you encounter snow and slush, though, your feet will have to endure warm-but-wet conditions for the rest of your run. That can be OK for short runs, but for serious winter running, consider upgrading your shoes.
Shoes with water-resistant uppers can keep water out. Some running shoes are available with this option, like the Nike Flash line that includes a water-resistant Nike Free. This will keep stray snowflakes out of your socks, but it isn't reliable if you'll be stepping in slush puddles. In that case, you'll want something more waterproof, like Gore-Tex shoes, many of which are made for running trails.
There are also snow-specific running shoes as well. GearJunkie has a list of their favourites here. Some have a built-in gaiter, which keeps the snow off your ankles.
If you expect to run on a lot of ice or packed snow, especially on trails, spikes can give you a little extra grip. Yaktrax makes a rubber harness that stretches to fit your shoe, with steel coils and small spikes, for about $40. Microspikes are a notch up from there, costing around $90 for what look like a miniature version of the chains you'd put on car tyres. And if you're really dedicated — and are buying a dedicated pair of snow shoes — you can attach individual spikes: Either these traction spikes from IceSpike, or a DIY approach using sheet metal screws. There's a tutorial here.
The versions that include rubber, like Yaktrax, can wear out quickly on pavement, so it's best to save these for runs on trails or on unplowed paths. You'll also want to be careful about the fit: I tried a pair that were similar to Yaktrax, and found that the rubber stretched enough to pull the spikes out of place.
Spikes and specialised shoes help you go more places, in worse weather — but remember that they're not required to just head out on a chilly day. Regular shoes are fine if the weather is cold but dry, or if you're willing to put up with a little moisture.
Wear Warm Layers
The key to dressing for cold weather running is one word: Layers.
On every winter run, you're really dressing for two temperatures. First, there's the actual temperature, which you'll feel from the time you step out of your house or car until you've made it about 10 minutes down the road. At that point, your body has warmed up and you may need to shed a layer or two. It's best if you plan your route so you can drop off a hat or jacket after the first kilometre. Some people skip the warmup layers, but these people are very very cold at the beginning of their run.
Layers also let you construct a variety of outfits from just a few garments. A good running jacket can be expensive, but since you can supplement it with any number of layers, you don't need to buy more than one.
You'll be generating a lot of body heat, so you don't actually need clothes that are all that warm. A parka, for example, is unnecessary. As a rule of thumb, imagine the temperature is 11C warmer. So your running gear for a -1C day should be similar to what you would wear on a 10C day when you're not exercising. Everybody has their own idea of how many layers match to what temperature, but this "what to wear" tool from Runner's World can help you get started.
On a chilly day — say, in the 10s — a long sleeved T-shirt is probably all you need. Wear it over your regular tee or tank, and you can take it off and tie it around your waist once you warm up.
For colder weather, you'll want to break out a light jacket or sweatshirt. This is when you experience one of the hidden perks of winter running: Pockets! Know how you have to pry a key off your key ring normally, and stick it in your bra band or that 5cm-long key pocket in your running pants? Well, get ready for the luxury of just sticking your keys in your pocket. This works with your phone, too, depending on its size.
By the time temps dip to -5C or below, you'll be doing some serious layering: For example, an undershirt, a long-sleeved warm layer and a jacket. If you have the cash, a great option for that warm layer is a wool base layer like this one from LL Bean. (Don't worry, it's not itchy).
Before you run out to buy all new clothes, experiment with what's in your closet. If you can't afford wool, other thin but warm fabrics can work. Try fleece or a repurposed thin sweater. Some people would never wear cotton for running (it can be cold when wet), but I wear it as my undershirt layer and don't mind.
The jacket is the most important layer. You can grab a sweatshirt in a pinch, but to be really well-equipped for nasty weather, you'll want a jacket that is windproof and waterproof (or at least water-resistant). Jackets made for running are lightweight, and it's easy to find ones that are visible at night, with bright colours and reflective areas, and that come with zippered pockets. Wouldn't want your keys to fall out!
Once it's too cold for shorts, you'll want to start layering your bottoms, too.
Women are at an advantage here, since most of us already have leggings in our closet. (It's fine to wear cotton if it will stay dry, but go for synthetics if it's snowing.) It's possible to run in pants that aren't form-fitting, but they let cold air in. That's why running "tights" like these are standard winter wear for both men and women.
Running tights come in different thicknesses; go for something fleece-lined for cold weather, or layer two pairs. And if your butt gets cold — or if you just want to be modest — feel free to wear a pair of shorts on top.
Guys can also buy wind briefs: Underwear with a windproof panel on the front. "If you have ever run, even for a little, with your hand down the front of your pants for fear of frostbite, you need these," says one Amazon reviewer.
You need to keep your ears warm, but don't reach for a hat just yet: An earwarmer or headband can cover your ears while still letting heat escape from the top of your head. And if anything is falling from the sky (say, snow), a baseball cap will keep it out of your eyes.
Fleece or knit hats are great for cold enough days, of course. The dividing line between earwarmer weather and hat weather is a personal one, and depends on whether you're overheating. If you're wearing a hat but sweating into your base layers, the hat is probably overkill.
Gloves, however, are essential. I keep a pair of cheap knit gloves in my jacket pockets, but windy or very cold days call for something stronger. You can layer gloves — I find gloves under mittens work well. You can also get windproof, insulated gloves, which are warmer than any number of layers of holey knit gloves.
Your face will freeze on windy or very cold days, so consider a face mask or balaclava — or even a fleece-lined bandana. A neck gaiter stays on better than a scarf, if your neck is cold. At this point, every inch of you is covered but your eyes. Sunglasses can take care of that.
The winter world can be dark, slippery and (surprise!) cold. Here are some tips for dealing with some of the likely hazards.
- It gets dark earlier in the winter, so you'll need to make adjustments to your evening or early-morning runs. Either switch to a lunch-hour habit, or prepare to spend a lot of time running in the dark. That means, at minimum, wearing reflective clothing and carrying a torch. Plan routes where you feel safe even in the dark, whether that means choosing safer neighbourhoods for city running, or avoiding the more treacherous trails.
- Slipping on ice sucks. Some ice you can see at a distance, but some you can't. And remember that you won't have your ice spikes if you're running on paved, plowed surfaces. So keep a close eye out, and don't be afraid to slow down to a penguin walk on areas you're unsure about. Running the same area multiple times lets you watch for ice on the first lap and put your mind at ease a little bit the next few times.
- The track probably won't be plowed. If you depend on a track for speedwork, you'll have to make other arrangements. The easiest adjustment is to convert your usual intervals into time: If you normally run 400m laps in two minutes, do intervals of two minutes at a time while running on a road or on the treadmill. (Then again, if you showed up to the track with a shovel, probably nobody would stop you and it would be a great workout.)
- Busy roads may become unrunnable. If you normally run on the shoulder, be aware that snowplows will deposit piles of snow, which then solidify into little ice mountains, right in your running zone. If that leaves nowhere to run except in traffic, you'll have to change your route.
- Water fountains may be turned off. This one is a warning for those of us that run in parks. If you depend on outdoor water fountains, they may not be available, so pack your own water bottle or detour to another source of water. Bathrooms, or seasonal businesses whose bathrooms you've used, may also be closed. Porta-potties may disappear for the season.
- You may not be able to drive. If you drive to the start of your running route, some days may be too snowy to get there safely — even if you're well equipped for the run itself. Make a backup plan by scouting out some routes in walking distance of your home.
Know When to Take It Inside
While you can mitigate winter running's hazards, you can't make them go away: Even the most intrepid runners have to take a treadmill day every now and then. A little flexibility in your training plan can help you stay safe without feeling guilty about skipped workouts.
Being in the cold and wet for too long can lead to hypothermia or frostbite, so pay attention to the conditions you're heading out in. That includes checking the weather forecast and having a backup plan in case the weather gets too dangerous. For example, running a series of loops instead of one longer route lets you easily cut a run short. Or, you could plan long runs in areas that have plenty of buildings you could duck into to wait for a bus or an Uber car.
On days you just can't run outside, go to an indoor track if there's one in your area. Sometimes gyms or YMCAs will have a tiny track that's better than nothing — the one near me has 13 laps to 1.5km. Then there's always the trusty treadmill. Intervals keep things interesting, or you can try these 400m checkpoints to survive a long run.
And finally, staying safe is more important than any one workout — so be smart and stay home if the weather is too bad to run and too bad to drive to the gym. But on those beautiful winter days, when perhaps the snow is falling but the wind is gentle, layer up and enjoy.