The Foul-Weather Runner

Running in the Winter

This is part of an off-season gear series here at Of Miles and Mountains. While I don’t purport to be an expert on the subject of winter running, I have been running in conditions that would make many people resort to a treadmill, and find myself completely confident in nearly any conditions. Your mileage may vary, but this advice is designed to be applicable to nearly any situation. 

Sometimes I get stares even from hardy New England runners when I tell them I run outdoors even in -30ºF temperatures. Many of my runs last winter were below zero (including windchill), and with a few exceptions, I was comfortable. I don’t proclaim to have nailed it, but I’ve found a system that works really well for me, and I’d like to share it with you. I give you five rules, and a system that you can modify to work for you.

There is only one type of run I’m careful about when it’s very cold (for me, below 15º), and that is any sort of run that changes intensity dramatically. For example, a warm-up, hill repeats, then an extended cool-down takes extra planning! I try to stay close to home for these so I can run home and change or add clothing if need-be. As a last-chance scenario, I’ll sometimes hop on the bike trainer for a longer cool-down.

Five Rules

Rule 1: Dress in layers, with a jacket with a zipper on top. It’s much easier to vent a light jacket than take off a shirt and either keep track of it or ditch it.

Rule 2: Keep notes of what works for you at various temperature ranges! You are you, not me, in case that wasn’t clear. What works for me in 30º might keep you warm down to 15º, and overheat you at 30º. This is very individual. Balance between top and bottom warmth might vary, but I don’t think as much. But regardless, you can still use my system, just change the temperature ranges, and add in your own clothing pieces, and you’re good to go!

Rule 3: Never let the weather keep you in. You will really be surprised what conditions you can be downright comfortable and cozy running in!

Rule 4: You will be cold for the first 5-15 minutes. DON’T GO INSIDE!

Rule 5: Plan extra carefully for any run that changes intensity, i.e. a warmup, hill repeats and extended cool-down. I also recommend staying somewhat close to home or at least populated areas. If you twist an ankle, stay where you can limp back to the road and flag a ride.

 

The System

I use a system with 5 levels. They’re rated 1-5.

Your standard running attire (shorts and a shirt) makes no appearance. You can handle that by yourself. For me, above 35º is shorts with either long sleeves or short.

I will give my personal temperature ratings for each level, but you will have to experiment to figure this out for yourself. These temperatures are given including windchill, which is a huge factor when you’re running. Also note that the wind will slow you down, so take that into account when planning your routes and timing (especially out and back!)

My personal examples of some of the specific gear is listed below, as well as some recommended places to get it on the cheap!

Level 1: 25º – 35ºF  measurement-reading-thermometers

Bottom: Close-fitting running pants, standard socks. Top: Long-sleeve shirt and a light jacket. Head: Buff over the ears, or a thin race hat if wind is a big factor in the temperature, sunglasses (with clear lenses if it’s dark).

 

Level 2: 15º – 25ºF (chilly) 2

Bottom: Thin base layer, under close-fitting running pants, thin pair of secondary socks over standard socks. Top: Base layer and a medium jacket. Head: Race hat, sunglasses (with clear lenses if it’s dark).

 

Level 3: 5º – 15ºF (cold) 3

Bottom: Thin base layer, under wind-block running pants, thin pair of secondary socks over standard socks. Top: Base layer, long sleeve shirt and a medium jacket. Head: Merino wool hat, buff around neck, sunglasses (with clear lenses if it’s dark).

 

Level 4:  -10º – 5ºF (bitter) 4

Bottom: Thin base layer, under merino wool base layer, under wind-block running pants, with a thicker pair of secondary socks over standard socks. Top: Base layer under a merino wool base layer, under a medium jacket. Head: Merino wool hat, two buffs around neck (for more coverage), sunglasses (with clear lenses if it’s dark.)

Note: this is the most variable temp range for me, for some reason. I often find my legs overheat a bit. However, I’ve tried with only one base layer, and it’s usually not quite enough unless I’m going out for a tempo run.

 

Level 5:  -35º –  -10ºF (%*$&@#! frigid) 5

Bottom: Thin base layer, under merino wool base layer, under wind-block running pants, with a thicker pair of secondary socks over standard socks. If wind is a primary component of the cold, especially at the colder end of this range, I’ll add shell pants over the others. Top: Base layer under a long sleeve shirt, under a merino wool base layer, under a medium jacket. Hypothetically, if it got colder than -35º I would add my Salomon mid-layer underneath the jacket. Head: Merino balaclava, buff around neck, merino hat, fleece hat, sunglasses (with clear lenses if it’s dark). Hypothetically, if it got colder than -35º, I would use a thicker weight merino balaclava that’s been too warm for anything else.

*When it’s this cold, I will usually warm up in my base layers with a few minutes on a bike trainer indoors before finishing dressing quickly and heading out.

A note about gloves:

You probably notice I didn’t include what gloves I wear. I swear even on runs of the same temperature characteristics, my hand temperatures vary so widely. Gloves are the only part I haven’t got narrowed down. Like the rest of my body, I use layers. I have thin merino wool liners, thin fleece gloves, thin wind-block style gloves and thick fleece outer gloves. I’m also making some eVent waterproof breathable over-mitts when the materials arrive. See below for specific gloves.

 

Personal Gear

These are just my specific examples of gear. Most of them were purchased because I found  deal (see below for deals), so you probably won’t find them still available. Do you need it all? No, of course not. You will need at least one base layer top and bottom with a decent jacket and several sets of gloves if you want to survive the winter. Layering with the things you may already have is key!

Bottoms:
180’s Quantum Heat base layer – purchased via the Clymb
Icebreaker Bodyfit 200 base layer tights – purchased via the Clymb
Zoot running pants with compression shorts build in – purchased via the Clymb
The North Face Climashield Apex Running tights (great windblock and water resistance, no longer available) – purchased at TJ Maxx

Tops:
180’s Quantum Heat base layer – purchased via the Clymb
Columbia Omniheat base layer (lighter weight, but just as warm) – purchased via the Clymb
Icebreaker GT 180 1/4zip merino wool top – purchased via Sierra Trading Post
Saucony Hi-Viz light-up jacket (convenient, but bad sleeve design makes it hard to run fast in) – purchased at TJ Maxx
Saucony Waterproof/Breathable soft-shell (a little thicker than most, nice for winter) – purchased at TJ Maxx
Salomon Discovery HZ Midlayer (pretty warm, but only needed hiking so far) – purchased via the Clymb

Head: 
Buffs (just google them, you can find them anywhere, or companies will give them out free at races sometimes. They also make them out of merino, which is on my list!)
Various Merino hats by Trailheads, Smartwool and Icebreaker – many purchased at Sierra Trading Post
Mons Royale thin merino balaclava (really warm for it’s weight) – purchased via the Clymb
Icebreaker Apex 260 Balaclava (absurdly warm, I haven’t needed it yet) – purchased from Amazon

Gloves:
Icebreaker 200 Merino liners – (purchased via Amazon)
Marmot Touch Glove (a warm, but not thick sort of fleecy glove) – purchased at TJ Maxx
Marmot Interlaken Glove (thick fuzzy Polartec fleece glove, a size larger) – purchased at TJ Maxx
Black Diamond wind-block gloves (windblock at the back of hand, and thinner stretchy fabric at the palm, so you can control temperature when it’s 30º-45º) – purchased on Amazon

 

How to find the deals!

Almost all of this gear I’ve paid between 30% and 60% of list price for (that is, 40-70% off). The few exceptions were things I really needed right away to keep getting out there: the icebreaker liners and the Black Diamond gloves.

There are two rules to finding a deal: don’t go looking for one specific item, be open to finding different things at different times, and always price shop (and be patient) when you DO find a particular item/brand you really like.

The first thing you need to do is sign up at these three sites. Click the bold blue titles to go to the sites!

Active Junky: This is a site that magically gets you cash back at a HUGE number of sites. Im serious. It’s pretty awesome. I’ve gotten a total of $260 cash back in the past year. All you have to do is go to the site before you check out on another site, and use Active Junky’s link to get there. Then you complete your purchase and BOOM. Money in your paypal account at the end of the quarter. Cash back amounts vary from 4% to 15%, occasionally higher for limited times or on specific brands. They pay cash back for both The Clymb and Sierra Trading Post, so DON’T FORGET TO GO HERE BEFORE CHECKING OUT! It saves your cart when you click from this website.

The Clymb: The Clymb is a membership-site that posts various sales of often closeout merchandise at varying states of discount. It’s not guaranteed that it’s a good deal just because it’s on here, but you can ALWAYS find some killer deals. I’m talking 60, 70, occasionally 80% off. I like the Clymb because they tend to have my size more often, so I don’t find a good deal and then get disappointed. Sign up now! The emails are annoying, but make a filter in your email program, and check them once a week. I promise you the deals are worth it (you can see how many items I’ve purchased there, and there are lots that didn’t make it in this post!)

Sierra Trading Post: I’ve been a customer here since 2005, and I’ve saved over $4,000 over retail prices. I pay approximately 30-40% of retail every time I buy. Sign up for their emails NOW. Put them in your filtered folder with The Clymb, and check them when you want to buy something. They frequently email coupons for an extra 35-40% off their already clearance prices. They also have a satisfaction guarantee, much like LL Bean. I returned a pair of hiking boots after using them a year because they just never broke in. This company is owned by TJ Maxx now, but I haven’t noticed a difference in their offerings or service.

*I get a small merchandise credit when you click through these links. It costs you zero, and in several cases actually GAINS you a better deal, such as Sierra, which gives you $10 off your first $30 purchase. I can always use more gear, and I’m planning on doing some giveaways from this blog eventually!

Join gear swap groups on Facebook
I’m a member of several groups and have bought and sold quite a few items. Don’t limit yourself just to running; the hiking groups can be a great resource as well!

Finally, stop in TJ Maxx every couple weeks. Guy readers, I know, it’s marketed SO heavily toward women, but you can find some killer deals! I got $140 North Face pants for $40, and the waterproof Saucony jacket, normally $120, for $35. I just picked up the two pairs of Marmot gloves at decent prices last week. Among loads of other stuff. Going from 200+ to 130lbs makes you redo your wardrobe pretty quickly… I’d say 80% came from TJ Maxx.  If you make friends with your sales associates, they’ll tell you when things get marked down further. However, if you’re a size S like I am, it may not benefit you to wait… most of their items are M-XL.

 

I hope these tips have been helpful; I’ve been able to get a lot of gear for relatively little money. Do you need it all? No, of course not. You will need at least one base layer top and bottom with a decent jacket if you want to survive the winter though! Layering with the things you probably already have is key!

Please see my Traction post for tips on shoe equipment for the winter.