Cold weather running can be a welcome relief from the heat of summer running. However, as the days get shorter and cooler, mornings and evenings can be chilly and dark. This post is all about how to dress for success during cold weather exercise – simply. Here’s a list of five (or six) essential pieces of clothing that will keep you comfortable during those cold 25’F – 45’F runs.
Pro tip: Dress for 20’F warmer than the actual temperature. In other words, wear the same type of clothes that you would if you were going to just be outside – not running.
For example, if it’s 50’F and sunny, I’ll wear a tank top and shorts, because that’s what I would wear for hanging out in 70’F and sunny.
Essential Cold Weather Running Clothing
First Things First: A few things that everything on this list should have:
- Nothing should be made of cotton. Cotton is great for hanging out with friends, but not so great for running in cold weather. That’s because is soaks up your sweat and keeps it close to your skin. The result is evaporative cooling, where heat is literally taken from your body to evaporate your own sweat. This will make you colder, your run will be less fun, and you’ll probably stink more. Remember, “cotton is rotten.” Go with polyester blends instead.
- Reflective accents: Aside from your socks and base layers, nearly all of the pieces should have reflective accents. During the fall, as the days get shorter and you’re running closer to darkness, you want to be seen. Even a sliver of reflective fabric will show up under a car’s headlights, alerting any drivers of your presence. Safety first – look for reflective details.
Let’s start from your core and work our way out. After all, you need a shirt and pants more than a hat, no matter what.
1. Long-Sleeve Wicking Base Layer
In cool weather, layering is your best friend. A lightweight, wicking base layer will help keep you dry and warm.
Why is wicking important? The thermal conductivity of water is about 25 times higher than that of air, meaning you will lose heat a lot faster when wet your skin is wet. So, you want a good base layer to “wick” moisture to the outside of the garment where it can evaporate or pass to the next layer. This will not only keep you warm, but your skin will stay dry and reduce uncomfortable friction (chafing – Noooo!).
Recommendation: REI’s Lightweight Base Layer Crew Top ($40)
2. Zipped Pullover with a Pocket
The zipped pullover is the outer layer, worn over the base layer. This will provide some insulation and a buffer from your skin and the elements.
Just like the base layer, you’ll want a wicking fabric. That is, something in the polyester variety, likely with some spandex. Not cotton, which will suck all the heat from your body faster than you can say “Brrr!”
Other features that I look for in a pullover:
- Zipper: 1/4, 1/2, or full-length – it’s up to your preference. When you get hot during a run, you want to be able to unzip your pullover and let some cool breeze in.
- Thumb Holes: They are excellent for keeping sleeves in place, but bad if you want to look at your watch. Solution: wear your watch on the outside of sleeve, or just fuggedaboutit and run without knowing all your stats, all the time.
- Key pocket: You can never have enough pockets when running.
Recommendation: Brooks 1/2-Zip Running Pullover ($65-75)
3. Tights: Capri, Cropped, or Full-Length
Capri or cropped-length tights are good for days when you feel like it might be shorts weather if you weren’t cold already. Or, you think you might start off jogging but then have to walk, which will bring your temperature down.
Yes, cropped tights are the in-between, the “I don’t know if I’ll be hot or cold, so I’m going split the difference between shorts and full-on pants.”
I have both capri and full-length pants. However, if I could only choose one, I’d definitely get full pants. For me, it’s always better to be a little too warm than too cold.
Important features for tights:
- Secure pocket(s). You can never have too many pockets when running. For tights, I like to have, at a minimum, one secure key or credit card-sized pocket. Some tights now have phone-sized pockets built in to the outside of the thigh. So far, these outer-leg phone pockets do not work for my runs. The impact of running + weight of phone pulls my pants down – yikes!!
- Non-chafing zippers: If your tights have ankle zippers, make sure they will not irritate your ankle. This might take a few test runs, which is OK – most running clothing retailers will allow an exchange after a few uses. I have an otherwise great pair of tights that will rub a bloody hole in my ankle if I don’t wear long socks – not cool.
Recommendation: Brooks Greenlight Tights ($80)
4. For Your Noggin: Cap, Headband, or Neck Gaiter
Caps keep the rain out of your face and the sun out of your eyes. However, they are not great at keeping your head warm when it gets really cold.
Headbands are good for keeping your head warm, but bad for shielding your face from the rain and sun.
You can look super cool while keeping your head warm and dry and shaded! Simply wear a headband under your cap. OK, it looks less-than-chic, but you’re running in the cold, so you’ve got better things to worry about.
Neck gaiters are great for high-wind days because they can insulate your neck, which is very sensitive to the cold. In 2020, gaiters have gained another purpose – they can double as a mask when on a busy trail. I love my Buff gaiter. It’s lightweight, and I use it as both a headband and a neck gaiter.
- Cap: I got mine at TJ Maxx for $8. Here’s the closest thing I could find online – Trailheads Race Day Running Hat ($18)
- Headband: Columbia Trail Shaker Headring ($16)
- Gaiter: Buff Original gaiter ($20)
Keeping your hands warm can be a challenge! I know that sometimes, my hands will be freezing until three miles into a run. Or, if it’s windy, maybe my hands get colder during the run, and I arrive at home with completely numb fingers (sometimes, I can’t even unlace my shoes).
Unless you’re going to invest in electronic gloves, which I haven’t yet, here’s what I look for in running gloves:
- Thickness: Thick enough to block the wind, thin enough so that I can 1) get a drink of water, 2) hope to answer my phone, 3) adjust my clothing without de-gloving.
- E-tips: Yep, I want to be able to use my phone, even if it feels like I have a bear paw.
Recommendation: HEAD Women’s Touchscreen Running Gloves at Costco ($10-15). For under $15, these gloves have performed better – both in warmth and e-tip function – than $50 brands that you can get at REI.
Pro tip: If your hands tend to be cold, like mine, buy some single-use hand warmers. Put one in each glove during your run, and pull your fingers inside and around the warmer as needed.
Honorable Mention: Wool Socks That Won’t Freeze or Rub Feet Raw When Wet
My favorite running socks are not expensive – they are Target’s active-wear socks, and they are an excellent value. I’ve stopped trying to buy expensive socks from the running stores, because they are all inferior to the $3/pair Target socks.
Recommendation: That being said, when the weather gets cold and/or wet, it’s time to step up the sock game. I like to go for something with merino wool, to prevent chafing and keep my tootsies warmer. These Darn Tough hikers ($23) are my favorite cool weather running socks, and they will last for years. Careful, they run small.
What to Wear on a Cold Run – Example #2
Another example: It’s 30’F and cloudy. Well, if I were going to be outside on a day that’s 50’F and cloudy, I’d wear two layers on top, pants, and light gloves.
So, that’s what I’ll wear to run when it’s 30’F and cloudy – base layer + pullover on top; running tights, gloves, headband under hat to keep my head warm.
Bonus Example: What I Wore Today – 45’F, partly cloudy, no precipitation
If you looked at that picture and thought, “That’s too much clothing!” … you’re right. I was way overdressed. Due to a pulled muscle, I thought I might be walking a lot, and I didn’t want to get cold. I chose to wear a long-sleeve base layer, zipped pullover, full tights, gloves, and hat with a bill. Even at a very slow jog, I got pretty hot and had to tie the pullover around my waist halfway through. Still, better than being too cold.
Cold Weather Running Essentials: Base Layer, Zipped Pullover, Tights, Headband/Hat, Gloves, Wool Socks
If you have them ^^, you can dress for cold weather running (or any outdoor workout) success in anything down to 25’F. Colder than that? I’ll have to write another post. I once trained for a marathon during a Wisconsin winter and temps down to -20’F, so I’ve got ideas on super-cold running, too!
Until then, dress appropriately and enjoy that crisp fall air – whether you’re running, hiking, or jumping in piles of leaves!
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