I am very happy now that the temperatures are lower and landing in the 50s and 60s rather than the record-breaking 90-100s I had to train in for most of the summer months. In fact, I enjoy running when the temperature is between 35-60F --the air is clear and crisp, and it feels easier to me. And I will be ecstatic if the temperature for the Chicago Marathon stayed in the 45-65F range this time. We will just have to see...
But with those lower Fall temperatures, and with Winter only months away, it is time to take inventory of our equipment to make sure I have everything I need for safe, comfortable, and productive training runs (and races) in these lower climates. Last night, I took some time to go through ALL my running gear/clothing so I could put away most of my short sleeved tech shirts and bring out the long sleeved ones as well as pants, hats, etc. Then this today, a friend of mine posted this very question about winter running gear. So I thought I would post my thoughts, gear choices, and experiences in case any of my readers find it helpful.
First of all, what I have to say here is only from my own experience. I am not an expert in this. And running is really an experiment of 'one' -- meaning only you will know what truly works for you. Everyone deals with climate differently so what might work for me, may not work as well for you and visa-versa. So consider this as more of a 'starting point' for your own decision-making.
Some Winter Running Tips
The 20 degree rule: The body is designed to generate enough heat to satisfy its needs. We wear clothing to retain as much of that heat as possible (especially when outside). The trick is not to wear so much clothing that we 'overheat'. The 20 degree rule to dress for your run based upon an outside temperature that is 20 degrees warmer than it currently is. I know that sounds crazy. The rationale is that once your muscles are warmed up and your body is producing the heat it requires, you are going to be 'too hot' and have to take layers off to compensate. So if the outside temp is 20F, dress for 40F. It might be cold when you start out, but by mid-run you are going to be toasty because your body is going to significantly warm you up..
Don't forget to hydrate: People tend to drink less when they are cold. They think they don't sweat as much and therefore don't need to replace fluids. This is untrue for runners. We still sweat but that sweat evaporates quickly so we don't feel the wetness as much. Therefore, we still need to replenish what we sweat out. And that includes electrolyte replenishment. Stay hydrated out there.
Cover your head: 30% or more of your body heat escapes from the top of your head. Why? Because that is where a lot of your blood flows to keep that brain functioning. So keeping your head covered will keep more of your body heat inside. I have found that this actually can help keep your hands and feet warmer because less heat is leaving your body (especially when you are camping outdoors). There are many fleece/wool hats for runners, some of which have side flaps to keep you ears and neck warm as well.
Layering is good: Wearing multiple layers helps with water evaporation, heat distribution, and protection from the elements. Because we are exercising, we do not need to wear as much as if we were just standing, unmoving at the bus stop. For temps under 30F (or bad weather), I wear three layers. Otherwise, I only wear two. Those layers are referred to as the Base Layer (the layer closest to your skin), the Insulation Layer (the warmth layer), and the Outer Layer (for protection again water, wind, and snow). I usually use a long sleeve technical (or compression) shirt for my Base Layer and a 1/4 zip fleece pullover for my Insulating Layer. If I need the Outer Layer because its windy or raining, then I will wear a wind/waterproof soft shell jacket or a vest.
Make sure you're SEEN: Reflective clothing is a must if you are running at dusk, the evening, or early mornings. Having been hit by a driver while in a crosswalk, I can tell you that drivers are more focused on planning their merge into traffic or their radio than pedestrians. Wear bright, reflective outer wear. Wear blinking light gadgets, Wear a head lamp (especially at night). Do anything you can to improve your visibility to drivers on the road (or backing down their driveways).
Run into the Wind: Yeah I know this doesn't sound like much fun. But consider running 'into' the wind at the beginning of your run. It will certainly wake you up! But more importantly, it will mean that on your way back, the wind will be at your back at a time when you are more tired. Those last few miles at the close of your workout won't have to be a fight against a strong head wind.
Winter Running Gear
Okay, so next I thought I would list some of the gear that I use when the temperature drops and the weather gets a bit less hospitable. I am not a huge Treadmill fan, so I try to run outdoors as much as possible, even during the Winter. But I am not a masochist either, so if it is freezing rain, icy, or there's more than 4 inches of snow on the ground, I head to the gym.
Running Gloves/Mittens - I have two pairs of gloves, one are thin (for Fall temps) and the other is thicker (for 40F and colder). I hate having cold hands/fingers so these are key to my feeling comfortable. Some prefer mittens when its real cold because keeping your fingers together helps keep them warmer. Ever try to open a GU gel pack with cold hands? Not fun!
Balaclava or Neck Gaiter - a balaclava is basically a ski-mask that covers your face, head, and neck. And because you breathe through the fabric, it helps lessen the cold of the incoming air into your lungs. If you wear a regular hat, using a neck gaiter can help keep your neck warm.
Headband - It you are not wearing a hat or balaclava because it isn't cold enough, then a headband is great for keeping your ears warm and protected from the wind.
Thermal Hat - A nice wool or fleece hat will keep your head warm and conserve your body heat. Find one with the flap that covers your ears and neck for extra protection and comfort.
Track pants/tights - I do not have tights but I see many women who wear them on their runs. I do have a pair of Nike Track Pants which are perfect for keeping the legs warm while allowing them to breathe and shed moisture through evaporation. They also have zippered side pockets for keys or GU (which keeps them warm).
Compression Pants - I love my CW-X and Zoot Compression pants. I wear them for the benefits that compression offers. But they also are great at keeping my legs warm! If the temps drop below 25F or if it is very windy, I will wear the Track Pants over the Compression pants just as a wind barrier.
Performance underwear - When I wear my Track Pants but choose not to wear Compression Pants underneath, I will wear a pair of UA Performance Underwear underneath instead. This serves to keep my backside insulated and warm. No one likes a cold tush.
Long-sleeve tech shirt - Pretty much a given. I suppose short sleeved shirts would still work as long as your thermal layer provided sufficient arm coverage or you use Arm Sleeves to provide warmth. This will serve as your Base Layer in your layered clothing method.
1/4 zip fleece and/or full shell jacket
Arm Sleeves - These are spandex-type sleeves that fit across your arms. They can be quite colorful as well as useful as an insulator.
SmartWool socks - Water-wicking socks are a must. Well, SmartWool is a brand that makes warm, comfortable wool socks that offer good cushioning. These work well to keep your feet and toes warm.
Toe/Hand warmer packs - When I ran the Polar Dash Half Marathon in January, it was 15F and snowing on the Chicago Lakefront. I found these small packets of Hand and Toe Warmers. They fit inside your gloves and shoes and generate enough heat to keep them warm. They are awesome if you like having warm extremities.
Vaseline - Windchill is something you need to be concerned about in cold and windy weather. This is particularly true of exposed skin. So rubbing some Vaseline on your exposed skin (cheeks, forehead, lips, arms, wrists, ankles, etc) creates a barrier of warmth that will help protect against frostbite.
YakTrax - Regular running shoes need a little extra traction when traversing snow and icy conditions. These accessories attach to your shoes and provide the traction you will need, if you choose to run over snow and ice. You might also want to switch to Trail Running shoes (Gore-Tex) because they are more waterproof, have better traction, and can offer a bit more stability.
It is going to be a busy Fall and Winter running season for me, and I plan to be prepared. If you plan on doing a lot of outdoor running this Fall/Winter, then take some time to get the necessary gear to make sure you can do so safely.