Surviving Winter: Gear Up For Cold Weather Running

I got the urge to begin running in mid-October, which was a pretty poor choice on my part. Within weeks of starting Project Become A Runner, winter arrived in Colorado. This is my beginner-friendly guide to not freezing your ass off (completely) as a winter runner.

Under Armour ColdGear compression layer and Big Logo Storm hoodie. Hat from my first race, the Ugly Sweater Run. Run the race and get one too!
Under Armour Cold Gear compression layer (here) and Big Logo Storm hoodie (similar here). Hat from my first race, the Ugly Sweater Run.

If you buy one thing, buy a good base layer. A base layer is the one closest to your skin – like an undershirt. I’ve had a solid selection of base layers for a number of years now since I used to work outside year-round and they are the best investment I’ve made.

A base layer should be moisture-wicking and quick-drying, so not a cotton t-shirt. When you get sweaty, cotton won’t dry under your other layers, and you’ll end up getting a chill. Also, somehow wool stays magically warm even when it’s wet. I went running through the snow the other day and was totally soaked, but my feet weren’t cold at all.

If you’re literally just starting out and are working up to running a mile, you’ll be fine in whatever you wear (even cotton). Maybe a little uncomfortable, but you’re not going to have some catastrophic consequence (this is why I hate the saying “cotton kills” that I see on websites all the time).

If you want to buy something besides cotton, REI’s base layers are a less expensive option that’s suitable for most weather. Under Armour compression gear is great for when it’s REALLY cold.

Layers are your best friend. On top of your thin base layer, add a hoodie, a fleece, puffy vest, pretty much whatever you’re comfortable in. REI makes great fleece jackets. I can’t tell you how much to wear at certain temperatures – this will take some trial and error on your own to figure out how hot you get when you run.

A general rule of thumb is dress like it’s 10 degrees warmer than it actually is. If you’re dressed right, you should be uncomfortably cold for just the first few minutes of your run before warming up and feeling good. If you’re wet with sweat, you’re overdressed.

If you’re torn between wearing shorts and long sleeves or pants and short sleeves, try pants first. Some people can run in shorts no matter the temperature, but my joints get very upset if exposed below 45 degrees. I also get really hot and sweaty on my upper half, so having more layers up top has been a one-way ticket to being both hot and freezing at the same time.

Switching to pants and short sleeves when it’s in the 40s has been a game-changer. If you’re wondering what took me so long, it was my preference for how shorts and long sleeves looked together. #fashion

Use what you have. I am in no way insisting that you have to go buy ALL THE THINGS. Technical fabrics are pricey, and I know everyone can’t just go buy a whole new wardrobe of things to sweat in.

I rocked cotton leggings for a long time, because I maxed out at half a mile and wasn’t actually outdoors for very long. Once I got too cold and didn’t want my favorite leggings to get gross, I gutted up and spent $50 on insulated running tights. This sucks, but it is worth it to have something that wicks moisture and effectively deals with the amount of heat you put off during your run. And, they’ve lasted for years of near-daily use (I don’t run that often, I just wear leggings as pants a lot).

I opted for Nike’s basic insulated tights. As usual, they do not offer pockets. UnderArmour does put little pockets in most of their tights (hallelujah!) and makes the warmest tights I own (even the thin ones). Here‘s their current selection.

Gloves are important, even if they’re just the $2 bargain gloves from Target. Your hands will be numb and you will probably be hating life pretty soon if you go out with your hands uncovered. I wear gloves if it’s under 40 degrees.

For my head, I prefer an ear warmer since 99% of women’s hats don’t have a hole or similar place for your ponytail. It is truly mind-boggling how there have been so many advances in activewear, but it is still assumed women carry nothing with them and wear their hair down while exercising.

REI Venturi fleece jacket (two years old, they've changed the design a bit), Gap Outlet puffy vest (using what I have!) and Outdoor Research Ear Band.
REI Venturi fleece jacket (similar here), Gap Outlet puffy vest (using what I have!) and Outdoor Research Ear Band (here).

This Outdoor Research ear warmer is awesome, but it’s so good at blocking out the cold and wind that it also blocks out a fair amount of background noise – make sure to be extra careful when crossing streets. Also, don’t be surprised if you startle anyone when you think you’re talking to them in a normal voice volume. You aren’t. You’re yelling. And it’s awkward. Worth it for warm ears, though!

Bottom Line

Focus on wearing plenty of layers. Make sure your base layer is moisture-wicking and not cotton. It’s also important to wear something reflective besides your shoes. Cold weather means shorter days, which means cars have a harder time seeing you. Here are my affordable best bets.

If you live in a well-lit neighborhood, disregard this message, but the combination of questionable lighting and extremely questionable sidewalk quality in my neighborhood has made me a devotee of running with a headlamp. I use Black Diamond headlamps since they have affordable base models that are also very comfortable.

Best of luck with your trial and error. I mostly learned how to dress for running in the winter by wearing way too many clothes and getting too sweaty. That might happen you, too, but don’t worry – you’ll get to the happy medium eventually! Have fun out there.


8 Comments Add yours

  1. Liz says:

    Haha I’m with you re: not understanding how or why all these women’s hats don’t have a hole got a ponytail! That’s a requirement for all my hats for working out 😊


    1. Laura Cardon says:

      Right?! I’m with you. Maybe one day we’ll have ponytail hole for all!


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