Beginner’s guide to staying warm on winter runs

I got the urge to start running in mid-October. Within weeks of starting Project Become A Runner, winter arrived in Colorado. More recently, I decided to run my first half marathon in April…and start training right as the temperatures were dropping in November.

Needless to say, I’ve been over (and under) dressing for winter running for several years now. It takes some trial and error, some sweaty days and some numb fingers, so let this beginner-friendly guide help you get a jump start on not freezing your booty off as 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 base layer (here) and Big Logo Storm hoodie (similar here). Hat from my first race, the Ugly Sweater Run.

A good 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.

There’s going to be some trial and error in the beginning (or, if you’re like me, at the beginning of every single winter). Don’t worry! You’ll get the hang of things eventually.

Layers are your best friend.

Start with a long-sleeved base layer. This is the piece of clothing closest to your skin. You’ll be fine in cotton if you’re just starting out and aren’t outside for very long (ie you’re just trying to run a few blocks without barfing like I was). You might be 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).

On top of your base layer, add a hoodie, a fleece jacket, puffy vest, pretty much whatever you’re comfortable in or already have. If it’s windy, make sure your outermost layer is something like a raincoat or other waterproof/windproof material.

*However* if you are wearing something waterproof, you’re going to be MUCH hotter, so back off on the layers underneath. Windproof/rainproof materials just trap all of your heat – like a wrestler running in a trash bag trying to make weight.

A very windy day that I was grateful to be wearing a raincoat on. But I definitely regretted the multiple thick layers underneath – it was a cold and cloudy day, but my raincoat trapped so much heat I was DYING. And yes, I run with trekking poles, don’t @ me (do the kids still say that?).

Based on the ten degrees rule, you may be surprised by how few layers you need. Even as a slower runner (12-minute mile pace), I found myself getting totally drenched with sweat and overdoing it almost every run.

You probably won’t ever need a full winter coat to run in – but if you’ve driven somewhere else for your run, it can be nice to keep that in the car to warm up when you get back!

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.

Are cotton leggings not meant for sporty activities ideal for running? No. Did I wear the ~fashion~ leggings I already had from LOFT for most of my first runs? Absolutely.

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.

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 (similar here).

If you buy one thing, buy good base layers. 

Moisture-wicking, quick-drying, technical fabric base layers are the best investment I’ve made. They make winter running so much more pleasant – getting (and staying) too wet and sweaty is SO much more miserable then just being too cold from under dressing.

If you can spring for it, merino wool is the cream of the crop – it stays warm no matter how wet it gets (especially helpful when you are still figuring out how many layers work best for you).

REI’s base layers are a less expensive option suitable for most weather. Under Armour ColdGear is great for when it’s REALLY cold (below freezing). SmartWool is my favorite merino wool brand, but REI also carries their own less expensive (for merino, not for normal life) merino wool brand.

Springing for leggings is the next best investment. I rocked those LOFT 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 seemed like a lot of money to buy something to sweat in, but they’ve lasted for years of near-daily use (I don’t run that often, I just wear leggings as pants a lot).

Leggings are harder to fit then shirts, so the best brand to get is the brand that fits you the best. I have two rules of thumb: Go for a name brand and get a pair specifically for cold weather. Normally, I love Target for cheap active wear. But in my experience, cheap leggings don’t stay up and I’m constantly pulling them up while I run (the exception: this pair on Amazon, but they aren’t for winter).

Insulated/cold weather leggings will also make a big difference in staying warm, too. This doesn’t have to mean bulky – UnderArmour makes the warmest tights I own but are still thin (and a lot of the models have pockets!!). Here’s their current selection. I also love UnderArmour’s leggings because they’re nice and long – I’m 5’7″ and their leggings cover my ankles!

Don’t forget your head and hands.

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. You don’t need anything super thick – I love these thin, but wind-resistant, ones. (30% off as of October 2021!)

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, and I’m not a low pony type of gal. 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 – 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!

All the layers on a sub-zero morning. I was so thankful for the windproof ear band, and used the Buff (linked below) as a neck warmer. Going up this giant hill obviously made me really hot, but going down it I would get really cold again, which made it tricky to dress for.

As I started running a little longer (four or more miles) at a slightly faster pace (10-minute per mile pace), I realized my head was getting way too hot every time I ran. I had received a free Buff from work, and started using that as a headband. It’s much thinner than an ear warmer, but still moisture-wicking, making it another great option to keep your ears/head toasty!

The bottom line.

Dress like it’s warmer than it is. The 10-degree rule is a great starting point to figure out what works best for you.

Wear plenty of layers and don’t be afraid to experiment. There will be trial and error. If possible, invest in a moisture-wicking base layer shirt that isn’t cotton. Upgrade to non-cotton leggings next.

Don’t forget your extremities. Gloves, ear warmers, and Buffs are your friend!

One last thing: Safety.

It’s important to wear something reflective besides your shoes. Cold weather means shorter days, which means cars have a harder time seeing you. Consider a reflective vest like this one.

Consider a headlamp. 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 run with a Black Diamond headlamp.

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 thoughts on “Beginner’s guide to staying warm on winter runs

  1. 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 😊


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