How to Dress for Cold Weather Running

Runners run in cold weather dressed in many layers.

Cold weather doesn't have to put an end to your outdoor running. But running safely in winter takes a little planning to make sure you're dressed right and have the right gear to run safely in the dark.

A good rule for cold-weather running is to dress for temperatures that are 10-20 degrees warmer than what the thermometer says. Generally, you'll warm up as you move. Finding yourself overdressed, hot and sweaty midway through a run is almost as bad as underdressing and feeling miserably cold.

How to Layer for Winter Running

Of course, this advice varies from person to person depending on how hot or cold you run, so test out the system that works for you.

But when the mercury drops, wearing the proper layers for cold weather running will help keep you warm without restricting your movement. Here's how you should layer your clothes to run in the cold:

  • Wear a base layer. The layer next to your skin should be light, soft and moisture-wicking. Pick a long-sleeve running shirt if the weather is especially biting.
  • Pick a mid-layer. Your mid-layer should do most of the work of keeping you warm. Opt for a layer with a little bit of down or synthetic insulation if it's really cold, or try a fleece in milder temps.
  • Find an outer layer. Windproof, waterproof, breathable. Your outer layer or shell keeps precipitation off your insulating layer so they can keep doing their jobs.
  • Slip into tights or pants. Fleece-lined tights are cozy and warm in the cold, and running pants shield you from frigid air. Find a pair that works without restricting your movement.
  • Get running gloves. Your hands and fingers are susceptible to the cold, so pull on a pair of running gloves. If it's extra cold, reach for a pair of mittens to help your digits share the warmth.
  • Wear wool socks. Wool is a good insulator, and it keeps you warm even when it gets wet. So if it's cold and wet outside, wool running socks will help keep your toes from going numb.
  • Cover your ears. Like your hands, your ears get cold easily. Pick up a hat or ear muffs to keep the heat in.

What to Wear When Running in the Cold

A man and a woman run in cold weather, through the snow.

Wear Base Layers (And Tuck Them In)

If it’s below freezing, you are going to want to wear two base layers. Make sure they are made from a moisture-wicking fabric, but not cotton, which is slow to dry. If you opt for a base layer (T-shirt or tank top), a long-sleeved top and a jacket, tuck the bottom layer into your tights/running pants for added warmth and wind protection. Also, be careful not to overdress because you'll warm up as you run.

Pick a Mid-Layer

A good mid-layer will do most of the work of keeping you warm. Mid-layers with down or synthetic insulation create loft, which traps warm air generated by your body. A fleece works the same way, but is suitable for warmer temperatures when puffier insulation would be overkill.

Wear a Warm Jacket

Insulation and breathability are important when you're wearing layers. While a windproof or waterproof outer shell is sometimes necessary in unusually frigid temps or wet conditions, the right combination of breathability and insulation is vital on milder days. When it’s too warm for a jacket but not cold enough for a single layer, consider wearing a vest to keep your core warm.

A man and a woman wear multiple layers for running in the cold.

Find the Right Tights or Pants

Single-digit temps call for full-length, fleece-lined tights or thicker running pants. You may even consider a second loose-fitting pair of running tights over top. If you’re heading out in temps between 20 and 40 degrees, a regular full-length tight will do. For anything in the 40- to 50-degree range, pull out mid-length or quarter tights (or maybe even shorts).

Cover Your Hands

If you’ve ever been out on a run when your hands get cold and stop functioning properly, then you know the importance of protecting them from the elements. Usually gloves are adequate for temps between 20 and 40 degrees. However, once they dip into the teens, mittens are a better option. Unlike gloves, which leave each finger close to the elements and separate from all the other fingers, a mitten allows for finger-to-finger contact, which keeps your hands warmer.

Wear Wool Socks

Wool will keep your feet warm even if they get wet. Why? Wool absorbs less water than other materials and acts as a natural insulator.

Cover Your Head and Ears

Like your hands, your ears need some extra help to stay warm. If it's under 50 degrees, consider wearing a hat, a buff or ear warmers to keep your noggin warm.

How Many Layers Do You Need?

The trickiest part about dressing for a cold run is making sure you’ll be warm enough without overheating. Being too warm can be just as uncomfortable as being too chilly. While it’s tempting to throw as many layers on as your body will allow, keep in mind that you will significantly warm up on the run.

Not only do you want to dress for temperatures that are 10-20 degrees warmer than what the thermometer says, but keep in mind how long you’ll be running for. The longer you’re out there moving, the more likely it is that your body temperature will elevate and help you feel warm.

Nate on a chilly run with his dog.

Nate Helming, Fleet Feet’s Head of Content and a go-out-in-any-weather type runner, says it often takes him a few runs to figure out the perfect cold-weather outfits.

“I always start with more than I think I need, and then after a few runs in the cold I learn to trust certain clothing combinations and feel more confident going out only in what I need,” he says. “I also pay attention to my footwear. On cold, windy days, I can really feel the wind piercing through a lightweight, airy upper, which is why I opt for a thicker, more padded upper to retain warmth. Trail shoes are great too, for added grip when it comes to slippery and icy conditions.”

The amount of layers you’ll need will depend on the temperature outside. You’ll also want to consider how sunny and/or windy it is outside, since that can have a big impact on how the conditions feel.

Running in 30 to 40 degrees

This is chilly, but tolerable for most folks. You’ll want to wear leggings, a base layer and either a mid-layer, like a fleece, or an outer layer, like a shell or vest to block wind and add further insulation. You likely won’t need both. You’ll probably want to wear a lighter pair of gloves and a hat or earband, although these may end up coming off and getting shoved in your pocket towards the later stages of the run.

Running in 20 to 30 degrees

This is below-freezing territory, and now it’s time to break out your third upper layer. You’ll want to pay close attention to the materials you are using, avoiding cotton for your base layer and prioritizing insulating materials for your mid- and outer layers. You will definitely need gloves and a hat or earband, as the risk for frostbite is great when temperatures are below freezing.

Running in 10 to 20 degrees

Cue the Game of Thrones soundtrack, winter is coming! It’s time to bring out the big guns. You’ll want to wear your warmest leggings, a base layer, mid-layer and outer layer, and a hat and gloves. Don’t forget about your neck and face, too! We recommend wearing a buff that can be pulled over your mouth and nose while you run

Running in 0 to 10 degrees

For this type of weather, we recommend all of the aforementioned gear, and then adding even more protection. Your major body parts will be covered with leggings, jackets, gloves and hats, but we recommend also paying attention to any sliver of exposed skin. Wearing long socks pulled above your leggings will keep your ankles warm, and wearing a buff pulled over your mouth and nose. For the skin that can’t be covered with a buff, such as your cheeks and forehead, lather on some Vaseline to avoid frostbite and windburn.

Caroline dresses for the cold.

“I’ve lived in Florida for seven years, but when I headed home to Maryland for Christmas I had to run 12 miles in 6 degrees,” says Caroline, Fleet Feet’s lead gear and shoe reviewer and six-time marathoner. “I ended up feeling comfortable in my double-lined leggings, a poly-blend base layer, a zip-up sweatshirt and my Craft Jersey Hood jacket. I wore a warm, wool hat over an earband, gloves and long socks to ensure no skin was left exposed. I had a scarf around my neck and kept trying to keep it pulled over my face, but it wouldn’t stay, so that was the only part of my body that was truly uncomfortable. I also smeared Vaseline all over my face because I was worried about getting frostbite, and sunglasses so my eyes wouldn’t water.”

*Running in extreme temperatures below 0 degrees can be dangerous. Learn more about how cold is too cold to run outside.

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