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Laye up when running
Layer up when running

For those of us living in the Northeast, it is not secret that through the winter whether training to run a marathon, triathlon, Ironman, etc. we have to deal with the bitter cold, crazy windchill, frigid rain and tons of snow. Therefore, we may face a dilemma between choosing spending long hours in a the dreaded treadmill or making sure we choose the right selection of gear to brave the elements during outdoor training runs. With that in mind, below you’ll find a simple guide to learn how to properly ‘layer up’ for your run training.

The Basic Layers

How many layers you wear and need for a particular run will depend on your tolerance for cold weather and own preference. It is not secret I tend to get cold very easy (growing up down south and all) hence I tend to wear more layers than usual.

Still, wearing different thin layers of clothing will help to move the sweat away from your skin and trap warm air between each layer keeping your body core temperature warmer as opposed to just wearing one single heavy layer. The same applies to your legs and feet (e.g. 2 pairs of thin socks can be better than a thick pair).

The fabric of the layers matters — materials such as polypropylene and wool/synthetic blends helps to wick moisture away from your body and keep you as warm and dry as possible. A poor material for this like cotton doesn’t wick moisture may from the skin and also has offers very little insulating ability. Hence, while the former will keep the skin dry preventing it to drop the core temperature, the latter will only speed up the “I’m getting very cold” process.

In general you will need 2 to 3 layers for anything under 40F; the colder the weather, the more layers you may need. In particular in days when it’s not only cold but also, the windchill is rather low. The basic layers for your upper body are:

  • Base layer – something like a long sleeve tech fabric shirt (moist wicking). This layer will wick the sweat away from your body, keeping your skin dry and help your body retain more warm.
  • Insulating layer – something like a tech fabric pullover, fleece or light/soft shell jacket. This layer will continue wicking some moisture away from the skin but also, to trap hot air between your skin and layers keep you body warmer
  • Wind/Water Proof Layer – something like Gore-Tex or nylon jacket. This layer should protect you against wind and moisture (rain, sleet, snow), help you retain heat, but also allowing some of the heat and moisture to escape preventing both overheating and/or dropping the body core temperature. It’s a good idea to wear a jacket with a zipper so that you can regulate your temperature.

Depending on the weather for most runs in the 30s-40s F you may be able to get away with the base and insulating layers and need to add the 3rd layer for very cold weather.

Some of my favorite base layer products are from Craft USA, and though not cheap, they have great high quality and durable products. The active crew neck top layer and active under pants are among my favorites. But, nowadays many companies offer great gear so just look around

Cold weather runningLower Body

Our legs tend to generate plenty of heat and/or we have grown to be more “cold” resistant in that area so we don’t need as many layers for our lower body. Some runners can get away by just wearing running shorts (or as I like to think of them, crazies! :-P). Most people however may prefer wearing a pair of running tights or running pants. If it’s really cold/windy, you may want to consider two layers such as a wicking layer pair of tights, and a wind-proof layer such as insulated pants.

As far as your feet,you will need a good pair of socks and please, never wear cotton socks because they won’t wick away the moisture and can make your feet prone to blisters. Instead, wear a good pair of wicking socks; wool socks are a great option for cold weather.

In terms of shoes, your feet tend to stay pretty warm with a proper pair of socks and if you do most of your running in the city, you can most likely use your regular sneakers. Still, your feet can get cold pretty fast since more so in very cold/windy weather. And since most sneakers models tend to be very ‘breathable’ this means more cold air can sneak into them, therefore, you can use some regular tape to tape around your sneakers ad vented areas to create a simple layer. Other tricks including wrapping your upper foot with some tin foil or saran plastic to act as a layer.

If you do trail/snowy running then trail run shoes may be better choice for you. Those tend to be somewhat water-proof and provide better traction in the snow. For snowy run in the city, you can try YakTrax Ice Grippers or something similar but only when there is a lot of snow in the group, otherwise it can make your gait rather awkward.

running in the cold

Cover As Much As Possible

For most cold conditions a hat and gloves can be absolutely necessary as you can lose as much as 30% of your body heat through your extremities.

  • Thermal hat – it’s perfect for keeping your head warm during winter runs. You can remove to regulate your body temperature
  • Gloves/Mittens – this keep your hands warm, on extreme cold, mittens can be even warmer.
  • Balaclava – is a type of headgear that covers your head/ face exposing only your eyes. This can be useful for very cold/windy weather
  • Sunglasses – on very cold windy days, even your eyes may be exposed to the elements, hence a good pair of sunglasses may help keep the wind off your eyes

Other items to consider for very cold days: toe/arm warmers and embrocation which is more common in cycling but it great for any outdoor activity. I have tried it in very cold runs and it works like a charm!

So, make sure to layer up for your next run and brave the elements making your winter training much more enjoyable. After all, remember that your next season success will be built now, in the winter, when nobody is paying attention! Train Smart

Jorge is the owner, Head Coach and Founder at E3 Triathlon Coaching. He holds certifications for USA Triathlon, USA Track and Field and USA Cycling. He coaches athletes from all levels from those completing their first race, to Age Group Podiums to Ironman/70.3 Champions. He has helped multiple athletes to qualify to prestigious events like the Ironman/70.3 World Championships and win/podium and national/world championships.