I'm surely not the first blogger to tackle the subject of what to wear for successful and comfortable winter running - and I'm surely no expert in most areas. But if I come close to expertise on anything, it might be exactly this topic. Part of it stems from how much I dislike spending time on the treadmill inside, so dressing for the weather outside grew out of necessity. Part of it's because I have tackled a wide, wide range of weather conditions through very challenging Minnesota winters and have learned a lot through trial and error.
But, Reader, I'll also let you in on a little secret: The bottom line is that once I figured out how to dress for the weather, running outside through the winter began to actually broaden my quality of life because it exponentially increased the time I could spend outside. More fresh air is never, ever a bad thing - especially in the winter, when my own natural inclination is to hibernate in a Snuggie under a pile of blankets on the couch.
I'm not really one for oodles of gadgets, and I'm certainly not about to tell you to go out and drop $600 on fancy warm running clothes. The only thing you really, really need to invest in is a good pair of shoes for your feet. You can find beautiful, expensive running clothes, but you can also find lots of quality variations of my recommendations at Target or TJ Maxx/Marshall's-type stores.
So, without further ado, I bring you my winter running loves - some with photos from previous winters, some with photos snapped recently. I'll also pause to clarify that it is not winter here yet. But with the darker evenings, I know it's not too far away.
1) On top: When you have a run scheduled and you know it's chilly, your first impulse is to put on a big, cuddly, cotton hooded sweatshirt. (Well, at least mine is.) Fight it! If you live in Minnesota or have ever experienced cold weather, you probably already buy into the concept of layering. It applies here, too. Get a good (not necessarily expensive) base layer - like long underwear, but try to get something that's wicking or just not cotton. Cotton gets cold and wet...and stays cold and wet. Ugh.
Oh, this is going to be a long blog post. I am just getting started.
Start with the base layer (or two, depending on how cold it is) and add a jacket. It's extra-nice if it's a wind-blocking jacket. Many of them also have reflective zippers or seams that help make you visible to traffic (more on this later). Here I am with my running buddy Molly, demonstrating the utility of dependable running jackets at the Team Ortho Get Lucky Half-Marathon last March. (We got mugs at the finish!)
A wind-blocking vest is also a very, very good friend in the winter because it keeps your core warm but gives your arms room to breathe. Here I am, mid-snowshoe, with my favorite vest and what seemed to be my favorite hat last winter. Once you find pieces that work...you really get use out of them.
One exception to the no-hooded-sweatshirt rule: Josh bought me this Nike jacket for Christmas last year and I wear it all the time. It's fleecey and very warm and functions exactly like a hooded sweatshirt, but is kinder because it doesn't make sweat bunch up. It is perfect for the coldest days...sometimes with a vest over it.
See? No ski parkas or bulky hooded sweatshirts necessary.
2) I mentioned reflective material already. If you run outside and have a 9-5ish job, it is very hard to avoid running in the dark. I prefer to do it in the morning, even though it is extra-hard to get up when it's early, cold and dark. (I'm reaching for a snooze button just reading that.) But morning usually means that there are fewer cars out and about than in the evening after work. (It's also a special treat to squeeze in a run over lunch and bask in some sunlight.) Regardless, if you are running in the dark, it's imperative that you have some sort of way to announce your presence. Some people have fully reflective safety vests. I really like Road ID's blinky lights (the Firefly Supernova) that retail for $13, clip onto a belt or jacket or your Road ID and do a wonderful job of being small but very bright and visible.
3) Protect your skin. This usually means wearing a hat or headband and gloves or mittens. (Any old hat or gloves will work, although you can find slimmer running gloves to avoid feeling like you have big mitts on.) In Minnesota, it also can mean wearing a facemask. I totally did not want to show this goofy picture of myself from a snowy run last year, but it's kind of hard to explain it without visual aid.
It's just a more techy version of a ski mask, I guess. I think I got it at Target. It's wonderful because it can act as a neck and ear warmer, as shown here, or it can be pulled up over my nose. (Trust me, that is a glamorous look.) You may not that my skin also looks a little shiny here, which is because I have Vaseline on my face. This sounds gross but acts as a fabulous layer between one's skin and cold wind.
4) On the bottom: No genius advice here. I wear running tights - sometimes two pairs. Other people like a base layer and windproof pants over that layer. Socks get important in the winter. It can be a major matter of individual preference, but I quite like some Smartwool-type socks that I have. Think wooly-wicking-warm. Do I need to remind you that cotton socks get wet and cold and stay wet and cold? Brr.
5) On your feet: Normal running shoes are just fine, although sometimes it's more comfortable to go up half a size to accommodate for bulkier socks, if you are planning serious miles over the winter. The kooky foot-related variable that winter introduces is sidewalk surface, and depending on where you live, you may have lots of places to run comfortably outside or very few. By trial and error, you'll start to figure out the best spots to run in the winter - and which neighbors do a good job of shoveling promptly! For example, in Minneapolis, the Greenway and Chain of Lakes paths get plowed.
You can run year-round on most city streets, but plan on your pace slowing to account for the trickier footing - and don't be hard on yourself about that. The only condition that keep me off the streets and sidewalks is ice. Sometimes it's an unavoidable part of winter. Other times (e.g. during an ice storm) a few miles on the streets is just not worth the risk of breaking bones because of a slip. Ouch.
I will note that I added another magic tool in my winter running toolkit last year. Josh got me YakTrax! They are weird little things you slip over the bottom of your shoe to get better traction. For you, Reader, I put one on a shoe last night to demonstrate what they look like.
Those silver lines are steel coils that wrap around the rubber pieces and help grip the surface on which you are running. (They also block snow from clumping together on the bottom of your shoe.) The only caveat for these guys is that you should only wear them when you are running on sidewalks or roads with at least a little bit of snow covering them. If you are a lucky person who lives in an area with mostly clear sidewalks with a few snowy patches to run over, skip YakTrax. They will bust up your natural stride when you're on clear sidewalks and it messes with those steel coils, too.
Holy moly, that was a long post, but I think I covered the basics of running outside in the winter in a cold, snowy, windy, cold, dark climate. Oddly, it's easy to overdress. A good rule of thumb is that you've found the right outfit if you're a little bit chilly for the first five or ten minutes of a run. After that, you'll warm up and usually find that you can be quite comfortable through your workout. And even though I sometimes feel like the snowman who melts down to reveal a boy in those Campbell's soup commercials when I come back inside, it's almost always totally worth it.
What do you think, Reader? If you like to run, do you stay outside or prefer to head indoors for your winter workouts? If you don't live in Minnesota, did I permanently deter you from ever moving here? Do you have something else in your winter running toolkit that I missed?