What to wear for running in the cold

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My friend Nagendra has moved to San Francisco and asks me what to wear for running in the cold. Obviously, this is something you need to experiment with, but here are some guidelines and some clothes suggestions.

Basic principles
The first thing you have to do is avoid wearing too much. Running warms you up quite a bit, so you definitely don't want to be wearing something that would be comfortable if you were just walking around. If you're not a bit cold when you start out, you're pretty much guaranteed to overheat inside the first 10 minutes or so. The usual guideline is that you should be wearing something that would be comfortable if if were 10°F warmer than it actually is. It often helps to wear stuff that can be worn several ways (e.g. sleeves that can be rolled up or shirts that can be unzipped) so you can cool down once you've been working out for a while.

The second issue is that you warm up very unevenly. Because you're running, you're legs are going to heat up first and your chest second. Your arms don't warm up that much and your hands actually seem to get colder as blood gets drawn away to other parts of your body. Your ears and nose are likely to get cold. Remember that the only reason you're staying warm is because you're exercising and while your legs may be working, your ears aren't.

Finally, you need to consider moisture management. If you're running in shorts and a t-shirt, it doesn't much matter what you wear unless it's really hot or humid. True, your shirt will get wet and a many people prefer technical fabrics like CoolMax, but most people can get along OK with cotton, too. In winter, the situation is different. You're going to sweat and since you're probably wearing long sleeves, you're going to end up soaked unless your clothes do a good job of wicking the moisture away from your skin. This is an even bigger problem in the rain because you've got water coming down on you at the same time as you're trying to get it off your skin.

Pretty much all the clothing you'll be looking for is some sort of synthetic technical fabric, mostly various kinds of polyester, often blended with Lycra or some other stretch fabric to make it conform to the body. These fabrics come in a variety of weights appropriate for different temperature ranges.

For temperatures just cold enough to want to wear long sleeves, you probably want to go with something fairly lightweight. You can get long-sleeve shirts made out of the same moisture management fabrics that people typically use for hot weather running, such as Coolmax, (these are listed in rough order of warmth). I have RaceReady's CoolMax long sleeve shirt which is quite comfortable: soft, light, and breathable. One downside is that it's a bit short in the torso, so it can gap a bit in the lower back. There are lots of other CoolMax shirts out there and you can pick based on your aesthetic taste.

The next step up from CoolMax is a variety of middle-weight fabrics designed for fall conditions, such as ThermaStat or PolarTec PowerDry. These fabrics are a bit heavier than CoolMax but are still basically summer or fall weight fabrics. I have one of the RaceReady ThermaStat tops, which is also quite nice. It's got a half turtleneck which is nice for a little extra warmth but means you're kind of committed to a single temperature range.

The next step up is midweight fabrics that are a bit thicker and warmer than the t-shirt weight fabrics listed above. These are typically a bit stretchy with a smooth exterior surface and a brushed interior surface. I've seen this kind of fabric under the names DryLete (Hind) and Dryline (Brooks, RaceReady). I've got a pair of Brooks Dryline shirts that I like quite a bit. They've got a medium length zipper which lets you adjust to a surprisingly wide range of temperatures. The Dryline fabric is fairly wind resistant and keeps you warm even when it's soaking wet, which is nice in the rainy California winter weather.

Once you get outside the range where the above stuff will keep you warm, you've got two major choices. The first is to start layering. So, in medium-cold situations I'll wear a short-sleeve CooLmax t-shirt underneath one of the dryline tops. This keeps your torso warm and your arms can more or less fend for themselves. An alternative I've recently discovered is Sporthill's 3SP fabric, which seems to be good down to about 20-25°F. 3SP is also, wind resistant up to about 35 MPH, which is nice.

Below 25°F or so, you're pretty much going to have to layer. I recommend some sort of lightweight Polarfleece or softshell jacket or vest. If you can, get one that's got a windproof layer. I own a windproof Pearl iZumi vest that's served me very well in cold conditions.

It's tempting to try to keep the wind--and especially the rain--off with some kind of shell. There are a large number of different shells you can buy, ranging from simple nylon (moderately breathable) to Gore-Tex and Pro-Pore (less breathable but more-or-less waterproof). The basic problem with any kind of shell is that it's not that breathable and if you're working out hard you tend to end up wet inside the shell. Modern synthetics will keep you warm even when wet, and I've converted almost entirely to non-waterproof gear. Sure, you get wet, but you were going to get wet anyway, and at least you don't collect a puddle inside your rainjacket.

Because your legs are what's doing the work, you can get away with surprisingly little in terms of leg covering. When I was a kid, a lot of people used to wear sweats, but cotton's a terrible fabric for exercising in. These days there are basically three choices: windproof nylon, microfiber or Gore-Tex pants, semi-stretchy close-fitting pants, and lycra tights.

The idea behind windproof pants is that they don't provide much insulation but they keep the wind chill factor down. These were real popular when I was a kid, back when they were made of nylon, but they've sort of gone out of fashion a bit, for the reasons I mentioned above. Now they're mostly made of something like microfiber or Gore-Tex. Still, they can be useful in windy or wet situations.

What's most popular now for men is semi-stretchy close-fitting pants like the Hind Munich pant. These pants are made of a fairly thick, stretchy fabric that's somewhere in between CoolMax and Dryline and are tighter than sweats but looser than tights. This kind of pants are good down to about 25 degrees or so.

The final alternative is lycra tights. These are extremely close-fitting and quite warm, but generally out of favor with men--runners, at least, they're popular with cyclists--but are still reasonably popular with women, who don't seem quite as concerned about sporting the ballet dancer look. They can also be worn underneath a pair of pants in really cold conditions.

If it's at all cold, you'll probably want something to keep your hands warm. The standard thing is lightweight synthetic knit gloves. All of the major manufacturers (Hind, Pearl iZumi, New Balance, Brooks, etc.) make them and they're all more or less interchangeable. The nice thing about these gloves is that they pack down tight so you can shove them in a pocket or tuck them in your pants. In a pinch, you can wear a pair of socks on your hands like mittens. This looks a little stupid, but it's actually quite warm and since you surely have lots of pairs of socks, it's generally easy to find a clean pair. If it's really cold, case you'll want something that's windproof, but you generally want something that's got a fabric outer rather than nylon. Most people's noses run in the cold and soft gloves are good for wiping with.

The second thing you'll want is some sort of hat. Typically these are either knit or made of Polarfleece. Your standard beanie will do just fine, but I advise picking something that can cover your ears, for two reasons. First, your ears tend to get cold when you're running, and pulling your hat over them helps. Second, keeping your ears covered makes a big difference (at least for me) in your overall level of warmth.

Running in the rain
At least in California, the big challenge in winter running is that it rains a lot. The key thing here is to resign yourself to getting wet and wear clothing that will keep you warm when it is wet. All of the gear I've recommended should do a pretty good job, but you'll have to experiment a bit to see what's most comfortable for you. Good luck!

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When I run, my preferred protection from the cold is a squash court.

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