Dressing for (Minnesota) Winter Running




About: Convincing myself I know how to write embedded firmware. Everyone else seems to believe me thus far. Open to suggestions for projects. I dare you to challenge me.

Because I believe that innovation really lies in the hands of tinkerers, I have been wanting to find a subject I thought I could present without simply providing a remix of an existing Instructable. Thanks to Smoochmaroo's Stay Warm challenge Dec 2011, I think I have finally found that topic. I realized I have been doing a somewhat knowledgeable activity for years. Running during the winter.

Dressing for winter running is not just about staying warm. It is about staying the right temperature range. Because of the extreme cold of the weather in winter, much of your effort will be to keep as much of the temperature your body will create as possible.

I will make a clarification that I mean running, as a distinctly more vigorous activity than jogging. The goal is to get your blood pumping hard. Staying active is a great way to stay warm and raise your spirits in the dark months of winter. It may even help you keep off some of those unwanted holiday pounds.

Following these guidelines, some of my friends and I have been able to dress warm enough to run through mild to moderate blizzard conditions. If you decide to do so, please keep safety highly in mind as conditions can change rapidly and rescue may not be possible if things get bad enough.

Runners are crazy. As such I am a little extreme about the minimal level to which I add insulation. I will try to bare in mind that most other people who are also running do not have the tolerance to cold that I do.

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Step 1: Know the Weather

This can be as simple as "real feel" from being outside previously or it can involve looking up a forecast. Know which way the wind is going and plan accordingly. You should start your run so you have a headwind. If routes allow, you can choose to have a cross wind the whole way. I prefer not to because you stay about as cold the whole route. By starting into the wind, you will not be sweating as you go and end up getting chilled as easily. 

Then on the way back, with the wind at your back, you will run a little faster and your body will already have made an effort to acclimate to the additional cold of the wind stripping heat away. This will make you feel warmer. Also, by the time you get a couple miles into the run, you will have started to sweat. By the time you turn back into the wind. you could be quite wet, despite the cold air.

The more you can do to protect yourself against wind in this region or any like it, the less you will find air temperature is a significant factor.

Step 2: Head Gear

When you just go outside, the head is often not the first thing you plan to keep warm. When you are spending a half hour to two hours outside, you may think twice about leaving it uncovered. A hat is the first thing to add. Keeping the ears protected is a must as they are one of the easier parts of the body to become frost bitten. Alternatively, a headband that covers the ears or ear muffs can be used, but I would advise against the muffs as they are more likely to get jostled as you step.

Next is a face mask. Make sure it is either thin enough or has adequate holes to breath through easily. Keep in mind that in really cold weather ice can form over your mouth/nose, making breathing more difficult. Avoid trying to melt off the ice by taking your mask down. When the ice melts, it will stay near freezing and take extra energy to warm it back up. With a mask like mine, one option is to rotate it. Given where it will rest relative to my hat, I can get three, maybe four, positions that will not put cold water against my bare skin.

With high winds, the mask becomes even more important to prevent windburn. Keep good coverage of both your face and neck. As you get more wind, a pair of safety glasses or goggles can be a game winner. You would be amazed how much more tollerable some running can be if you are not squinting against the icy gale that burns in your eyes. They can also help if there is snow blowing as well.

Step 3: Torso

When covering your torso, take a lesson from survival and think layers. I can run most of the winter wearing only one or two well selected layers under my windbreaker. At the base, select a layer that will do a good job of trapping heat and wicking moisture. Underarmor/Climagear/Drifit/similar are a good choice for both if you get the cold versions of them. Polyester is not a bad option, but tends not to breath as well. Long or short sleeve depends on how much extra insulation you will need.

That may have been enough for insulation, but if not, next you will add layers that are purely for insulation. Here, some may chose to add extra layers of the same. A cotton tee shirt may be enough to get you through, but this would be where you start adding wool or fleece or any heavier layers. Avoid wearing a heavy winter jacket as they tend to be pretty heavy both weight wise and for your likely need for insulation. Apply these layers as needed, but keep in mind that as warm as you are, you will get warmer while you run.

As I mentioned before, I take this to a bit of an extreme, but you should find a good amount of insulation to be "just cool" when starting your run. (Never cold, or you may put yourself at risk for hypothermia) This will allow your body a few extra degrees to warm up before you start to really sweat heavily. You will definitely not need as much in between as a skier because the goal of running is to be moving as much as possible. Skiers have to sit on the lifts while moving little.

Like the skiers, though, we want a good outer layer. A wind breaking jacket or shell is all you really need at this point. more than anything, the wind is going to cause you to get cold. An added bonus to the jacket is that it can help with your hands if the sleeves are long enough. More on that in step 6. Protecting yourself from the wind will let you manage the perspiration that will accumulate. Even with a good wind breaker, I have found that just getting out of the wind can make the weather seem ten or more degrees warmer. There is a reason the weather in this area includes wind chill for temperatures.

Step 4: Legs

Since these will be doing most of the work, they will get extra heat. Most of the time, just wearing a pair of pants over your shorts will be enough. The more they do to repel wind the better. again, you may become quite uncomfortable if you over dress. A good consideration though is to wear some warm underwear. Things that aren't currently in use do get cold. Tights may be handy for extreme conditions.

Step 5: Feet

What can you do with feet? You're running!

Well, it is good to get some warm of socks. Either real or synthetic wool socks are a prime choice. They will help withstand some of the wind for being thick and wool is know for staying a good insulator when wet. Both of these characteristics are important since running shoes are made to allow air to flow freely for running in hot weather. I prefer the summer/hiking variety of socks because my feet stay warm, not hot.

Come early spring, these are also useful as icy puddles may have formed from early melting, but still try to avoid it. Not fun.

Step 6: Hands

Hands can be quite tricky to cover. They will get cold running with them out in the air and you want to prevent frostbite. They also get surprisingly warm as you run. The heavy mittens I have on the right are a little to extreme for going on a run. When I have had to use them for want of other gloves, I have found that my hands will get hot enough that I have to take half my hand out to stay comfortable. This is where I realized that some biking gloves were really handy. They work as layer to wear under larger gloves or mittens, but provide some warmth in their own right. The real winner about them is that they still allow me to use a trick that is most excellent *does some air guitar.*

Pull your hands part way into your sleeves so your hand is mostly or completely covered by the cuff. In good weather, this can save you from even having to wear gloves in the first place. if need be, ball up your hand to cut off the hole air can slip through. As your blood starts to circulate better, you can easily adjust as needed.

Step 7: Safty

Safety is extra important when running in the winter, since stopping to long could have serious consequences. Plan easier routes to follow/complete. Take your turns slow. Stop like you might be on an ice rink. Try to run during daylight hours. Wear the right gear.

If you can find the time to run when it is still light out, it will be both warmer and safer. You are easier to see and the temperature hasn't started to fall yet. Because it is winter, it is still a good idea to run with your cell phone and avoid routes that take you into areas where you don't get very reliable service. Stay in town and near houses where possible.

Should you end up running at night, wear bright colored clothing and give serious thought to investing in a reflective vest. A tail light and head lamp are an added bonus since they will make you more visible to those around you. Even more than in the warmer months, it is important to give drivers every opportunity to see you so they have more time to stop on the ice.

Step 8: Getting Back

When you finish the run, promptly return to the shelter of a heated building. You shouldn't need to be told that being damp while standing outside, wearing clothing that just kept you from being cold while dry, is a bad idea. Furthermore, get out of your wet clothes as soon as reasonable. Take a hot shower or bath (the bath will allow you to take better advantage of the warm water if a tub is available). Get rehydrated. Consider something warm to drink or some hot soup.

Congratulations. You're done.

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    13 Discussions


    Sweet article, and love your writing style. *does air guitar back at you*

    Just started running this winter, got some winter running tights (I think I look like a ninja, lol) and I am stoked about getting into better shape this winter.

    Now that you mention it, that does sound familiar, but does it continue to feel cool to cold as you are out or does it insulate pretty well as well?

    You still feel the cold but it's a little better and you don't get chapped. I live in Texas but run outside year round. It usually doesn't get below 20 degrees but I have ran in colder weather. The drawback to this is that your skin does not breathe.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    It must be useful while I'm running the day after tomorrow in the cold wind :)


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Great 'ible! I had a mid-winter half marathon this year and did all of my long training runs outside in Michigan winter. Fortunately, I was blessed with a lot of sunny days on my runs, but it was usually very cold. My coldest run was 8 degrees. One thing I found is that I'd much rather be cooler than warmer when I run. I usually wore a sport-weight or silk long underwear shirt as a base layer, then a thin fleece. The best combination I found was actually a sleeveless shirt, arm warmers and a top layer that was fleece on the inside and flat on the outside. I always kept a heavier fleece in my car to keep warm after my run because I drive to a different neighborhood to run.

    I had to wear the thinnest nylon beanie hat I could find or I'd get overheated. The best face cover/neck warmer I found was a Buff, which is a long, microfiber tube that can be used in many different configurations. I love it because I can use it as a balaclava when I need a full face cover, then pull it down into a neck gaiter when there's more protection from the wind or it gets warmer. I wore Smartwool crew socks and my feet never got cold or too wet, even when I accidentally stepped in a slush puddle! I wore knit gloves I got as a giveaway at a fall 5K and they were fine.

    For me, the most important thing was carrying a bottle of lukewarm water with me. You get more dehydrated than you think when running in the cold. You're less likely to be thirsty when it's cold and your sweat evaporates more quickly, so you can be fooled into thinking you're not dehydrated.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Great instructable! Just thought I'd 'layer-on' :-) some experimental layering I found works for Flagstaff AZ type weather:
    I found that if I layer a bicyclist shirt type poly/goretex/spandex/etc stretch shirt(long sleeve best) then a fleece tunic made from one of those 'throw' blankets you can get at dept stores:. especially the ones that are furry-knapped about 1/4" to 1/2" i.e http://www.peachfurfleece.com/Coral-fleece-blankets-s/49.htm

    I cut/fold/sew( staple if in a emergency) the blanket to make a 'pillowcase' that is torso sized and slightly longer for tuck-in, then cut a neck hole at the top and arm holes.

    This goes over the above mentioned bicyclist shirt type poly/goretex/spandex/etc stretch shirt(long sleeve best). then last I use a good tee-shirt over top, then optionally a coat if needed but venting might be needed.

    The idea is: the bicyclist shirts wicks body sweat toward the fleece, then on outward to the cotton shirt to evaporate. The fleece acts as a insulator and moisture wick way from the body. The cotton tee still traps air pockets over the fleece's surface texture and cotton tees then absorb and evaporate well. This is what I use when I'm fabricating or welding outside in the cold. Thanks for the instructable -Lee Studley

    Phil B

    7 years ago on Introduction

    I lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin one year and began jogging. When winter came I kept a list of clothing items I needed to add to keep warm at different temperatures. That chart was very handy later when I lived other places and winter arrived there. One thing I saw in a store in Milwaukee was a special face mask. I made it into an Instructable because I have not seen any since. Since I have tried riding my bicycle through the winter. I used that same chart, but when riding a bike I need to drink and sometimes to spit. A face mask sometimes gets in the way. Also, me feet and hands tend to get cold more easily on the bike.

    1 reply

    I had seen your 'ible when I was looking to see if anyone had already done this topic. I was just going for what is what, not content, but I may have to look into that when things get colder in January/February.

    I also did some late fall biking in my commute to class last year. It's not quite winter biking, but my hands would always be icicles by the time I arrived. Either that, or I had to totally release my fingers to operate my brakes with my good deer hide mittens. Not a good trade off. If the snow holds off (since my tires suck) that might be a good area to explore further.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Nice instructable.

    Two thing I'd like to note.

    With thick wool socks you might be more prone to blisters especially if your shoes aren't too big since you bought them for running in the summer with very thin socks.

    Second, if there's way to much ice you might want to add some traction to your shoes.

    1 reply

    For the first item, that's why I prefer the summer variety of smart wool. They fit about the same as my summer socks. I haven't had blisters with them (yet).

    As to your second note. I had totally forgot to mention that since I just don't like using any of that kind of stuff when I run. They are quite handy if you don't run like I do: careful to the point of balance and ready to take a fall if it happens. My record is pretty good, but not all are so lucky. If you're ready for falls they are remarkably manageable. That being said, yes, plenty of people will also want traction aids as part of safety.