I signed up for my first Hot Chocolate Run, a local 5K race, a couple of months after I started running, in 2016, because, in October, it had started to get chilly and rainy and I knew I’d never keep going, in fact I wouldn’t go out even once in that kind of weather, unless I had some pressure. The fact that I was fundraising for the event meant I couldn’t not run the race. And I was terrified that I would take way, way longer than everyone else running it, so it made me go out in the cold and rain to stay in enough shape to meet my goal of finishing in 45 minutes or less. (And I did, and it was fun, and I raised a lot of money, all three years so far, for a really great organization. And I abhor the treadmill, having a lot of admiration for the person who coined the term “dreadmill”, so very apt.)
Don’t get me wrong. There’s this thing called the Polar Vortex – I’m capitalizing it because it is so formidable, like you would capitalize Darth Vader or Voldemort even if they weren’t people, albeit fictitious – over great swaths of the country right now taking temperatures down to 40 below in some places. I’m no expert, but you don’t have to be an expert to know that you should not run when “the authorities” are telling you to stay outside for no longer than one minute and only if it’s really necessary. (I don’t think my dog would get the really necessary part, sniffing all the new smells trumping any discomfort for him, but, thankfully, it’s not anywhere near that cold here in Massachusetts.)
Although the Vortex is not nearly that horrific in my neck of the woods, today was the coldest weather I’ve run in, with my favorite weather app, Dark Sky reporting that it was 13 degrees, “feels like 4”, when I started, 12 degrees, “feels like 3,” when I finished, with ice and snow on the roads and paths. I love Dark Sky because reports hourly by default and lists wind speed as well as temperature, precipitation, etc. And its reporting several days ahead means I can see when I probably won’t be able to run, so I can plan my days off (i.e., make myself go out on days when I just don’t want to because I’ll have to take the day off the day it’s going to snow 12 inches) and also when I might think about running earlier or later than usual to adjust to conditions.
I had run last winter when it was 15 degrees and there was snow and ice on the roads, but somehow, even though I remember that it was totally fine, both my dog and myself being warm and not slipping, I found the idea of going out in below-20-degrees and icy roads daunting. It was like that in October this year too, when the first chilly, rainy day presented itself. The key is to remember that you’ve done it before and it was fine. And to know how to dress so that it is actually fine.
Hence my picture of my clothing shed just inside the door after my run today, to illustrate just what I wear when it’s cold and snowy and icy. Because you have to be actually fine.
I’ll start by saying I dress as if it’s 10 degrees warmer than it actually is, because the heat I generate will make up for that 10 degrees. So if it’s 70 out, I dress as if it’s 80. I also decrease by 10 degrees for winds of 8-12 mph. (I haven’t run when the winds are stronger than that. I hate wind!). But it’s hard to imagine what you would be comfortable in when it’s less than 20 degrees, so I have in mind what I wear at each 10 degree interval and add layers as it gets colder.
All of this will vary according to your internal thermostat. I’ve seen articles where people dress as if it’s 20 degrees warmer. You’ll have to experiment, but I’m listing what I do as a starting off point and to let you know that this is more than doable. It’s easy. You just have to get past it being daunting.
Also, I’m not getting anything from the companies I reference. I’m just saying what works for me.
I’ll start with the head and work down:
Head and Neck
You can see all the head/neck layers I refer to in this picture, shown top-down as worn.
I am never comfortable if my neck is cold. I started out actually wearing a full-length scarf, but that was when I was still running in jeans. It’s cumbersome, particularly if you want to take it off part way through the run. You can’t easily stuff a full-length scarf in a pocket. After I decided a scarf was ridiculous, I fiddled around with a shirt with a hood that I would clip with one of those things men’s shirts come back from being laundered with, to keep the sleeves in place. Not a really satisfactory solution. Somehow I came across the Buff. This is a tube that goes around your neck. (It is below the Brooks headband in the photo.) I only found that these exist in December, so I’ve only worn it one way. In order to keep it snug around my neck I pull it up over my head like a hood. That way I can pull it over my mouth and/or nose if I need to and I get an extra layer under my hat. I put the ear-warmer/headband over it and nothing rides up. I have the Lightweight Merino Wool version. It seems like “lightweight” would not be sufficient for a below-20 run, but I love it. And it washes up beautifully. I will have to experiment when it’s warmer to see how to make it snug without pulling it up over my head. And the downside is that I look a bit like a Medieval nun with it on, if a Medieval nun was going out for a jog, that look of being swathed along the face and under the chin, no hair showing. But who cares, my neck is warm.
I start wearing a hat when it’s 30 degrees. I have a Brooks Running Notch Thermal Headband, which I love for two reasons. It comes down over my ears without my having to wear one of those hats that has ear flaps or really long sections to cover the ears. I do have some pride! And it keeps my hat from riding up so I look like I’m wearing a chef’s hat in a weird color.
The hat I wear is just an thin acrylic (because it’s washable) hat that was a freebie my husband got from a movie job. It has a football helmet embroidered in slightly shiny but still gray thread – the movie was Concussion – which I put at the back because it’s kind of weird. But, hey, it was free and it’s the perfect running hat.
When it’s below 20 I wear my Buff over my head, my headband/ear warmer, my Concussion hat, and my Hot Chocolate Run hat, a thicker, also acrylic, hat.
IMPORTANT: Have some clip-on sunglasses for those days when the sun on snow is literally blinding.
This picture shows most of my options for shirts. I always wear a tank top, even when it’s hot because I’m not comfortable, visually, just running in a bra. But I wear one as my innermost layer in the winter for the body-hugging warmth.
A note about fabrics: When I first started running, in August of 2016, I ran in jeans or cotton capris, cotton T-shirts or tanks, sweatshirts, whatever was at hand. I thought all the fancy-dancy high-tech fabrics were just for people trying to impress. Then I read that you should wear wicking fabrics in case you (or your dog) can’t keep running and you have long, possibly very slow walk back to your house or car. You really want something that will wick the moisture so that you are less cold that you would be in non-wicking fabric. So everything you see in the pile of flung-off clothing is wicking, except for the socks, which are lightweight wool running socks.
For my run today, in the teens, I wore the tank top under three long-sleeved shirts, a fleece shirt (maroon, visible to the left of the pile of long-sleeved shirts), and two fleece jackets. Most of these items, the tank, long-sleeved shirts, and one of the jackets, are high-tech wicking fabrics. Mine are from the Gap since I was able to get things at very good prices and it’s like airline miles, rewards build up so things keep getting cheaper as you keep buying. The fleece shirt and one of the jackets are ancient Old Navy specimens from the 90s. Actually the fleece shirts were my daughters in middle school. The old fleece jacket has some kind of lining that makes it very dense and fairly windproof, although having all those layers on helps in that regard also. You can see the fleece jackets, with the blue-gray lining of the ancient Old Navy one showing, on the left of the picture with all the clothing.
For temperatures in the 20s I wear two long-sleeved shirts under all the rest of it, in the 30s I drop the fleece shirt and often also the outer, ancient fleece jacket. And as the temperatures go up, I drop more layers – no jacket, just one long-sleeved shirt, etc.
I have a pair of gloves and a pair of mittens that I bought specifically for running. I hardly ever wear them as I find that the parts of myself that I want uncovered first, as I warm up, are my hands and then wrists. So what I normally do is pull the bottoms of my shirts over my hands to start out and the, when I’m warmed up, n push them back and often turn them back off my wrists. But there are days, when it’s windy or rainy or just a very raw cold when I want one or both pairs. Both are able to work the phone, although the gloves work better in that way than the mittens. I got the mittens mainly for wind and rain. They’re not entirely water and windproof, but they do the job when I need them.
In today’s 12-13 degree run I wore the gloves for most of the run. The mittens rode in my pocket.
Today I wore four layers on my legs. The first is the lowest pair of leggings in the pile in the above photo. These are leggings that were touted as super-warm leggings by the Gap, but turned out to be a very thin, long-underwear layer. At first I was annoyed, but now I love them. The second layer is a little-bit-loose pair of leggings that are winter weight. Then I put on the striped fleece sweatpants and then the black fleece sweats over that. If it’s in the 20s I wear only one pair of fleece sweats, in the 30s sometimes, depending on the wind and humidity, just the two pairs of leggings. I have never worn the innermost long-underwear type leggings alone. I wear a heavy pair of leggings or just the loose ones if it’s in the 40s or 50s.
If it’s just cold with no rain, snow, or ice, I just wear my normal running shoes and running socks, lightweight wool in the winter, cooler and lower running socks in the summer.
But I indulged in a pair of Brooks Running Ghost GTX running shoes. They are, as far as I can tell, the only waterproof running shoes available. They have a Gore-Tex layer, the source of their waterproof quality, but they happen to be quite cushioned and feel great.
You can see in the picture that I have attached cleats to them. What I have are Due North All Purpose, which do very well. They do not feel treacherous on bare asphalt and handle snow, slush, and ice beautifully. I suspect that the Yaktrax, spring-like rather than spike cleats might be much more slippery on bare asphalt, but I didn’t try anything out. We just happened to have the Due North All Purpose cleats, so I claimed them for my own, even though I am not the purchaser, a bad habit of mine that I will probably not give up unless forced to. Here is an article assessing various cleats, for those of you who want to run in serious snow. (Disclaimer: I have no idea if the blogger has reliable opinions.)
I have an old Mountain Hardware rain jacket, bought about 12 years ago, long before I started running, but it is just perfect. It has slash pockets that keep my Kleenexes and phone dry, an interior pocket for my key, id, and $10, which I always carry, an adjustable hood, and, what I just learned are called “pit zips”, a charming term for zippers that allow you to let air in from your upper arm down to your waist. The zippers have two pulls so you can make the openings as large or small as you want. I consider these a must for a raincoat you’re going to run in. This seems to be the up-to-date equivalent of what I have.
It is important to find a baseball cap with an adjustable band that you can wear under the hood. Why, you ask, would you do that, particularly in winter when you have to do the weird thing of making the band bigger to accommodate going over your Buff and hat(s)? Because otherwise the hood will droop over your eyes, or, if you adjust the hood to not droop, get your face wet and your glasses completely spotted with raindrops. Either way, without the baseball cap as shelf, you won’t be able to see where you’re going at all. I found this one at the Gap and it’s wonderful, very light weight for when you don’t want warmth, like spring downpours, and quick-dry non-absorbent material, perfect for the rain.
With my Gore-Tex shoes and rain jacket, baseball cap, and a pair of fleece sweats over leggings, I usually don’t need anything else, unless it’s a real downpour. For really drenching rain, I tried to find waterproof leggings for runners, but they don’t seem to exist. (The woman in my local running shop clearly thought I was a total wimp for even thinking about wanting waterproof leg-wear, but I wonder if she goes out in downpours or wimps out because her legs will be drenched?) I finally remembered I had some fleece-lined waterproof bike leggings, which work perfectly in a downpour. I got them in a second-hand shop close to 20 years ago, so if you’d like some good waterproof running leggings, Google “waterproof bike leggings women’s”. Look for leggings, not pants, so your legs are not rubbing against each other, making a swishing noise, every step of the way.
The Beta Test
What to wear having just checked out Dark Sky for the temperature, wind speed, etc., is far from foolproof. So I beta test – sorry for the tech jargon; I used to be a software engineer – my outfit. This is made easy for me by my dog complaining the whole time I’m suiting up, asking to go out for his morning pee. I put an extra jacket on for the beta test since I am not yet warmed up. You should be comfortable or a bit chilly with the pre-warm-up extra jacket if you’ve gotten it right. Your legs should be slightly chilly but not agonizingly so. There are many days when I have put on an extra layer on my legs, in particular, so the beta test is well worth it. If you don’t have a dog, you might want to get one because you could look a little silly just going out and standing around for a few minutes for no apparent reason.
And don’t forget to reevaluate if you procrastinate and the temperature has risen or dropped dramatically. (I NEVER do this, I’m just guessing that it could be necessary if you happen to be that much of a slacker.)
Winter Gear for Your Dog
I worried at first whether it would be too cold for the dog, seeing as he didn’t have any gear. He’s a Bedlington Terrrier, (a lovely breed, sweet, funny, affectionate, mischievous, not yappy or nervous) so he has a woolly, non-shedding coat. He doesn’t seem to mind the cold at all on normal walks around the neighborhood. When he was very small I knitted him a sweater, but he just doesn’t seem to need one as an adult. I had to remind myself that dogs run in the arctic, so it’s fine that I run with him in normal winter temperatures. I don’t take him out if it’s below 15 or above 75. The heat is more dangerous given that dogs don’t sweat, they only have panting to cool themselves down. I carry a tiny collapsible water bowl and water and douse him (which the ungrateful little guy does not appreciate) before we go out when the weather is warm and keep a close watch on him to make sure he is nowhere near distressed. Note to self: don’t douse the dog mid-run with the algae-laden water from the fountain near the Smith College greenhouse. The resulting reek of algae cum wet dog is rather unbearable.
The one thing he does need in the winter is boots. When the snow is good snowball snow, it packs in between his pads and he is miserable. I did a fair amount of research and found Muttlucks, which are really great. Not too hard to get on, not aggravating to the dog once on, and, and this is big, they don’t fall off. I got the fleece-lined boots, seen below with my cleats on my now worn-out sneakers.
Reflect on This!
Since it is more likely that it will get dark when you’re running in the winter, invest in some glow-in-the-dark suspenders and some flashing, magnetized lights, one for your front, one for your back. And get a glow-in-headlights leash and a flashing light for your dog’s collar/harness too. (Tango thinks it’s time for a walk because I got his leash out for the picture.)
Don’t Be Daunted!
I am a huge cold wimp – if I can get out there in pouring rain and temperatures in the teens, you can too. It’s really quite comfortable, as long as you have the right stuff.