How to choose the right gear for running in colder weather

Most runners I know all say the same thing about fall: This is the best time of year to run.

The oppressive summer heat and humidity has given way to crisp air, gorgeous fall colors, the smell of rain and wet earth, and the sound of leaves skittering along the pavement or crunched underfoot. There’s something life-affirming about breathing in all that cool air and exhaling it back out.

But we’re in Michigan, of course. Peak fall colors don’t last long, and winter can assert itself with force at any time now. There comes a point when the weather tips from being a runner’s friend to a huge obstacle to getting out the door. (Ever try waking up early for a run when it’s snowing sideways?)

That said, don’t let anyone tell you it’s no fun running in winter. Many of my favorite runs ever were through blinding snow storms, when the streets are eerily quiet and empty of traffic, much less other runners. Running outside this time of year can be wonderful, even necessary to combat cabin fever, so long as you invest in cold weather running gear.

Here’s what you need:

  • Skull cap. You lose most of your body heat through your head, so once the mercury drops past a certain point — for me the cutoff is somewhere below 45 degrees — don’t go out without a cap. To me, I’d rather head out with a hat and take it off if I get too hot than be caught cold without one. It should be made of breathable, synthetic material or soft wool, so it stays reasonably dry. In fact, moisture-absorbing materials like cotton are your enemy in cold weather, to be avoided at all costs.
  • Gloves. The hands are another part of the body where you quickly lose heat. Invest in a good pair of insulated, windproof and moisture-wicking gloves for the really cold stuff. Your digits will thank you.
  • Jacket. There are plenty of insulated running jackets available that provide protection for the coldest of winter runs, but they can be expensive. For years now I’ve gotten away with wearing a thin, cool-weather outer jacket right through winter. So long as your outerwear is windproof and at least water resistant, and you layer warmly underneath, you should be fine.
  • Layers. Figuring out what combination of layers works best in different conditions can be a trial-and-error process, since people experience weather differently. My wife, for example, overheats easily and typically needs fewer layers than I do when she goes out. Generally, it’s a good idea to play with combinations of thin layers and more insulated tops until you find the right combinations for the weather. And again, stay away from cotton, which will only absorb moisture and make you cold, wet and miserable.
  • Pants. I’ll leave it up to you whether you’d rather rock the Lycra tights look or wear loose-fitting running pants, but like your jacket, you should aim for something that blocks wind, has some insulation and is waterproof or water-resistant. Because there’s nothing worse than freezing thighs.

However you choose to bundle up, you should feel just slightly chilly when you first step outside, remembering that your body is going to heat up once you start running. If you feel perfectly cozy, you’re probably going to get too hot running, so it might be a good idea to shed a layer.

What’s your favorite piece of winter running gear?

Photos by Kalexanderson and lululemon athletica

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