As someone who has run throughout the dead of some winters in Chicago (aka Chiberia), I think I understand what cold weather running gear and training approaches are useful, let alone necessary.
A key point: When it comes to gear and layers, people forget that regardless of the outdoor temperature you do warm up as you run. So what seems like acceptably thick attire the moment you step out the door may be 20 degrees too much within a mile of running. You actually want to dress about a layer too thin when you go out for a freezing run, or else you’ll find yourself either a) ironically overheated or b) looking for somewhere to hold those extra layers once you take them off during the run.
Plus there’s a threshold at which, provided you can maintain an uninterrupted run, you will warm up to a comfortable level almost regardless of how low the temperature gets. I find that the warmness I feel at mile 2 of a 0 degree Fahrenheit run isn’t all that different than how warm I feel 2 miles into a 20 degree or 30 degree run.
That said, however, you should still layer appropriately for the temperature and conditions. After all, you will eventually stop, and once you stop your body soon goes back to a normal sense of temperature. When that happens, bitterly cold once again feels bitterly cold.
So, what is my threshold for cold weather gear vs going out in more “normal” attire? At what point do I need to:
Wear a jacket? For me this threshold is 42-43 degrees Fahrenheit (5-6 degrees Celsius). Again, you warm up during a run to where your personal heat index feels about 20 degrees warmer (12’C). Ideal running temperature is in the 40-60 (4-16’C) degree range, and even when just walking I find myself avoiding long sleeves and coats until the 45-50’F degree range (let’s say 6-10’C). So only when the temperature reaches the 30’s (below 0’C) do I reach for the windbreaker.
Add a 2nd top layer? However, as we go from autumn to winter, I’ll add a long sleeve top at 30 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. The goal is to not need to take that off once I warm up (though I don’t mind removing a jacket and tying it around me during a run once I get warmer). Once I’m acclimated to the winter, I may stick with just the coat into the high 20’s, or maybe even forego the coat for just a sweatshirt if I know I’m getting inside for good after the run… but beyond that I will definitely wear a long sleeve as a 2nd layer.
Below 20 degrees, I will wear all three top layers: A regular t-shirt, a long sleeve top, and a jacket. Unless acclimated for cold weather, I will add another layer of thermal legs and a 2nd layer of socks at this stage. I also will cover my hands, and wear my fleece Carhartt 2-in-1 cap.
The key to handwear is not to wear gloves, but some sort of mitten-style cover. As you run, air quickly passes over the surface of any gear you wear. With gloves, freezing air can pass between all your fingers, which can quickly make them cold and defeat the point of wearing the gloves. With mittens there’s no path for the freezing air to pass between your fingers, better allowing your covered hands to stay warm.
I actually will wear a clean pair of old wool (or similar fabric) socks over my hands, rather than any gloves or a formal pair of mittens. I have mittens, but find carrying and wearing socks less of a pain, plus the fabric does a better job of keeping my hands warm.
My mother made me some fleece scarves years ago, and they work wonders as fleece does the best job of retaining heat in freezing weather. While I wear them more frequently when just walking, I may wear them while running once the temperatures drop to the single digits Fahrenheit and below, and when windchills drop into the negatives… conditions where leaving any part of your body uncovered can be dangerous.
If I’m running from work in winter, I will wear thermal legwear underneath my slacks below 30 degrees since my outer layer isn’t compressive. I will also keep my dress shirt on as the 2nd layer, and wear a sweatshirt/coat over it. While having these work layers can be a bit of a pain in the hotter summer, they’re a welcome thicker layer in the dead of winter.
As for footwear… in clear conditions, I will do all I can to continue to wear the same shoes I run in during summer. If conditions are going to be wet, I will try and wear my somewhat-waterproof Topo Hydroventures, which also have added tread (typically for trail conditions).
I do have a pair of winter-specific New Balance MW1400’s, a high top shoe that pretty much doubles as a pair of winter boots. They insulate well, and if needed you can certainly run in them (in fact I’ve put about 80 miles of running on them since getting my current pair two years ago). But usually I wear those when expecting to navigate substantial snowfall and other mush, since they insulate from those conditions. If I am wearing the 1400’s, I typically don’t expect to run before I return home.
Aside from the Carhartt cap, which has a specific and useful design, and the footwear I mentioned above… I won’t recommend any specific brands. Most of them provide the same benefit, and what matters more is that you have the needed gear for the needed conditions. Buy whatever brand you like, or whatever brand is conveniently, affordably available.
As for navigating snow and ice, and avoiding slips… I’m so well versed in navigating icy conditions that years ago I wrote a piece about how to do so. I can comfortably navigate icy conditions, avoid bad spots, and rarely have I slipped and fell during a walk let alone a run.
I realize others are not as used to handling those conditions. If you don’t feel comfortable with your ability to handle ice during a run and are pretty sure you won’t be… then definitely stick to the treadmill when conditions warrant.
If you want to give running in the ice cold a shot, I start with one (hopefully obvious) piece of advice: TAKE IT SLOW.
Run as slowly as you can get away with while getting used to working around or navigating ice patches. Not only is it entirely possible to run comfortably over icy conditions, many in Chicago (myself included) do it all winter every winter.
Another key, which is easy for most since many consider the winter their offseason, is to curb your mileage and quality workout expectations for the season. I pretty much go full Lydiard during the winter and do nothing but longer, easy running. I back off on pace and focus on just completing my runs safely.
The only thing resembling speedwork I may attempt outdoors in the coldest of winter are hill sprints, which aren’t so much done for pace but as a low-key extra strength workout. And I wouldn’t even call them sprints, so much as “brief runs up an incline at a somewhat higher intensity than usual”. Obviously I only do them if the conditions on the given path are suitably free of dangerous ice. Any tempo work I feel compelled to do either requires dry conditions or a treadmill inside somewhere.
And yes, if, say:
- I look down the road and see sheets of ice everywhere
- I’m slipping far more often than I can comfortably handle
- The lights are out and I can’t see anything at all
- I step in what turns out to be a puddle in icy weather and now my feet are wet
- Suddenly the wind is gusting and the windchill turns negative
- Suddenly an assload of snow starts falling
I’m not averse to turning back or even full-out stopping the run. I may want to train during winter, but I’m not crazy.
So WHY do I bother running in the dead of winter? Couldn’t I just take a hint from Chiberia and take the winter off like most other runners do?
- I like running and want to keep doing it
- I can handle being out in cold conditions
- I actually do better with extreme cold than I do with extreme heat
- In terms of not being harassed by other people on the trails, winter is actually the best time to run. Few people want to go outside, let alone train. You don’t have the trails totally to yourself, but there’s rarely anyone messing with you
- My favorite races take place in late winter or spring, meaning I need to train during winter
- Getting outside and staying active means I stay healthy. A key reason many people get depressed and out of shape during winter is they stop going outside once it gets cold.
- I like eating but I don’t like getting fat because I eat more than I burn.
Alright, so do I ever take a offseason?
Sure, but that’s another post for another time. Until then….