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Winter running: wrap up or warm up?

Running is pretty simple. Put on some comfortable clothes and shoes and get out and go. One foot in front of the other.

Except sometimes the weather conspires to make it complicated for you. Either by making you feel uncomfortable or by sapping your motivation. This is especially true in winter, when the dark mornings and evenings, cold winds, rain, and even snow and ice make things trickier.

Get your clothing options wrong and you run the risk of getting home cold and wet, or maybe even too hot. This can be thoroughly demotivating and even increase the likelihood of getting injured. Get your clothing options right and you might even be able to imagine you’re cruising along on a warm spring day.

What to wear when running in the winter

In no particular order, here are some tips to help you dress for, and enjoy, running in the winter…

Dress for the second mile

If you leave your front door and feel a little chilly, don’t panic as you’ll warm up once you’ve been running for a few minutes. If you leave the house and feel warm, you’re probably going to feel too hot 10 minutes in.

So dress with the second mile in mind, not the first. You can usually get away with fewer clothes than you might expect.

Layers

Wear too many clothes, or a big thick jacket and you run the risk of getting too hot as the run goes on. Wearing multiple, thin layers gives you options to shed clothes as you warm up. If you keep them thin and lightweight, made from “technical” fabrics, then they’ll be easier to hold, tie around your waist, or bundle into a pocket if you choose to take them off.

If you do multiple laps of a looped course past your front door, then you can always ditch clothes at home mid-run. Just be careful that you’re not tempted to stop completely and skip the next lap!

Invest in a good jacket

At the least, it should be breathable and wind or water-resistant, if not fully waterproof. This might cost a few quid, as there’s a rule of thumb with waterproof jackets. They can be cheap, lightweight, or breathable, but never all three at the same time.

Unless you strike gold at the sales, you’re only going to be able to pick two of those characteristics at one time. A cheap jacket is usually going to be heavy and uncomfortable, or not breathable and leaving you soaked on the inside from your own sweat. So keep an eye out for a bargain.

The difficulties of waterproofing your legs

One of the most annoying things about waterproof jackets is how the water runs down off the hem and can soak your legs if you’re wearing non-waterproof clothes on your bottom half. It can leave you with soggy underpants, which isn’t great as it feels unpleasant and can lead to chafing. You have two options:

  1. Wear some waterproof trousers or shorts which will keep your legs dry, but can be very cumbersome to run in;
  2. Or sacrifice your leg dryness for less restricted movement.

It’s your call on this one.

Leggings

You could wear tracksuit bottoms or sweatpants, but think about aerodynamics. Baggy clothes caught in the wind will flap around and slow you down. Leggings, or tights, are streamlined and will keep you warm.

If you keep your muscles warm, you reduce the risk of injury – especially for your knees, calves and achilles. Try and find a pair with decent sized pockets so you have somewhere to stash your hat or gloves if you warm up. The ones with zips at the ankles can be opened up to offer a bit of ventilation if you find you’re getting too warm.

Gloves

When running in the cold, your blood will go to your core and your legs, so you need to look after your extremities. You might only need a thin pair, but wear gloves to keep the wind chill off your hands and your digits warm. Mittens are warmer if you don’t need to take them off to do anything with your fingers

Buff/neck-tube/snood

Whatever you want to call it, one of these versatile items can be used to keep your neck warm, cover your ears, or double as a hat.

Hats

Even if you’re not a “hat person”, something that covers your ears can become your favourite item of clothing if it keeps the wind chill off. On a rainy or snowy day, a peaked hat can keep the rain or snow out of your eyes.

Shoes

If your local routes get turned to mud when it rains, then pop on some shoes with a more pronounced, lugged sole. Most running shops will sell trail shoes for running off road, and many of these will have uppers that can help keep your feet warm or dry.

Bear in mind, that short of wearing waterproof boots and gaiters, you’re unlikely to be able to keep your feet completely dry. However, you can try and minimise the discomfort with shoes that offer some protection. Trail shoes will also offer extra grip when it snows. If you struggle on ice, and run somewhere where this is a frequent concern, consider some shoes with spikes on their soles or a set of ice spikes you can put over your existing shoes.

…or, put socks over your shoes

If you haven’t got any shoes that grip in slippery conditions, then try putting a pair of old, large woolly socks over the top of your shoes. The fabric can be surprisingly grippy on ice.

Socks also make good impromptu mittens.

Plasters and lube

Wet running kit sticks to skin and is liable to cause chafing. Pop a plaster or some microporous tape (available at your local chemist for a couple of quid) on your nipples (or wear a bra) and use a running specific lubricant anywhere you might suffer from chafing.

If you suffer with dry skin and split knuckles when it gets cold, put some microporous tape on your fingers before your run, as extra protection, then slip your gloves on over the top.

Sunglasses

It may seem counter-intuitive to wear sunnies in the winter, but when the sun is low, or reflecting off ice or snow, it can be hard on your eyes.

Sunglasses will also help keep snow out of your eyes, but if you’re running in a severe blizzard you might want to put some goggles on.

Be safe and be seen

If you run in a built up area with pavements and street lights then you shouldn’t need to worry too much about being seen by others. But if you run on dark roads then please make sure other road users can see you. Yes, they should be driving in a manner suitable for the conditions and keeping an eye out for people, but that doesn’t always happen.

Fluorescent colours are good in low light conditions, but rubbish when it’s pitch black, In these conditions, white stands out a lot more. Make sure you wear clothes that have some reflective bits on, and consider using a head torch. Not only will it make you more visible, it will make it easier for you to spot potholes, tree roots or other hazards.

Also consider strapping a red light on the back of you so you can be seen from all directions.

How to make the most of winter running

Now you know what to wear, here are some other tips for running when it’s cold and wet…

Keep a towel and bucket inside your front door

That way, when you get home, covered in mud and soaking wet, you can strip off and get dry and keep all your filthy kit contained.

Breathe

Your breath won’t freeze in your lungs, but cold air can be uncomfortable in your nose and throat. Wearing a buff over your face can take the edge off cold air slightly, but the moisture in your out-breath can make the buff soggy, which might then freeze.

Be prepared for everything to feel harder and don’t worry too much about pace.

If you have asthma, be careful, and run with your inhaler.

Don’t be risky

If you’re going off into the wild, be careful that you don’t get caught out by changing weather and run into trouble. Tell someone where you’re going, wear decent kit, carry appropriate emergency and safety equipment, and try not to do anything dangerous.

Hailstones hurt

There’s nothing you can do but get under cover and wait for them to pass.

Don’t get struck by lightning

Think about the surrounding terrain if running in a storm. Don’t be the tallest thing around, or run near something that is likely to get hit by lightning – such as a lone tree on top of an otherwise bare hill.

If it snows, don’t delay

Freshly laid snow is lovely to run on. It is soft, fluffy and surprisingly grippy. So get out of the door while it is still fresh and make the first set of prints on the crunchy powder.

If you wait, you may end up running on slippery slush, compressed by everyone who has been out on it ahead of you.

Adjust your gait

When it’s slippery, take it easy. Slow down, and try and land with a flatter foot to increase the surface area of your shoe that hits the ground, improving traction.

Keep your centre of gravity over your feet and avoid turning sharply. If you do fall, avoid sticking your arms straight out as that is a sure fire way to break your wrist or the bones in your hands. Instead, try and roll, staying loose to absorb the impact as much as possible.

Have a warm drink

If you’re running with a drink, mix it with warm water, put it in a flask, or wrap it in a sock to stop it freezing.

Make sure you can get home

Carry some bus money or have some other means of getting home quickly if the weather gets too bad and you have to bail. It’s better to cut a run short if it’s all going wrong, rather than struggle on, get ill, injured, or lose your mojo and not run again for ages.

And lastly…

Just get out there!

This article is not a substitute for experience. The more you run in different weather conditions, the better you’ll get at instinctively knowing what to wear. Sideways rain, headwinds and soggy feet can test even the most dedicated runner, but if you get it done the sense of achievement will be massive.

How do you cope with running in winter? Do you have any tips for dealing with bad weather? Please let us know in the Lonely Goat Facebook Chat Group, the discussions area of the Strava Group, or on Instagram using the hashtags #lonelygoatrc or #lonelygoatrunningclub.