When the snow and ice turns the world into a cold winter paradise, many runners tend to escape into gyms and become treadmill runners until spring. But with the right equipment, there is no reason not to run outdoor, even on the coldest days.
An expert on cold temperatures
In February 2019 I raced the most extreme races I’ve ever raced. The ICE ULTRA, taking place in an arctic wilderness in the far north in Sweden. A location where weather conditions can be really rough, and on one day, temperatures plummeted to -38 Celsius (-36,4F). It was the coldest racing experience I have ever had, but also one of the most rewarding. I did 220km (137 miles) in 5 days in freezing cold temperatures, but I rarely felt cold.
So, how do you dress for winter running?
In Norway we are used to the cold and we know how important good winter equipment is. But it’s not enough to have just one really thick and warm winter jacket and pants. Multi-layered dressing offers several advantages, but the two most important ones have a little air between for insulating and it makes it easier to regulate the temperature by taking layers on and off as you get cold or warm.
When we run, the body produces heat. If we get too hot, the body will start to sweat and then the clothes will get wet. Wet clothes become cold. In fact, they get icy. I have made the mistake using thermo mitts and wool liners on a run, not taking the time to take the mitts off when I could feel my hands starting to sweat. Having taken my thermo mitts off for just a few seconds to tie my laces, the damp inner gloves have frozen in the sub-zero air. Regulating heat is so important, you must avoid getting sweaty at all costs. This can be done by layering, adding and removing OR reducing activity level.
Equipment to rely on
It may sound strange, since I am a proper winter running enthusiast, and spend many hours running around in deep snow, but I don’t handle the cold well; I easily freeze. The polar mitts are on as soon as the temperature drops below 0C (32F) and my favorite garment in winter is a huge down jacket that would surely have been good enough if you were to cross Antarctica. It’s important I have equipent that I can rely on when I go out on my coldest adventures. Because, if something goes wrong when you are out in -20C (-4F), you are in great risk of hypothermia. I’ve tried it, and it’s not fun at all…
Merino base layers are essential, even my panties and sports bras are wool. Wool leads moisture away from the skin and retains heat even when wet. It is highly breathable and has the ability to regulate the temperature so that it keeps you warm when it is cold and keeps you cold when it is hot. Merino also has the attribute that it is odor and stain resistant. It has a way of cleaning itself. As long as you hang it to dry after every run, you can actually use it many times before it needs washing. If you take good care of your merino base layers, they will last for a long time, make sure to not wash the wool garments too often and always use wool wash and follow the washing instructions. The wool fibers will be damaged if you use normal washing powder.
When I run, I need a base layer that is thin, allows me to move and doesn’t itch. It has to fit properly; you don’t want excess fabric and risk of rubbing. On my long runs in the cold, I will always bring an extra merino long sleeve so that I can change into a dry top should I need to stop or importantly, if I stop for refreshment. In Norway, a bun on all runs is essential.
Depending on how low the temperatures are, I will also wear a merino longs or base layer longs in a synthetic material. For the coldest days, merino will always be my first choice, but down to -10C (14F) I will usually choose a thin base layer in synthetic materials for my legs. I find that my legs get too warm when I run with the merino longs if the temperatures are not really cold. I also have a pair of long merino base layer shorts that is often enough for the days when the temperature is just below 0C (32F).
A good midlayer adds insulation but is still breathable. Products that have zips facilitate easy temperature regulation. My favorite is an inov-8 merino midlayer with hood and sleeves. The sleeves have extra fabric that can be turned into mittens, it’s ingenious. I also use technical midlayer that are environment friendly. A merino or midlayer product can be used all-year, not just in winter.
Three layers more often than not are adequate. However, on extreme cold days, or if moving slower, one more midlayer can be required, usually an insulating layer with the waterproof layer then on-top.
This can be a thin down or synthetic jacket. Down is the warmest and lightest option and there’s nothing that can be packed smaller than down. Historically down lost all its effectiveness when wet. Now, pretty much all the leading brands offer treated down that will resist rain or wet conditions to a certain degree. This effectiveness varies from brand to brand. Also, the outer often now has finishes such as Pertex which reduces the impact of wet conditions. When purchasing a down jacket, make sure the down is ethically sourced.
Products with synthetic fillings, like Primaloft, are guaranteed to work in persistent wet conditions and are a very good option to down products for winter running. Primaloft has a better ability to breath and is also easier to take care of. When racing the extreme race Beyond the Ultimate Ice Ultra, I used a Primaloft midlayer and it kept me warm even when the temperatures dropped to -38C (36,4F).
If it’s windy or snowing heavy, you will need a wind and/or waterproof top layer. A lightweight waterproof running jacket is essential all-year round. I use the same jacket during winter as I use in summer. You will need a jacket that is breathable so that it keeps the wind and rain out but still lets the moisture from body heat out. It should also be lightweight, flexible and have enough room for two or three layers. A good hood which will protect your head and face from wind, rain and heavy snow is also important.
I have never needed to wear a mid-layer on my legs when I have been running, even when racing the Ice Ultra, it was enough with base layer and winter tights/pants. I prefer running pants to tights when running in cold temperatures. The reason is that they have enough room for a pair of base layer longs underneath and a little air between the layers which is also insulating. My favorite winter running pants have wind protection on the front of the tights but are softshell and flexible on the back. That way I get both protection and flexibility at the same time. Although, if there is a lot of wind, rain, or snow, you may need a wind and waterproof pair of pants on top. Wind and waterproof pants are usually on the mandatory kit list for mountain and ultra-trail marathons and you may already have a super-light pair of waterproof racing pants. But for winter running, I would recommend investing in a thicker and more durable pair of waterproof pants.
Hands and feet are the most difficult parts to keep warm and they can cause great discomfort. Personally, I get cold on my toes very quickly. Down to -20C (-4F), two pairs of merino wool socks (a thin liner and a thicker merino on the outside) is usually enough for me if I don’t stop too much and I’m not out for many hours.
Wet feet are a disaster waiting to happen in sub-zero temperatures, avoid this by using a merino liner and then Sealskinz (this is a water and windproof sock produced in the UK). I also have an insulating insole in my winter running shoes for the coldest days. Consider that winter running shoes may well need to be larger to accommodate extra socks and insoles. You need to work out what works for you.
Get a grip
When in snow or ice, I will always run with studded shoes. Studded shoes give you a grip and allows you to run as normal even on the most slippery icy trails. The studded shoes are different and the number of studs, the size of the studs and where the studs are placed on the outsole makes a difference.
Crampons for running can be an alternative, especially on days where you know it will only be parts of the trail that will be slippery. The difference in running with mini crampons and studded shoes are huge and I would not recommend crampons for runs where you know it will be slippery most of the time.
If you are running in snow, you may need to wear gaiters to protect your ankles and stop snow getting in your pants and shoes. A good grippy outsole is a great idea too.
On my hands I use thin merino liners and thermo mitts. As I have already mentioned, I find that hands and feet are the hardest to keep warm and if they go cold, it’s hard to get them warm again. Heat pads are great for avoiding this and I can carry them with me on all winter runs. Usually, I can use one pad and move from one hand to the other.
On my head
A headband and a merino wrag is usually ideal for most conditions. The hood on my mid-layer adds an extra layer and if required, the hood on my jacket too. This combination makes it easy to regulate heat. However, if you are planning to run in cold temperatures, below -20C (-4F) a merino balaclava and a thermal hat is advisable. The balaclava will cover more of your face and reduce the risk of frostbite. Be aware that a balaclava that covers your mouth and nose will be in risk of getting damp and then this can freeze.
On the coldest days, it is advisable to wear a facemask that will protect your lungs from the cold air. I rarely use it during winter, but in Sweden I did. There are different face masks for this out on the market, but I use a neoprene facemask that is lightweight, feels comfortable against my skin and is easy to breathe through when I am running. The downside with the neoprene is that it gets wet; you need to be careful with ice.
Snow blindness is a real risk, glasses are essential. Windy and cold days and you may need a pair of ski googgles.
Protect your skin with sun cream, protect your lips and use a skin product post runs. Make sure it is products made for cold temperatures and that it is not water based.
*My favourite winter running kit:
· long-sleeved thin merino base layer from inov-8
· Devolds expedition longs
· Swix RaceX longs (synthetic base layer)
· merino base layer shorts from Devold
· Pierre Robert merino bra and panties
· merino mid layer with hood and sleeves that can be turned into mittens from inov8.
· technical midlayer from inov8
· inov8 thermoshell (old version)
· Inov8 winter tight (more like a running pant and has room for base layer)
· inov8 thermoshell
Wind and waterproof:
· inov-8 Stormshell jacket
· inov-8 wind and waterproof trailpants
· Arctic talon 275
· Arctic Claw 300
· Inov8 Oroc
· Devold merino liners
· Inov-8 extreme thermo mitt
· Inov8 all-terrain mitts (on wet days)
· Inov8 merino lite (thin liner)
· Inov8 merino sock
· Sealskinz waterproof socks
· Inov8 gaiters
· Inov8 headband
· Inov8 merino wrag
· Inov8 thermo hat
· Devold Balaclava
· Cream from Roald Amundsen Skin care that is made for extreme cold conditions. They also have a cream with 50SPF that gives both protection from the sun and the cold.
*For clarity, I am an inov-8 ambassador.
Want to read more about winter running? Check out my post about tips for winter running here.