Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Gear Review: Cold Weather Gear

Sorry for the lack of updates lately. Grad school has started and that means all of my time is now being taken up by working out and just plain working.

The Northeast (and no doubt several other places in the northern hemisphere) was just hit with a crazy cold snap. Today wasn't so bad, but yesterday, the mercury was at -10 degrees Fahrenheit when I walked out to my car. Not a huge deal for me since I'm still trainer-ing it up, but many of you are probably still out there gutting it out. Having lived in the Northeast most of my life, and having spent two years in Colorado, I'm no stranger to cold running conditions (for the record, Northeast Pennsylvania has far worse weather than the Front Range). I'm sure some of you Canucks are laughing at me right now, but whatever, my intentions are not to get into a pissing contest, but rather to give you some ideas of clothes to wear.

When we run in the cold (or do any activity in the cold, really), our bodies sends blood to our cores to protect our vital organs. This leaves our extremities, particularly our fingers and toes, with little circulation and at particular risk for frostbite. Guys, you have another extremity to worry about, but I have no advice there other than to take good care of it, sorry. *EDIT: Attention, manly men! My friend Luke just chimed in with a comment (below) that Ibex makes wind proof boxers!* So, the first thing I'll cover is gloves. While in college, I either pulled my hands into my sleeves or used a cheap pair of cotton painter's gloves from Walmart (or both). Gloves like that are great for races when you may want to toss them mid-race since they're so cheap (as are socks worn on your hands), but for normal training runs, you'll be far happier buying yourself a pair of lightweight synthetic running gloves. No need to give a specific recommendation since most companies make them, and I haven't seen a significant difference from one company to another. For colder days, you'll want something a little heavier. The general rule is that mittens are warmer than gloves (though you sacrifice dexterity), and the gold standard of running gloves seems to be convertible gloves, though I've also heard good things about the lobster-style gloves sometimes worn by cyclists. However, before you go out and buy a pair of gloves, check your closet. My current cold weather glove of choice is the Burton Pipe Glove, which works for all but the coldest of days. For those really cold days (0 and below), I have a pair of heavy duty Gore-Tex Dakine alpine gloves with a gaiter (don't know the actual name, so I don't have a link, but several companies, such as Dakine, Burton, and Black Diamond make them). They're bulky, but they do the job well. You can also pull your fingers into the palm if your fingers start to freeze.

The other extremities to be concerned about are your feet and toes. I'm a fan of Burton Snowboard Socks. There are companies out there that make cold weather running socks, but I have yet to find anything that compares with the Burtons for warmth. The only downside is that they're thick, so if you wear your shoes snug, they may not be a comfortable solution. The other problem is shoes. The ventilation that lets your feet breathe in the summer makes them freeze in the winter. If you own a pair of Gore-Tex trail shoes, now is the time to use them. If not, a single strip of duct tape over the mesh over your toes will go a long way to keep your feet warm. Cyclists will tell you to put your feet (while in socks) in plastic bags before sticking them in your shoes, but running like that will likely cause your feet to slide around too much.

On top, it's always a good idea to dress in layers. That way, if you're doing a run where half of it has a headwind and the other half has a tailwind, you can strip accordingly (just make sure everything can be tied around your waist). I'm currently in love with the Brooks Podium Half Zip, which has a ninja cuff to keep your wrists warm, a collar to protect your neck, and a half zipper for when you overheat. If it's windy, I'll pair it with the GoLite Wisp, which is super light and wind-proof (but not waterproof). On really cold days, I'll use the Under Armour HeatGear Longsleeve Tee as a base layer. Don't let the name fool you, because when layered correctly, it works well in cold weather. My defense for those uber-cold days is the Under Armour ColdGear Mock Turtle. That thing is warm. When I first got it, not realizing how warm it was, I wore it as a single layer on a 25 degrees Fahrenheit run. I overheated and finished the run sports bra, and was actually more comfortable. It also got me through a -10 with wind "Feels like -20" day (just that shirt and a hoodie layered on top). My core tends to stay pretty warm though, so depending on how cold you run, you may want to wear more clothing. The last upper body layer I feel is worth mentioning is the Fox Fluid. Ask several runners what their least favorite kind of weather to run in is, and I would bet that several will tell you "Just above freezing and raining." Unlike snow, rain will get you soaked, and there's nothing worse than cold rain. The Fluid is as waterproof as you can get. This waterproofing comes at the expense of breathability (the venting on the sides of the jacket doesn't actually work) and fashion (the Fluid is bulky and kind of ugly), but that's a small price to pay on those days when you're running in a torrential downpour and it's 33 degrees outside. The Fluid has been discontinued and replaced with the more expensive Vapor, so it may be hard to find.

On the bottom, I've been wearing the Brooks Infiniti Tight. As a warning, they run tighter in the thighs and looser in the calves than many other tights I've worn. They're a well made pair of tights though, and they've been doing the job just fine. If it's cold enough, I'll layer a pair of polyester/cotton Nike soccer warm-ups over the top. If you don't mind the swishy sounds, a lined pair of wind-proof warm-ups will keep you even warmer. However, be careful when you're buying pants that they don't get caught under your shoes, or you'll shred the back of the pant leg.

Other than that, I'd suggest a hat. I use a wool and mohair Dohm beanie with a fleece lining, but you could use a technical running hat or headband if you prefer (or if you don't want to look like a stoner). A hat will keep you warmer than a headband. If it's really windy or if the sun is reflecting off the snow, you might want to throw on a pair of sunglasses. And for those really cold days, a neck gaiter might not be a bad idea (but don't put anything over your mouth because it'll get soaked from your breath really quickly, and then it'll freeze, and then you'll have a stiff crunchy thing in front of your face).

Finally, if you can, start your run going into the wind, so you have a tailwind on the way home. That way, you won't get sweaty and then turn around and freeze. (Obviously, that's not always an option though). Also, you should feel a little cold at the beginning of your run. If you're comfortable starting out, you'll overheat by the end.

Stay warm out there!


  1. Man-part advice. See item #6.


    Stay warm!

    What about wet weather? Better to dress down and hope you stay warm by producing heat? Or do you wear waterproof gear and sweat. Or wear warmer stuff and get really heavy (soaked) clothes?

  2. For me, it depends on how cold it is. If it's reasonably warm, I'll go sports bra and the lightest pair of shorts I have. I'll do that even when it's a little colder than I'd normally run sports bra. Sometimes I'll throw on a tech t-shirt, but I'm not sure that actually keeps me warmer or if I just look more normal to people who happen to see me. Once it get to around 50, I'll put on a long sleeve tech t-shirt (like a Brooks Podium Long Sleeve, for example) and the GoLite Wisp. It's not waterproof, so my the shirt underneath gets soaked, but it keeps my body heat in. Below 40, and I'll wear that Fox Fluid jacket I described above. Really hot, but my upper half stays almost totally dry.

  3. As a manly man (and a grumpy old one at that), I will pass on wearing a sports bra. :) I'm a big fan of the synthetic tech fabrics, and merino wool hat, gloves and socks. Good insulating and moisture-wicking properties. Moisture wicking is especially important in cold weather, because you don't want wet fabric next to your skin sucking body heat from your core or your extremities. That's why cotton is always a bad idea. Wet cotton stays wet and doesn't insulate worth a damn.


  4. But manly men in sports bras are so...manly! ;)

    I have a friend who also swears by merino wool. So far, I've been too cheap to take the bait. I think I'm afraid I'll fall in love and then be stuck with one piece of merino clothing because I can't afford any more!

  5. I bet you will love it. Merino wool socks at REI aren't terribly expensive, except maybe for a starving grad student. :) I actually wear merino wool socks under my boots during my hot summertime motorcycle trips because they're so good at wicking moisture. Makes for cool feet in the summer and warm in the winter. Two more pluses: merino doesn't itch, and it insulates even when wet.


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