Being able to choose the right gear to run in the cold is an absolute necessity. While choosing your running gear for cold runs, you should quickly become familiar with the term layering. If you are not already familiar with layering, it is the best way to fight the cold not just while running, but also with any physical activity.
Each layer serves a purpose and works with other layers to increase their effectiveness against the cold. By layering you are creating a system that keeps you warm and helps prevent you from overheating.
For purpose of explanation I will focus on a 3-layer system, which is ideal for really cold & windy/rainy conditions, but there can be various layering setups depending on location and temperature.
Layer 1, the base layer, serves as the starting point and can be the most important piece in the system.
Base shirts primary function is to pull sweat/moisture away from the body, aka wicking, to ensure the skins stays dry.
Base layers need to be super breathable and in some instances, need to excel at keeping heat trapped really close to the body.
The 2nd layer’s primary responsibility is to keep heat trapped in. While the 3rd layer would be needed to keep the wind/rain/snow away from the other two layers, so they can trap heat and control the bodies’ moisture.
What Each Layer Consists of
Base (1st Layer)
Most standard base layers consist of synthetic fabrics: such as polyester, silk, and/or spandex. Synthetics do really well at wicking moisture away from the skin and are generally inexpensive depending on the brand.
Some companies further enhance their synthetic fibers to increase heat retention. Nike’s Miler shirt is an inexpensive, common polyester shirt that comes in various sleeve lengths which can work great alone when its warm or as a base layer in the cold.
Under Armour’s Cold Gear line works really well at keeping the wearer dry and quite toasty. Generally Under Armour full lineup works really well at keeping the body dry, but certain styles like Heat Gear and All Season Gear are not as good as the Cold Gear line for keeping heat in. Prices can vary depending the style.
Merino wool is also a great base layer that excels at keeping heat in, even when wet, but can be expensive.
Brands like Smartwool, Icebreaker and Ibex have excellent active merino wool lines that are great when worn alone or with other layers.
Insulation Layer (2nd Layer)
When a 2nd layer is used to keep heat in, it typically consists of thicker polyester and/or wool. ¼ zip shirts are great for this layer as you can use the zipper to allow some heat to escape to increase breathability and comfort.
Some runners use hoodies for this level as well. I recommend using a polyester hoodie, as cotton hoodies will absorb too much of your body sweet. But cotton hoodies are generally cheaper and more common, so they can work if that’s all you have and are not looking to wear a 3rd layer.
Shell (3rd Layer)
Since the 3rd layer needs to keep weather conditions at bay, they should be able to repel rain and/or wind. Shells do not need to be 100% waterproof as those jackets typically can get really stuffy and do not breathe well.
I use an older Nike jacket that is windproof and water resistant, so it keeps most rain out and is pretty breathable. Some jackets make certain sections waterproof/windproof while the other sections are thin and breathable to prevent clamminess. Certain jackets can excel at being both waterproof and breathable, but they are generally pretty high end and expensive.
Bringing It All Together
Determining which system works best for you can take some practice. It is important to keep in mind that the level of physical activity and temperature determines which layering setup you should use.
Since I am in central Virginia I typically use a 2-layer system, with my outer layer depending on the weather and base layer type depending on the temperature. I prefer to start out cold and be comfortable towards the middle/end of my run as opposed to starting warm with a 3rd layer and having to worry about ditching it later in the run.
40 degrees and below is typically when I grab my 2nd layer. If it is 40 degrees and dry, I grab my Asics Thermopolis ¼ shirt with a short sleeves polyester shirt underneath. I will consider wearing my Nike wind/rain resistant jacket if it is bad conditions, but it may get too hot at those temperatures.
Around 30s I will typically switch my short sleeve base to a long sleeve and wear my ¼ shirt if dry. If it is raining with temperatures around 30 degrees, I will wear my long sleeve merino shirt made by Smartwool and my Nike jacket. Since I cannot necessarily escape getting wet with a water resistance jacket, I depend on my Smartwool shirt to trap heat while its wet.
When the temperatures are below 20s I grab my Smartwool, hat, gloves and whichever jacket applies. I typically start out angry and cold, but it works out once I get going.
For everyone running in colder temps, you may already have your layering system dialed down. I would imagine wool base layer, multiple insulating layers and a nice waterproof yet breathable shell.
Let me know what your favorite layering systems are in the comments below.