Layering guide for winter running

There’s no denying that running in winter can be bleak: it’s cold, it’s dark and training can sometimes feel like a chore. But with the right preparation (and a bit of grit and determination), winter running can be an enjoyable and comfortable experience!

If you find yourself sliding into hibernation-mode, follow our top tips for winter layering below, to stay warm and keep your training on track.

Research shows exercising outside in cold weather has a whole host of surprising health benefits, including helping your body burn more fat, and building resilience – the kind you can use in the late stages of a long run.

So, what can you do ensure you enjoy your run and reap these benefits?

1. Choose the right clothing

Materials matter. As is true all year round, you should avoid cotton at all costs. Cotton soaks up moisture, takes time to dry, and will make you feel cold and weigh you down.

Instead, opt for technical, breathable fabrics and layer your clothing in what’s known as the ‘layering system’ to trap body heat in, whilst allowing sweat to escape.

with the right preparation (and a bit of grit and determination), winter running can be an enjoyable and comfortable experience!

Why is it important to keep your body warm in winter?

It’s for comfort primarily, as wearing the right clothing and accessories can mean the difference between an enjoyable run and a cold and miserable one. However, it’s also due to the physiological stresses’ cold temperatures place on the body. The cold has a significant effect on the body and its systems, so you have much to gain by dressing for the occasion, when running in cold winter weather!

  • Your body exerts more energy when it’s cold out, fighting to conserve heat and maintain its internal core temperature (by reducing the circulation to the extremities and skin surface). Running in the wrong gear/not enough layers will result in increased energy expenditure and can leave you feeling more tired and hungrier than usual.
  • Cold weather can also cause muscle stiffness throughout the body (as the muscles lose heat and contract) meaning the muscles must work much harder to complete the same tasks they complete easily in milder weather. This can result in increased soreness.

Hence, it’s very important to warm up properly indoors before heading out and important to wear the right clothes to keep warm once out.

The weather conditions during winter can be different every day. Warm sun and crisp air, high winds, snow and ice, freezing rain. Everything is possible! So it’s best to prepare for all eventualities. It helps to have different clothing options, so you can check the forecast and layer up accordingly for any temperature and weather condition.

2. Layer, layer, layer

The key to dressing for cold weather running: layer, layer, layer.

By creating an outfit from several layers, you can adjust and adapt to changing weather with ease, removing layers when necessary. 2-3 layers of technical running clothing will trap body heat between them, while wicking away sweat, keeping you warmer than a single thicker and heavier layer.

The 3-layer system

The ‘3 layer system’ consisting of a light base layer, versatile mid layer and outer layer (a softshell or waterproof jacket) has proven to be a winning combination for running in cold winter weather!

Base layers

Base layers are fast drying, lightweight, close fitting and usually thermal. They fit close to the skin because it improves temperature regulation. Base layers can differ in their thermal qualities so you can choose what level of warmth you prefer. You will usually need to wear another item of clothing over the top of a base layer, like a mid layer.

Shop Base Layers.

Mid layers

Mid layers are slightly looser fitting than base layers. They are designed to provide additional warmth and trap more warm air. These tops will tend to have more features than a base layer as these will be often worn without something over the top.

Shop Long Sleeve Tops.

By creating an outfit from several layers, you can adjust and adapt to changing weather with ease, removing layers when necessary.

Outer layers

To withstand harsher conditions, you may require a running jacket. A jacket should fit close to the body to allow sweat to escape and stay as breathable as possible. There are a lot of different options available when it comes to running jackets: from fully waterproof jackets, to water and wind resistant jackets, to light protection jackets.

Shop Running Jackets.

What about tights?   

If you’re anything like me, you may find running shorts more comfortable than running tights year round. I tend to wear shorts in all seasons, even on very cold and windy days. We don’t have the same concentration of thermoreceptors in our legs as we have in other parts of the body, so our legs tend to be less sensitive to cold. That said, it’s still advisable to wear tights in cold weather as they are designed to help regulate body temperature and keep the muscles warm, allowing them to operate efficiently and lowering the risk of injury.

Tights vary in thickness and warmth like other clothing. Warmer tights have brushed fabrics which help trap warm air and keep our legs insulated. But don’t worry, if you are concerned about overheating, you can opt for tights featuring breathable mesh panels (usually placed behind the knee or the calves). Also, if you’re out running in cold and gusty winds, you might want extra windproof protection that some tights can provide.  

Shop Running Tights.

Outfit recommendations – what to wear in different weather?

The clothes you choose to wear will of course depend on the duration and the location of your run. Going out for a 3-hour trail/hill run will require a different outfit (offering greater protection), than a 30 minute city run, for instance. Taking this into account can help you decide whether to go for a fully waterproof jacket or one only featuring a water repellent treatment.

If you don’t know where to start, here are a few recommendations that work well for our staff:

Chilly but dry weather

  • Pick 2-3 layers
  • Base layer: choose a long-sleeve technical top. If it’s really cold, wear a merino base layer or add a t-shirt on top of long-sleeve layer (and then add a mid layer).
  • Mid layer: wear a brushed long-sleeve top or softshell type mid layer

Run4It favourites:

Mild and rainy weather

  • Wear 2-3 layers
  • Base layer: wear a technical t-shirt or thin base layer
  • Jacket: choose a jacket’s that’s either fully waterproof or water repellent, dependent on the conditions and length of time you’re running for.

Run4It favourites:

Cold, windy and wet weather

  • Dress in 3 layers teaming the outfit options highlighted above with a robust outer shell.
  • Base layer: long sleeve technical top or merino base layer
  • Mid layer: cosy mid layer
  • Jacket: a waterproof jacket that offers good protection from the wind and rain

3. Cover your extremities

Don’t forget to cover and protect your extremities! Your nose, ears and fingers are first to feel the freeze, and you lose most heat from your head. Thus, covering your head and hands will help keep you warmer. Gloves, hats and headbands come in a variety of different fabrics and thicknesses. If you are particularly susceptible to the cold, merino or windproof gloves and hats will provide extra warmth and protection.

Shop Hats & Gloves.  

4. Stay visible

Limited daylight hours in winter often mean running in the dark evenings or low light conditions is necessary. Wearing reflective clothing will give you the greatest chance of being seen by motorists and pedestrians – making for a safer and more enjoyable running experience. For more guidance on what to wear when running in the dark, read our Reflective Running Gear for After Dark Adventures article next.

Shop Reflective Running Gear.