Winter Running: Unorthodox Advice


Running in the winter months can be harsh. But with the right gear — and a different mentality toward the sport — snow and ice don’t have to slow you down. I run year-round in Minneapolis, where temps dredge to 20-below-zero each winter and the paths are deep with snow. In the past, I’ve written on the basics of winter running, including information on base layers, grip-embellished shoes, and the debate of mittens versus gloves. But this article is a bit more rough and untested. Take it or leave it, the 10 tips below reveal a few of my idiosyncratic findings gleaned from years of running on the snow and ice.

winter runner.jpg

Extreme winter running: Competitor in Antarctic Ice Marathon

1. ‘Layering’ Doesn’t Work — Sure, dress in layers. (How else would you dress for the cold?) But the theory of “layering” for running — e.g., taking off a jacket or a top while on the run — is pretty much B.S. Unless you are on a long run and wearing a backpack, there isn’t anywhere to put a jacket if you get too warm. My solution? Unzip and vent. And start out cold. It’s easy to dress too heavy at the start and then end up too warm 20 minutes into a run.

2. Hands and Head as Regulators — So layering for the core doesn’t work, as noted above. But for your hands and head, a type of “layering” is manageable and effective. By this I mean you can take gloves and mittens — or a hat — on and off as your body heats up and cools down. Just take them off and stuff them in your pocket. In a mile or two, you may hit a windy stretch, or slow down your pace, etc., and then you can pull the gloves or hat back out and wear it for the remainder of the run back home.

3. Extra Hat — Have a small extra hat or Buff headwear in your pocket at all times. Often I sweat through my hat and then put it in a pocket on the run. Then later, when I am cooling down, I pull out the dry hat to wear. Putting a sweaty, half-frozen skull cap back on is far from pleasant as you cool down toward the end of a run.

winter runner tnf.jpg

Cold weather running in The North Face Animagi Jacket

4. Grip Your Gloves — In between wearing gloves or mitts and stowing them in a pocket, I often simply grip my gloves in my hands. Balled up and against my palms, the material adds some warmth. I use my hands to regulate my core temp throughout a run, and the grip-the-glove method is one technique when I’m too warm to wear the gloves, but my fingers are freezing with the gloves stowed away. Weird, I know. But it works.

5. Ball Your Fingers — I start many runs with my fingers balled up in a fist inside a pair of thin running gloves. As I heat up, I move my fingers into their places in the gloves. Simple solution.

6. Extremities include “Down There” — This tip is for guys only: You know that extremities are the first things to freeze. This usually applies to fingers and toes, and sometimes ears and noses. But the male anatomy, if not protected, is vulnerable to freezing. I often wear wind-proof boxer briefs under my running tights like Ibex’s Zepher Wind Boxer, which are made of a fine merino wool and have a panel to block wind on the front. If it’s warmer, a normal pair of athletic-cut underwear to add a smidge more insulation and warmth will do.

ibex wind proof boxers.jpg

Ibex Zepher Wind Boxer

7. No Hardshell Jackets — Unless it is super harsh outside, I wear a breathable wind-breaker type shell while running. Or a hybrid like the North Face Animagi Jacket, a piece with PrimaLoft-stuffed panels and thin, stretchy sleeves, is perfect. Avoid hardshell or other “waterproof-breathable” jackets. They are too warm and too clammy for all but the worst of days.

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Posted by Turi - 12/20/2010 10:25 AM

Excellent. Best real-world winter running advice I’ve read. Holding gloves in your hand does work surprisingly well as “partial layering,” I’ve found that as well.

Posted by Volker - 12/20/2010 12:06 PM

What hydration bag is the wearing on pic 2?

Posted by Editor - 12/20/2010 01:18 PM

It’s a The North Face hydration pack. Prototype, I believe. Not sure if it’s yet to market.

Posted by Volker - 12/21/2010 03:08 AM

Thanks! And thanks for the article

Posted by Icespike - 12/21/2010 07:02 AM

Awesome advice…great point on starting out cold for sure, and we are big fans of the Buff too!

Posted by Fiola - 12/28/2010 12:35 PM

Great post. Going through the same hard cold conditions on runs in Switzerland in preparation for Huairasinchi – and do pretty much the same as you have described above! : ))) cept I go inside after the run and usually cool down by opening all the windows and doing some core and strength exercises.

Posted by Mark Griffith - 12/28/2010 12:44 PM

I usually run in Seattle where none of this matters, but I am in Utah visiting family and its COLD here. Just had to buy me some gloves (I usually run with my hands balled up in my sleeves). Trying to finish my 1000 miles before the year is out.

I’ll try out the buff today as well. One additional point : Don’t run early in the AM when its dark cause its just colder :)

Posted by Brian - 12/28/2010 12:54 PM

With your suggestions it’s never too cold for a run here in the US, no matter where you live! However, I’m not so sure about the dude running in your photo from the Antarctic Ice Marathon…

Posted by chuck Largent - 12/28/2010 02:48 PM

The idea of carrying a second hat is one I use a lot. Putting a cold sweaty hat back on after having it stored in my pocket is not fun, a thin scull cap that is dry feels so good ! I carry a small water bottle too, even in winter.

Posted by Andrew J. Smith - 12/28/2010 07:09 PM

Good advice here. I run in the winter here in northern NY all the time where wind chills frequently drop well below zero. I layer with a tech shirt, followed by a Smartwool Microweight long sleeve, topped off with a Nike FitStorm jacket. Mittens are great and warm, and I wear them when winter cycling; you probably don’t nee them when running, however. They’re too warm. Use very thin glove liners followed by a pair of thinnish gloves; chances are you’ll take the gloves off unless the wind is howling. Mittens usually get way too hot within the first mile and are bulky. BTW, I use mittens all the time when hiking, shoveling snow, walking, etc. They are the warmest! Also, balaclavas are nice, but I prefer a 2-piece…neck warmer and hat; more versatile.

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Posted by Russ - 12/29/2010 12:02 AM

Thanks for the info. In addition, I’ve applied patches of duct tape to the front of an older pair of underwear for that frostbite issue. It’s worked like a charm for over 20 years.

Posted by Miguel - 12/29/2010 02:24 AM

Gaiters and spiked shoes – like inov-8 Oroc – make winter running fast, safe and warm

Posted by Nick - 12/29/2010 08:46 AM

Solid advice Stephen. From past cross country years I’ve switched out a pair of socks (usually thin) for gloves or mittens. May look a bit strange but it works as a very light, breathable and ball-able mitten. Everyone has got them and usually in different thicknesses. It also helps to physically note what clothing combo works at what temp, it eliminates extra thought which can become resistance to winter running.

Posted by Editor - 12/29/2010 11:20 AM

Nick, I like your point about noting what clothing combo works at what temp, as it eliminates extra thought which can become resistance to winter running. Great point. It pays to have a winter running “uniform” ready to go at all times. For me this just means adding or subtracting a layer from the top (and sometimes bottom) depending on the temp of the day.

Posted by Jason - 01/01/2011 12:10 PM

Great advise. Here’s a awesome tip for keeping your toes warm I learned last year running in Fargo, ND. Tape a strip of “Duct Tape” over the tops of your shoes between your laces and tip of your shoe. This small layer of wind protection on your toes will keep them warm. Then when you jump on the treadmill, just rip off the tape and your shoes are ready for warm weather running.

Posted by Mia Anderson - 01/21/2011 12:11 PM

Thanks for the info, I pretty much do all you said but there was some extra tips I can incorporate

Posted by Dave - 11/30/2012 11:46 AM

Excellent advice. As someone who suffers from horrible circulation in the hands, I will add something to the “clenching your hands” section: I’ve found it is good to clench and un-clench my fists as I run – it keeps the circulation going. If I just clench, it can often make my fingers colder, because I’m actually reducing circulation a bit more that way. Keep them moving, and it will aid in the veinous circulatory system in your fingers and hands. It’s hard to keep this in mind as I run sometimes, but if my fingers are starting to freeze, I’ll remember to start moving my fingers around a bit more as I run.

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