13 Ways to Gear Up for Running in Sub-Zero Temperatures

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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13 Ways to Gear Up for Running in Sub-Zero Temperatures

When temperatures drop below freezing, it can be tough to motivate yourself to work out at all, and it’s nearly impossible to imagine going out for a run… outside. But that doesn’t mean you should call it a rest day every time the water in your birdbath freezes. People run marathons in Antarctica, so you can certainly get out for a 5K.

The key to managing a run routine when temperatures drop below freezing is preparation.

The problem runners face with dressing right is twofold. First, we warm up as we run, so it’s hard to plan for how we’ll feel in 10 minutes versus how we feel when braving the first icy blast as we start out. Second, we need full range of motion in our arms and legs so that we’re still running with good form (and not shuffling along in a full snowsuit).

Here’s what you’ll need:

EYEWEAR

If temperatures are below freezing, you’re going to want some sport sunglasses, even if it’s a cloudy day (opt for clear lenses if you don’t get out in the sun often). Your eyeballs will thank you, and running won’t feel as brutal, since your eyelashes won’t freeze together. If you find your eyes are hurting or eyelashes are constantly freezing, some runners swear by ski goggles to stay warmer.

HEADGEAR

We lose much of our body heat through our heads, so it’s ultra-important to keep your lid cozy while you run. Above 20°F, keep your ears covered at the least. Below that, make sure you have ear warmers and then another layer on top, covering your entire head. And if it hits negative temperatures, opt for a balaclava so your whole face is covered.

MITTENS, NOT GLOVES

Mittens are optimal for running when it hits below 25°F, since your fingers can help keep each other warm as a unit versus the frozen pinky finger that always happens when you wear gloves in chilly temps. A windproof mitten should help reduce your risk of numbness and keep frostbite at bay even in sub-zero temperatures. At the least, switch to a glove designed for skiing and snow sports instead of your normal run glove. Even if your fingers start warming up too much during your run, that’s not a bad thing: Warm hands help you feel warmer in general.

PROTECT YOUR NECK

We tend to think that just zipping our jackets all the way will keep our necks warm, but: a. the necks of most jackets are uncomfortable at full-zip when breathing heavily, and b. there’s almost always a half-inch or so that goes uncovered. A lightweight neck warmer can make a world of difference when it comes to cold weather running comfort. Choose a neck warmer that can be pulled up as a makeshift balaclava so if wind picks up or it’s colder than you thought, your face can be mostly covered.

DOUBLE UP ON YOUR LEGS

Add a wind-blocking layer to your normal running gear by wearing tight-fitting leggings under a looser but still running-specific set of pants. Make sure you’re wearing your coziest underwear (especially necessary for guys). Skip cotton in favor of merino wool or another athletic, sweat-wicking material. Bonus points if you opt for a wind-blocking pair.

WOOL SOCKS AND WINTERIZED SHOES

Skip running-specific socks in favor of burlier wool socks designed for skiers. (Though make sure you’re getting the thin versions, not the ones for under beefy boots.) Your toes will thank you, especially if freezing weather is accompanied by a run that keeps your feet stuck in snow or sliding on ice. For shoes, if you find yourself running in freezing weather often, it’s time to invest in a pair with wind- and waterproof fabrics that are designed for cold weather. For example, the Under Armour Verge Low GTX uses GoreTex to keep your feet dry and insulated.

THE RIGHT MATERIALS

Cotton is the worst fabric you can choose for a base layer, so skip the cotton T-shirt in favor of synthetics designed to wick sweat. Cotton will trap moisture next to your skin so once you warm up and sweat a bit, you’ll actually end up colder than ever, while a synthetic moves moisture away from your core. Fabrics with breathable, sweat-wicking, wind- and waterproof technologies are ideal, and if you’re into more natural fabrics, merino wool is breathable and sweat-wicking for an ideal base layer.

(BASE) LAYER UP

On the topic of base layers: You only want two layers on your arms, maybe three if you have a looser-fitting jacket. But your arms should always feel comfortable swinging. Too many layers, and you’ll find your hands are actually getting numb faster, due to a loss of circulation. Triple layer with an undershirt, merino baselayer and jacket instead, so your core is cozy, but your arms are free.

THE FOURTH LAYER

If temperatures are below 0°F, all bets are off. Opt for a sleeveless base layer, then a long-sleeve, fitted base layer topped with a thin down jacket and a wind-stopping layer over that. Just make sure to go a size up on the windbreaker layer (even better if it’s waterproof) so you still have a full range of arm movement.

SPARE HAND WARMERS

Those disposable hand warmers that you shake to activate are life savers for those of us with poor circulation. Stick an emergency one in your pocket. Pro tip: Snuggle a hand warmer in a pocket with your cell phone to avoid the cold-weather battery drain, so in case you need to call for backup, your phone can still dial.

MOISTURIZE

A thin layer of petroleum jelly on your exposed cheeks can ward off painful windburn and cold weather-induced dry skin, so if you’re prone to either, make sure to add moisturizer to your run gear. If you’re going out without a balaclava, definitely keep lip balm on hand to avoid split lips.

STASH A SPARE

Because cold weather can sap your strength, I always have a thin windbreaker stuffed in a back pocket on truly freezing days — that way, if I have to stop to walk, I can add a layer. If you don’t want to deal with the bulk or buy another layer, buy one of those reflective emergency blankets they hand out post-race (usually under $10 at outdoor retailers) and keep that in a pocket.

KEEP IT SHORT

Finally, slow, long distance runs aren’t your friend when temperatures are below zero, and you probably won’t be able to stay warm for that long anyway. Plan shorter routes that regularly pass your house (this is not a time to go exploring) so you can bail if you start losing feeling in your feet.  


GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT RUN

> Men’s Winter Running Clothes
> Women’s Winter Running Clothes
> All Winter Running Clothes
> Winter Hats
> Winter Socks


About the Author

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Molly is an outdoor adventurer and professional nomad obsessed with all things running, nutrition, cycling and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing and podcasting about being outside, training and health. You can follow along with her adventures on Instagram at @mollyjhurford.

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