Dressing for Winter Workouts

Kelly O'Mara
by Kelly O'Mara
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Dressing for Winter Workouts

Bad weather doesn’t stop Minnesotan Sarah McInerney from running outside, not even when temperatures hit minus 20°F.

“We run all winter,” says the operations manager for the Minnesota Distance Running Association. That means their group of dedicated athletes had to learn to dress for any weather, no matter how cold — after all, it was already snowing in October.

“For the most part, cold-weather is not a barrier to performing physical activity — as long as you dress appropriately for it.”

At the beginning of the season, “you have to re-acclimate,” says McInerney. What feels cold in the fall might feel warm and lovely by the end of winter. Just walking outside every day changes skin sensation, which allows you to become somewhat adapted to the cold, says John Castellani, an exercise physiologist at the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. Just remember: You’re supposed to feel a little cold when you start running (or cross-country skiing or any high-intensity aerobic activity).

“When you actually walk outside, you should feel a little chilly,” says Castellani. He’s researched the effects of cold weather extensively and co-chaired a study by the American College of Sports Medicine that found, “For the most part, cold-weather is not a barrier to performing physical activity — as long as you dress appropriately for it.”

Appropriately dressing means the right gear for the right conditions. It also means not overdoing it. As you start moving or running, you’ll warm up and one of the biggest dangers in cold weather is being too warm. Sweaty, wet clothes will make you dangerously cold.

McInerney’s rule of thumb, assuming she’s working hard enough to get her core temperature up — not walking or standing around on a mountaintop — is to “dress like it’s 10–20° warmer than it is.” Here’s what that means and how you should layer for winter before you head out.

As a base layer, you always want a good, wicking long-sleeve shirt, to whisk the sweat away from your body. “Cotton isn’t your friend,” says McInerney. Castellani says your base layer should be silk or a synthetic material, like the Under Armour ColdGear Elements Mock or the women’s ColdGear Reactor longsleeve.

In the 30s, McInerney likes to layer long-sleeve shirts and running tights, with maybe a very light jacket on top if it’s snowy or windy.

Try This

Under Armour Men’s ColdGear Reactor Fitted 1/4 Zip
Under Armour Men’s ColdGear Reactor Run Leggings
Under Armour Women’s ColdGear Reactor 1/2 Zip
Under Armour Women’s ColdGear Reactor Graphic Leggings

As it gets colder, dressing for the weather is all about layering. Over the base layer, you want a middle insulating layer, says Castellani, such as a fleece or a vest. It’s also important to pay attention to your peripheries — i.e., fingers and toes — since those can be hard to keep warm.

When it gets down in the 20s, McInerney will pull out her gloves and hat, though she actually prefers a headband for her ears because a hat can be too warm and cause sweating. If you get warm, take things off as you go, says Castellani.

Try This

Under Armour Men’s ColdGear Reactor Fleece
Under Armour Men’s Storm ColdGear Reactor Run Vest
Under Armour Men’s ColdGear Reactor Elements Beanie
Under Armour Men’s ColdGear Infrared Liner Glove
Under Armour Women’s ColdGear Reactor Run Vest
Under Armour Women’s ColdGear Reactor Beanie
Under Armour Women’s ColdGear Infrared Liner Glove

Once you work your way down to seriously cold temperatures, you’ll want to top it off with an outer windproof or waterproof layer, says Castellani — depending on what kind of activity you’re doing and how hard it’ll be. That includes a jacket on the top and potentially windbreaker pants over tights on the bottom.

Covering your fingers, toes and ears also gets more important as it gets colder. “Mittens are better than gloves,” says McInerney, or you can layer a light pair of gloves under a thicker, insulating pair (and take off the extra pair of you start to get warm). A good pair of socks goes a long way too, but McInerney also has a unique trick: duct tape over the front of her shoes keeps the wind out and the toes warm.

Try This

Under Armour Men’s Storm Run Jacket
Under Armour Men’s Storm Powerhouse Cuffed Pants
Under Armour Women’s Storm ColdGear Reactor Jacket
Under Armour Women’s Storm Layered Up Pants

Not many of us will run in temperatures far below zero, but McInerney’s group doesn’t cancel runs unless it’s below minus 25°F. Her tip: cover the exposed skin on your face with Vaseline to keep it warmer. But if that’s a little too intense for you, there are also face masks, neck gaiters and balaclavas to keep you warm.

The important thing is to layer, warm up your core, keep your peripheries covered and don’t get too sweaty or cold. “People, of course, have walked to the Poles,” says Castellani, so you should be able to go for a short run. If you have the right gear.

Try This

Under Armour Elevated ColdGear Reactor Balaclava
Under Armour No Breaks ColdGear Infrared Balaclava


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

About the Author

Kelly O'Mara
Kelly O'Mara

Kelly is a professional triathlete and reporter outside San Francisco, where she is an on-call producer for the local NPR station. Her works appears regularly in espnW, Competitor, Triathlete and California Magazine. She also co-hosts the podcast, Locker Room Talk, for WiSP: The Global Women’s Sports Network. And she trains. A lot.


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