How to Master the Art of Layering for Winter Running
Like a good Minnesota hot dish, the key to happiness when it is cold outside is layering for winter running. Ice fishing, winter camping, cross country skiing and running all rely on the warming effect of multiples layers of fabric.
My coldest run to date was in February, 2014. The air temperature was around zero, and the wind chill made it about about -20.
That day I was wearing three mid-layers over my base: a long-sleeve technical t-shirt, a 1/2 zip “medium weight” fleece pullover, and a “puffy” down insulated vest. This all fit under my winter running jacket (barely). As long as I was moving, I was ok.
Why Layering for Winter Running Works
Multiple light layers work together like a great symphony to keep you dry and warm, while allowing you to run relatively unencumbered. Layers work because your body warms up the air trapped between those layers. This keeps you considerably warmer than one big layer. By dressing in layers, you give yourself versatility on days when unexpected weather catches you off guard.
The art of layering for winter running happens when you figure out the perfect combination of layers to match conditions. You know it’s art when you can run relatively smooth (not feeling like the Micheline man), and don’t have to cut your run short because you are freezing to death. Like painting or sculpture, it is a big subjective. Your “art” will depend on your own threshold for what “cold” is.
Each of the layers mentioned below serves a very specific purpose. Depending on how cold, windy, or wet it is, or how warm you get while running, you can use them in a variety of combinations to tackle just about anything winter may throw at you. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
For specific suggestions, join our free newsletter and download our winter running gear guide, with tips from the pros.
Do not forget this layer… It is arguably the most important layer. It’s the layer that covers your most valuable parts.
I’m talking about your underwear.
Men – if you’re not wearing boxer briefs with a panel of wind stopping fabric in the front, you’re in trouble… big trouble. Eric Finnan of Team USA Minnesota says, “Gentlemen, if you value your manhood, invest in a pair. The Smart Wool PhD Wind Boxer Brief are an excellent choice and a worthy investment.”
Women – while wind stopping fabric isn’t as important here for you as it is for men, it can’t hurt. I am told that whatever regular sports bra you run in will be fine, and your other layers should block whatever wind you encounter.
As you will hear a lot, moisture wicking fabric is important. During the summer, sweat dissipates relatively easily since you’re wearing fewer layers. Not so much in winter.
Spend the extra money on a good set of winter running undergarments that moves moisture like an aqueduct out to your next layers.
The Base Layer
After your skivvies, your base layer is the next most important layer. It touches the majority of your skin – skin you would ideally like to keep from freezing.
When layering for winter running, your base has one job – pull moisture away from your skin to dissipate it through the other layers. This helps prevent frostbite.
Your base layer should be tight. Not compression tight, but snug. It should move with you – like a second skin. This serves three important purposes.
- Better moisture transport and less chafing.
- Less fabric to bunch up under other layers.
- Help you feel like a superhero (to move fast).
IMPORTANT: Never wear cotton as a base layer if your goal is to stay warm. It takes forever to dry and does the opposite of all the things mentioned above. It sucks.
When it comes to picking out fabric for your base layer, synthetic or wool are the only real options.
- Synthetic – cheaper, less itchy, more durable, dries quicker
- Wool – insulates better when wet, very thin, doesn’t retain as much stink
- Synthetic – retains more “stink”, won’t keep you as dry for as long
- Wool – Costs more, takes longer to dry, less durable
For those of us running on a budget (which is probably everyone), a synthetic base layer is the way to go. You can find them for half the price of a wool base layer. This means you can buy more than one.
You may also discover that base layers come in a variety of weights. A thin base layer that efficiently moves moisture gives you the most versatility. Other layers provide warmth. Remember, dry is good!
The mid-layer exists to trap the warm air your body is generating between your base and outer layer. For our purposes, the mid-layer is simply the layer(s) you wear over your base and under your jacket.
You will find a plethora of products out there all claiming to be “mid-layer.” From fleece to wool, synthetic or even cotton (remember, stay away from that).
Mid-layers need to be appropriately “lofty” for the conditions, and also breathe so they don’t trap all that moisture in with the heat.
I have at least a dozen different mid-layers. You probably do too. You can use anything from a technical long sleeve t-shirt from a past race, or expensive Merino wool; short sleeve, long sleeve, vest, etc. The possibilities are endless.
In my experience, the best mid-layer is fitted, but not nearly as tight as the base (you still want a full range of motion). It has a quarter zip, and no hood (I prefer my jacket to be the only one at the party with a hood).
For moderate winter temperatures (around 20 degrees and up), a base layer, mid-layer and jacket is all you need to stay comfortable.
Wearing Multiple Mid-Layers
Sometimes (like during a polar vortex), it’s necessary to wear more than one mid-layer. This is where the true art of layering for winter running comes in! Experiment and figure out what works best for you.
As mentioned above, I have found that anything 20 degrees or warmer doesn’t require much more than a base, light mid-layer (if at all) and jacket. Keep in mind that you want to start your run a little on the cold side, otherwise you’ll overheat.
Choosing a Winter Running Jacket
A winter running jacket is essential for running in the cold. If you purchase no other gear this year, buy a true winter running jacket. They are worth every penny.
We have already written a few posts about finding a great winter running jacket. Check those out!
Stay tuned for more info about hats, gloves and socks! For specific suggestions, download our free winter running gear guide.
Have you mastered the art of layering for winter running? What have you found to be the best combination? Share some of your best tips below.