Staying Warm When Training in the Cold

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It’s full-on winter: you’re prepping for warmer races and you’re torn between your New Year’s resolution or staying in your warm bed. There’s no doubt about it – the struggle is real. The mental battle between your brain and body to go for a run on a chilly winter day is tough. So how can you be best prepared?

We all knew this time was coming. We had a nice two-week fall and then the temperatures dropped.  There was barely anytime to transition into a long-sleeve shirt before we were hit with brisk mornings and full-length tights.  I’ve recently have been channeling the years I spent in the northeast to get through the winter storms that have been rolling in.  The trick with training through the winter lies in what you wear.  When the air gets dry and cold, our bodies have a harder time warming up (which strongly affects any speed we may try to incorporate), and performance material just won’t cut it.  We need to make sure our blood is properly flowing to the toes and fingers, finding that perfect balance of warmth and weightlessness.  Of course hydration and fuel are important all-year long, but we’re dealing less with sweat and sodium loss and more with wind and breathability.  So here are some tips for battling winter’s elements without affecting your miles and spring goals.

Know the Weather

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Prepping for the weather is huge and we all know that.  But when it comes to the winter season, the sun and wind can have a major impact.  I start out every morning before I run by checking the weather. Whether you go outside or are looking at an app, getting the temperature, wind, and sun for the day is vital.   Running in Pennsylvania and New York for over a decade has helped me learn my body well enough to know how quickly it heats up and the exact temperature changes that influence my clothing.  That is something that takes time to learn and frequently entails a lot of trial and error, but the goal is finding that balance of not being over-heated (and bulky!) or too cold the entire time.  As a tip, I recommend jotting down some temperature ranges or conditions and what you wore on those days so you know for the future what worked or didn’t.

Over time, I have been able to look at an outside temperature of 20 degrees and know exactly what I’ll need, and it is completely different than on a 45-degree day.  The order of my clothing layering usually starts with a lightweight/performance (more mesh) material long-sleeve, then a polyester (or softer) material long-sleeve, a breathable quarterzip, and then a thicker quarterzip.  I can usually get away with traditional running tights all winter, but will break out the fleece-lined ones on the coldest days or when I’m warming up for a race and I need the benefit of that extra warmth for blood flow.  

Invest in Smartwool or merino wool, especially apparel and socks.  It’s great for natural heating and cooling (so you’ll stay warm all winter) but can also be worn on some warmer days. Wool helps keep the moisture off your skin, so you’ll stay dry even when you work up a sweat.  Plus, it’s odor-resistant - so pack some baselayers when you travel because you can get a few days of wear out of them. You can also wear them alone on warmer days or as an actual base layer under a quarter-zip jacket for extra warmth.

In the same category, Sugoi is as close to top-of-the-line as it gets. I’m a big fan of their fleece tights  on the coldest of cold days. They are so incredibly warm and water resistant, definitely worth the price tag if you’re in a location where sub-20 degree weather is common, but they may be too thick if you are in a warmer climate.

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I can’t stress enough how essential a good windbreaker is to winter training.  The wind chill is basically the deciding factor for me on a good or bad day to run outside.  Getting something like this from Arc’teryx that you can just throw over whatever you are already planning to wear is great because it won’t add any extra weight. That also translates to warmer, windier days when you just need protection and not another layer. The same rules apply for rain.  You’ll stay dry but not overheat.  If you’re looking for a mix of warmth and protection from wind and rain, then the Brooks Canopy jacket is the holy grail. It is wind- and water-resistant, lightweight and breathable, and basically indestructible.  It got its fame from Des Linden in the Boston Marathon, so we know it works.

Lastly, headbands are great, but sometimes they aren’t enough. This headwear from Buff is great for covering your neck, face, head, or whichever of the 13 ways you would like to wear it.  It can also be a headband, sun-protector, and basically anything in between.

Finding Your Footing

Don’t let a dusting of snow stop you from running your favorite routes.  If you’re in a climate where you get hit hard in the winter months, investing in trail shoes is really smart.  That extra tread on the bottom is key for keeping your footing on un-even surfaces.  On’s Cloudventure, Hoka’s Challenger, and Brooks’ Cascadia are all best-sellers.

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 Safety First

With it still getting dark so early, having reflective aspects to your apparel is vital. If you don’t want to commit to buying jackets with reflective colors, as they are usually not as fashionable, consider the Nathan Snap Bands or clip-on StrobeLight. The Nathan Band is great because it can be seen from multiple angles, but I would suggest wearing the clip on your hip or your shoe laces.

Planning your routes ahead of time is smart too, especially revolving it around the daylight schedule.  Avoid trails at night and stick to sidewalks where you are usually guided by street lights and out of the way of traffic. Knowing how the terrain will change in inclement weather is also important.   Hilly routes aren’t great after snow storms because of potential ice, and the same goes for trails.  You are better off running on roads and sidewalks that might be cleared.

Winter Racing

Of course you could take a hiatus from winter racing; I wouldn’t blame you!  But racing in the winter is very doable. Be prepared for lots of layers and quick outfit changes.  Wearing thicker materials when you warm up (those Sugoi tights or any tops with a thermal layer) to help heat your body up quickly is the best thing you can do, and then shed them at the last possible minute to maintain that warmth.  You can still wear shorts and a tank top, but pair them with some extra items to get that added coverage.  Wearing compression socks or calf sleeves helps keep the blood flow going to your feet and lower legs, prevents lactic acid buildup (so better if it’s a longer distance race), and as a bonus it covers half of your legs.  That was a big thing my teammates and I always did in college to cover more skin yet not feel like we were adding a layer.  The same thinking goes with arm sleeves.  You need that mobility up top to be able to pump and drive your arms, so we can’t have them going numb in a cold race.

I love training in the winter because you can prepare yourself for it.  You can always add more layers and it makes you tougher in the end.  Having a training partner or a group of people to go through it with you makes it a lot more bearable.  Go to any of your local running stores to join a social run group so you’ll have some company on those tougher days!

I hope you find these tips useful and they inspire you to have a great winter season of training. Embrace the peace and quiet a winter run can bring to a runner’s soul. Grab some layers and a buddy and get out the door! And show off your hard work from this winter by joining us in Croatia April 21-28 for the Marco Polo Triathlon Festival! I promise that thinking of warm Croatia will also help keep you toasty on those long and chilly winter runs. Visit our Croatia page for more information and stay up to date with all things Open World Racing by subscribing to our newsletter here.

*Note: Open World Racing is not affiliated with any of the sportswear companies mentioned in this blog piece. The products suggested are among the author’s personal favorites and she received no compensation for mentioning these products. Take them as examples of gear you might consider grabbing for more comfortable winter training!

Natalie Holder