I live in South Dakota, and I hate cold. I fell in love with running a few years ago, but I always stopped in the fall and didn’t start up again until late spring. I don’t like cold air touching my skin or breeze chilling my sweat. It is miserable to me. In fact, even when I work out indoors, I have to wear a headband over my ears, because they are so sensitive to chill. The thing is, trail running makes me happy, and not trail running usually leaves me in a depression.
Every time I asked for help or read articles on winter running, I got the same advice: wear bare-minimum clothing and tough out the first couple miles of freezing until your body warms up from running. For all these people, I have realized, being hot is bad and being chilly is good. They don’t like to sweat and it feels good to them to step outside into freezing cold air when they are hot from working out inside (if that sounds uncomfortable to you, you’ve come to the right article).
I kept trying to run in various layer combinations of clothing I already owned, and I was always very uncomfortable. Either my skin was hurting from being cold and vibrating every step, or I was just angry and miserable because I was cold. I was ready to call it quits for the season, when I decided to go to a local outdoor store and get extra warm.
I bought some very warm layers and a proper mask that keeps my face warm and allows me to breath, and guess what! Running is fun again, even when it’s cold outside.
The other day I passed another runner towards the end of my run. Granted the temperature had raised several degrees since the beginning of my run — it was about 46° at the time of passing. I was comfortable in a wool base layer, a mid layer shirt, wind-stopping jacket and pants, gloves, ear bags, and a buff over my face and head. The guy I saw was wearing shorts and no hat. If I were wearing what he was wearing, I would have been in major pain.
You really have to find what works for you. I’ve learned that I’m quite different than most people who live in this area. I prefer to feel warm or hot over any kind of cold. That includes sweating in extra layers. That’s where I’m comfortable. That’s where I find joy.
Here are some of the things that have helped me:
I always wear ear bags (starting at 69° and below) with something over them to hold them in place and to stop any air entering the front — a fleece headband or buff in cool temps, a balaclava in cold temps. If you order these, make sure you measure your ears, and if you are teetering between two sizes, get the smaller size. I have an old pair that’s too big and they don’t stay on.
I always have a Buff with me, even in the summer. I wear it on my wrist as a sweatband when it’s hot. Even with temps in the upper 70’s, if there is a breeze, I’ll need it for my ears. (One time I didn’t have anything, and I had to take my tank top off and wrap it around my head… I never said I was normal.) As it gets cooler I’ll wear it in myriad ways, sometimes switching between balaclava, to neck warmer pulled over my nose, to hat, to headband, to wrapped around my wrist. If I have my heavier balaclava in cold temps, I’ll still put a Buff in my pocket just in case. There are different kinds of Buffs with different fabrics and shapes, but I only have the original version currently. I also cut a hole in it to breathe through. (I stood in front of a mirror, put it on as a balaclava, opened my mouth, and cut from corner to corner of my mouth.) It makes breathing so much easier, but I can still wear it in all the other ways, and the hole is not even visible.
These are the best! I only have one of each, because they are expensive… but very worth it. I just dry them on a rack between uses if they won’t get washed that time. This fabric is so cozy. It keeps me warm and wicks away sweat. I don’t think I would be enjoying winter running below 30° if I didn’t have these.
For below 10° and wind, this wool balaclava is a lifesaver. It’s warm. You will sweat. But, for me sweating is better than my skin freezing. There is a slit at the mouth that allows for easier breathing. Once it gets moist from your breath, it freezes and you can make it freeze in an open position which really helps with air flow. This is also great for hiking in cold weather!
I’m also loving wool socks, a synthetic base layer for cool (not cold) days, some synthetic fabric mid-layer shirts, and wind-breaking pants and jacket. I even bought a thin down puffer jacket, that was a little warm for me on a 10° run, but I think I will end up using it in colder temps this winter, especially with wind. And of course my Altra Lone Peak trail running shoes which have got me through tons of ice, packed snow, mud, and frost without falling.
Try out different options and see what works for you, but if you are cold-averted like me, don’t be afraid to wear more layers than everyone else around you! I promise you that if you find the right system for you, it is possible to love winter running and hiking.