The Cheap Athlete’s Guide To Winter Running

Happy December friends! It’s starting to get cold out so time to put away the running sneakers and sit around and drink some heavy beers. Amiright?

Nope.

OK, right, it’s time to join the gym and hamster away on the treadmill.

C’mon, you’re better than that.

The trees are bare and the temperatures are dropping but, contrary to popular practice, winter is my heavy running season. The road bikes get hung up (except for the commuter) and I slap on some tights and a headlamp and use the winter for my base training.

And as a veteran of some brutal New Jersey winters I’ve set out to provide a complete guide to winter running.

First, My Beef With The Treadmill

In short, I hate the treadmill and will never learn to like it. They’re boring, not free and gyms cost money to join. If you’re joining a gym to run on a treadmill then I think $25-100 per month to run in place is an unnecessary tax to pay just to keep warm. I understand that people may live in areas that make a treadmill a necessity but, for most of us, joining a gym for the treadmill is a waste.

Just think about how much of our lives we spend inside and miss out on this awesome planet that we routinely ignore and destroy. While the days tick by we cubicle and couch surf while completely unaware of the amazing things happening all around us. And each mile spent on the treadmill is just another missed opportunity at witnessing a beautiful sunrise, spotting a baby fox or catching those first few snowflakes before a storm.

But, C’mon, Running In The Winter?

Sure, the cold weather makes is a bit less fun but finishing a 10 miler in subzero temperatures is a fantastic feeling that will carry you through the rest of your day. And while others schlep to work in their $1,000 Canada Goose parkas you can brag about your 10 miles below zero with your $1 Old Navy hat and headlamp.

And don’t forget that training in the elements will make you a stronger runner. Do you know what happens when you train indoors and race day turns out to be an unexpectedly cold and windy day?

You get toasted by all the junkies that squeezed into tights, sucked it up and trained outside.

That’s what.

Sign Up For A Spring Race

There’s no better way to keep yourself motivated then to have a race to look forward to (or be terrified of). Boston, for example, is in April which means training needs to start in January – exactly when the weather starts to suck. Done.

When you have a race on the horizon it’s much harder to hit the snooze button or pull the old “Oh hell no” when you see that it’s 2 degrees outside. The fear of stinking it up on race day will keep you focused and force you to roll out of bed.

Find A Training Buddy

Just think how you’d feel if you made plans to meet someone at 5:30 am to run in 2 degrees and then they don’t show up?

You’d immediately hate that someone.

As you reach for that snooze button the guilt will overwhelm you when you picture your poor neighbor freezing his a$$ off while waiting for you. You don’t wanna be THAT guy or gal that leaves their friends stranded in the cold cause you’re too weak to go outside.

Plus, having a friend to train with has the added bonus of helping you get out of the funk that all the dark, cold runs start to put in as you begin to yearn for spring.

Dress For The Third Mile

I’m also guilty of having made this mistake. Right before a run I’ll check the weather and the ole “feels like” on the phone will tell me minus something with the wind chill. Ugh.

Now there must be something about the minus sign that sends me into overcompensate mode and, by the time I roll out of my house, I pretty much resemble the Stay Puft Marshmallow man (is that too old a reference now?).

The thing is about running is that…you’re running. You’re not going outside to walk the dog or sit in the bleachers and a couple of miles in you’re going to feel significantly warmer. If you dressed to feel warm on the first mile then there’s a good chance that you’re going to overheat by the third. And what do engines do when they overheat?

They stop working.

Wear a Headlamp And Reflective Stuff

Below is the #1 goal for every run of mine:

Don’t get hit by a car.

For most of us running in the winter will require a lot of dark runs and making sure you’re visible is vital. Winter days are shorter, drivers hate us and throw in some snow-filled shoulders and you’ve got yourself a recipe for ending up on the hood of a car.

Here is my detailed recommendation for a headlamp and I suggest you wear one for all dark runs. Additionally, look for bright-colored clothes with reflective piping and pick up some blinky lights or vests. I’ve had bad luck with reflective vests but my good friends at Adventure Rich offer some good advice here.

Yea, you’ll probably look like a total dork but that’s the point! Drivers will notice your dorky butt running down the road and do their best not to hit you. OK, maybe they won’t give their best effort but chances are they’ll do at least enough to keep themselves out of jail.

Winter Running Jackets

Unless you’re running in minus double digits you don’t really need a big, puffy down jacket or anything too aggressive. A good shell jacket will block those bone-chilling winds and keep all that body heat that you’re producing close to you. For the various temperatures you can just adjust the layering underneath the jacket until you figure out what works.

Standard issue layers under my shell jacket are a compression shirt and some sort of long sleeve moisture-wicking shirt depending on the temperature. For the extreme cold I may swap out the compression shirt for some good-ole $10 Coscto base layer.

I chose that Pearl Izumi shell jacket pictured above for the following reasons:

  • It was on clearance at Running Warehouse.
  • It’s a cycling jacket which means it’s a bit longer in the back and has a rear pocket. This helps give my bum some extra coverage and allows me to carry gels and keys with me. Plus I can cycle with it, obviously.
  • This jacket is gonna take about 2 million rides through the washing machine so quality is important.

What this jacket does lack, however, is reflective piping. If you are deciding between jackets always choose the one with more reflectiveness.

Wear Running Tights

Again, no need to go crazy here. I own about 4 pairs of tights which range from super lightweight to heavy-duty. My heaviest ones are Nike thermal tights which I scored for $35 from Running Warehouse at the end of the season. For those 30-40 degree days a simple $20ish pair of lightweight Asics tights will be more than adequate and if you think that winter running requires a stop at your local Lululemon or Athleta then you’re reading the wrong blogs.

And before I move on, I must provide my stance on a controversial topic that is a heated debate among dude runners. The only time you should wear shorts over your tights is when it’s insanely cold out. On those extra cold and windy days the shorts serve as one additional layer of wind protection for…well…you know what I’m talking about. But, stupid cold days aside, wearing shorts over your tights is just a waste of laundry.

Don’t be self-conscious. I spent about 10 years of my life parading around a pool deck in a Speedo and tights are way more coverage than I’m used to. You already look ridiculous and shorts will only make it worse.

Insulate Your Hands and Feet

I’ve already declared my love for my Hotfingers mittens and my lack of understanding for running specific socks. I recommend the Hotfingers for any temperatures below freezing and basic shell gloves for the mid 30s to 40s.

When it comes to winter footwear I break my running specific socks rule and use a pair of Drymax socks with my regular running shoes. No, I don’t buy any specific winter running shoe as these socks will keep your feet warm in most conditions, even snow. They’re amazing, $12 and last for-freaking-ever.

Cover Your Face and Breathe!

Balaclavas suck. They barely stay in place and, when they do, you can’t breathe for crap with one on. Do you really think that those tiny holes will allow enough air through for a tempo run when it’s 2 degrees out and you’re running at a 160+ pulse?

Plus they cost about $35 which, honestly, you’ll have about as much success running with that $35 taped to your face as you will with a balaclava.

A cheaper and more effective option is a $5 cotton face mask from Walmart. It’s warm, equally sketchy looking and has mouth holes which allow you to breath properly for your mile repeats.

What to Wear By Temperature

Obviously everyone is unique and reacts differently to cold weather. For example, while I’m wearing my Hotfingers at 30 degrees Mrs. Cheap Athlete wears no gloves at all. And at 40 degrees my training buddy wears shorts and laughs at me when I show up with some lightweight tights on.

But the below table should serve as a good guide for what to wear at the various temperatures from a dude who runs a ton in the winter. A good rule of thumb is to dress a level down from whatever you think you’ll need. I know it’s hard to get out of your toasty bed and not put on a ton of clothes but just trust me on this one.

And there we go. Happy frozenation!

4 comments

  1. Excellent recommendations! I always find I have to dress in one less layer than I think I need. I’ll be chilly the first 1/4 mile, but soon I’m warmed up and glad I’m not bundled with more!

    And I have a similar beef with the treadmill! Haha- I’ll use it as a “necessary evil” when it is the easiest way to get my miles in (especially when traveling for work), but I much prefer freezing my butt off outside and getting some fresh air while I run 😉

    Cheers to your winter training for Boston!

    1. Thanks! I can’t even remember the last time I ran on the treadmill. Maybe during a thunderstorm 6 years ago… maybe.

  2. Speak the truth! Treadmills suck big time, and are only slightly less sucky than an indoor bike trainer, which is the epitome of suckiness. Outside is where the fun is.

    My secret weapon for the colder temps (~25 or below) is this hat – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B004KJ85GS/

    It’s basically a beanie/visor combination. The great thing is it let’s the heat out the top because as you said if you’re running and not jogging then after mile 3 the oven is getting near cooking temperature. I find that full beanies are just too warm, even the thinner ones. Problem is I think the company stopped making them. I got mine for $15 five years ago and it’s really well-made, should last a long time.

    But if you go to their website the links are dead – http://balconitoptraining.com/gear/

    Looks like they started charging $29.99 for the hat which might have lost them customers. Anyhoo, great post and good luck with your Boston training!

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

    1. Oh that thing is cool! And yes, nothing beats the bike trainer in terms of absolute suckiness. It is officially the worst.

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