Dear Runners,

In the traditional timing of the Spring coaching regimen, this note is one of the first ones that is sent.  But with a Fall training taking place, it doesn’t make much sense to deliver a note about cold weather running in the middle of August.  But this week the weather has dropped a little bit and for your morning runs the temps are now dipping into the low 50’s and even the high 40’s.  Fifty degrees is typically an inflection point for me that requires long sleeves and as the temperatures get even colder the skin coverage continues.  So this week’s note is designed to go through the different things to know about running in the cold.  Clothing, after the run, etc.  Then, at the end we will have another Youtube video. 

Getting Started

First there are a few basics.  When running in the cold, you need to start at a slower pace for the first mile or so to allow your muscles to warm up and become limber.  This slower first mile helps to prevent injuries.  Extra stretching in a warm environment (store, car, house) can also help your muscles become limber before heading out.  Also, once you step outside and start running the thin layer of warmed air surrounding your skin is removed making you feel colder.  As you continue exercising the chill will be less noticeable because your body temperature warms. 

During the Run

As you continue to run, particularly on the long runs, you need to remember hydration.  Even though your body will sweat less than when it is hot you still need to consume liquids during long runs (typically those lasting over 1 hour) and after the long runs too.  The point here is that even though you sweat less, you do sweat during cold runs too and you need to replenish those liquids and those electrolytes. 

After the Run

When you finish your run you will be wet with sweat.  During summer, you can just head out to your car and be fine.  However, this is a good recipe for hypothermia when it is cold.  Therefore, you need to bring a change of clothes or at the very least, a way to cover up after a long run in the cold.  Ideally you want to remove all of the moist clothing that is touching your skin.  Oftentimes you can get away with simply changing shirts and adding a jacket, but if you are really sweaty or it is really cold, it makes sense to bring a completely different (dry) outfit for after your run. 

Dressing for the Cold

Everything that touches your skin needs to be able to wick moisture away.  Technical fabrics (almost all running clothes use technical fabrics) are designed to pull sweat away from your skin, dissipate it on the surface of the garment and then evaporate the sweat into the surrounding air.  Don’t wear cotton because even thought it absorbs the sweat it does a terrible job of evaporating the moisture.  So it just ends up soggy. 

If you are running, then you need to dress like it is about 20 degrees warmer than the thermometer says.  So if it is 40 degrees when you start your run, then dress like its 60 and so on.  A good rule for walkers is to dress like it is 5 or 10 degrees warmer.

Almost everyone will tell you that it is best to start any run feeling slightly cool.  The thought behind this is that your body temperature increases as you exercise.  That is a good rule but it still means that you will be cold when you start and a lot of people hate being cold.  If you are one of those people dress so that you can remove clothing as you run.  Jackets are a favorite for this chore.  When you get hot, you can remove the jacket and tie it around your waist. 

Other options include gloves that can be slipped halfway off so they just cover the fingers and not the palm or backs of the hands.  There are also gloves with removable covers for the fingers.  So the fingers can be fully covered or partially covered.  And don’t forget really easy tips like just pushing up the sleeves on a long sleeve shirt or pushing up the sleeves on the top shirt if you are wearing 2 shirts.  Unzipping a jacket or partially unzipping a jacket.  All of these are very easy and very effective tools for heat management.

And don’t forget, wind equals cold.  So if you want to stay warm start by blocking the wind.  Rain shells work well and many are breathable enough to wear during the run too. 

Hats, Gloves and the Science of Heat Loss

We have all heard that you lose 70% of your body heat through your head and that if you want to stay warm then you need to cover your head.  Even though wearing a hat will help keep you warm the science quoted is mostly wrong.  In order to lose that much heat through your head, the scalp would have to be 5 to 10 times more effective at transferring heat than the rest of the body and that just isn’t the case. 

At rest and after you begin exercising; your body loses heat at roughly the same rate through any exposed area of skin.

The head makes up about 10% of the surface area of the body and in general accounts for about the same percentage of heat loss.  This does vary somewhat when you begin to exercise because the heart is pumping a larger volume of blood and that changes the net distribution of blood throughout your body.  However, as the exercise continues the blood is distributed to the muscles and the head again goes to about 10% of thermal loss. 

So as you are trying to stay warm you need to think about all of the common culprits for exposure and cover or uncover as necessary to regulate your temperature.  Some of those include the face, neck, head, hands, and ankles (if wearing short socks).  To decrease heat loss, decrease the amount of exposed skin.   

Some General Guidelines

Now let’s talk about some common temperature points that signal different clothing requirements.  You will need to adjust these rules to your own body needs.  Most runners in their first year have several runs where they are either too cold or too hot. But after the first year, they have most of their own cutoff points figured out. 

Below 20 degrees

You will want to wear 2 or 3 layers of clothing on the top and heavy weight running tights or pants on the bottom.  The layers should also cross each other.  For instance, your socks should be long enough to tuck under your tights and your shirt should also tuck into your tights.  Then add a second shirt and a running jacket.  Adding, gloves/mittens and a hat will keep most any runner or walker comfortable. 

Between 20 and 40 degrees

Generally speaking you will be fine with 2 layers (shirt and jacket or 2 shirts) on top, running tights or pants, gloves/mittens and possibly a hat.  The problem with this temp range is that most runners have a cutoff for shorts that is around 35 to 45 degrees.  So as it gets to the higher part of this temp range you may want to use shorts and either a heavy shirt or 2 shirts on top.  Also, depending on your preference for heat and the days forecast, it will likely be a day to day decision about extra items like gloves and a hat. 

Between 40 and 50 degrees

Somewhere around 40 degrees puts most runners wearing shorts.  So a pair of shorts and a long sleeve shirt generally does the trick. If it is cooler, then a heavy shirt or 2 lighter shirts will work.  As it approaches the higher temperatures a lighter, long sleeve shirt is usually better. If it is damp or windy, a light pair of gloves can generally help to balance the cold. 

50 degrees or higher

From this temperature on up it is generally shorts and a short sleeve shirt to be comfortable.

Our Friends

Having spent more than your fair share of time at a running store, you have probably heard (or said) a few of these things people say at running stores…

Run well…


Shawn Herbig is an RRCA Certified Running Coach.  In his day job he owns a market research and data analytics firm called IQS Research. 

© 2013 Shawn Herbig