Staying Warm On The Run

Tricks to staying warm while running in Virginia this winter

John Faith has been with Metro Run and Walk since 2004

John has been with Metro Run and Walk since 2004 and enjoys being active!

The days are shorter, the nights are longer – the weather’s getting colder (and, lately, wetter!).  Last month we discussed safety issues.  At this time of year, outdoor activities are becoming a challenge from another perspective – the elements.  Many of us resign ourselves to the treadmill (dreadmill) or indoor activities during the colder months, but the arrival of the cold weather doesn’t mean you’re relegated to the confines of your local rec center, fitness facility, or basement.  With a few simple articles of apparel, you can exercise outdoors comfortably (and with the addition of the visibility items mentioned last month, safely) all winter.

The two major elements we’re concerned with here are the cold and the damp.  Dressing appropriately for the weather involves a combination of wicking materials, warming materials, and protective materials.  This month, we’ll briefly discuss the concept of layering.

Layering generally applies to the upper body, from the waist up.  Most of us, if we’re active enough, can get by with lesser amounts of coverage on our legs – but if you’re susceptible to the cold, the principles of layering apply to the entire body.  Layering also generally involves three layers as mentioned above.

Next to the skin, the first layer, is the wicking layer.  This layer is typically a thin, snug, lightweight layer, also often called the base layer, and is designed to help keep the body dry.  (If you perspire as much as some of us, it isn’t so much being dry, as “less wet!”)  The wicking or base layer is typically a synthetic fiber designed specifically for wicking – allowing moisture (sweat) to be pulled from the body.  These fibers are generally made of hydrophobic (unable to absorb moisture) materials, most often a variant of woven polyester or nylon.  Some of the more common brands are CoolMax, DriFit, and Olefin.  Some of the newer of these “technical” fabrics incorporate thermal regulation and/or  odor neutralization properties.

Once the sweat is wicked away from the body, where does it go?  On to the insulating layer – the second of the three layers.  The insulating layer is, again, usually a synthetic fiber and is simply a heavier version of the base layer, often with more loft for insulation.  This layer can often be worn alone in moderate conditions, combined with the base layer for slightly more severe conditions, and coupled with a shell (below) for the most severe conditions.  The insulating layer is commonly napped or brushed on both sides to enhance the loft and surface area of the fabric to provide more insulation.

The third layer is a protective shell of some kind.  Some of the newer garments combine the insulating layer with a water- and wind-resistant (or water- and wind–proof) covering, but the more versatile, flexible approach is to have a lightweight shell to top the base and insulating layers.  Most of the newer performance shells are water- and wind-resistant, but cannot be advertised and sold as water- or wind-proof unless they have taped seams.  Truly water- and wind-proof apparel is often very expensive, and for most of us, the “resistant” materials are more than adequate.

Two areas often overlooked are the head and, to a lesser extent, the hands.  “Common knowledge” used to say we lost upwards of 45-75% of our body heat through our heads.  This has pretty much been debunked recently – a typical article appears on the HealthLine website,  Specifically, see:  That said, many of us (especially those of us who are “folically-challenged,”) find it much more comfortable exercising outdoors if our heads are also warm and protected.  The same rules for layering the body can also apply to the head, but most of us get by with a good quality polyester knit cap – one sufficiently long enough to cover our ears as well.

Similarly, many of us have issues with our hands, and the same concepts applicable to the rest of our bodies apply here.  The “old school” painter’s gloves may provide some cheap, basic protection from the elements, but once these cotton gloves get damp from sweat or precipitation, evaporation literally pulls the heat from our hands, and you’re often better off without them.  A better approach is a wicking polyester glove.  If you are particularly susceptible to cold hands, mittens offer a bit more warmth, and a protective shell over the mittens offers the best, most complete protection.

Don’t forget your face!  Exposed skin and lips need protection from the sun and wind.  Lip balm is a must for winter time outdoor activities and if there is snow on the ground, don’t forget to use sunscreen or a moisturing lotion with SPF.

So – how much to wear?  This is truly personal preference and a function of how well you tolerate the cold and damp.  One of the members of the staff has reduced his winter wardrobe to a handful of items: a short sleeved technical shirt worn till the temperatures are in the 50’s.  A long sleeved technical shirt worn till the temperatures are in the 40’s.  Both shirts together till the temperatures are in the 30’s – at which time the shell goes on, with the short sleeved technical shirt till the mid 30’s, and the long sleeved till the low 30’s, at which time both shirts go on under the shell.

There may be times when you want to focus on keeping particular parts of your body warm.  For instance, Helen ran the MCM in a sleeveless tank but at the start time it was chilly so used removable arm sleeves to keep warm while waiting.  Mark occasionally adds a neck sleeve in the winter when its cold but not cold enough for an extra layer over his core.

If just your ears get cold, wear a headband rather than a hat.  We call this body warmth segmentation.  We know this from our personal experiences, but  there is a study that we found “Body Segment Differences in Surface Area, Skin Temperature and 3D Displacement and the Estimation of Heat Balance during Locomotion in Hominins “ that seems to bear this out. .

As they say, your mileage may vary, so you’ll need to experiment to find out what’s appropriate for you.  We are very lucky now though to have the variety of technical gear available, at all price levels.  Once you ditch the cotton T-shirts and cotton sweat shirts and sweat pants for some of the new gear, you’ll never go back (nor will you be so comfortable!).

One of the hardest things about exercising outside in the wintertime is the first few minutes.  The house is nice and warm and outside is cold.  Before you put on your layers, warm up inside.  Run up and down the stairs a few times, do a few push-ups or sit-ups – anything to get the blood moving.  Then, put on your layers and get out.

A final rule of thumb – when you first head out the door, you should feel chilly.  You’ll quickly warm up, and, if you were warm at the start, you’ll end up taking something off and having to deal with it!  This is commonly called the “Twenty Degree Rule.”  Dress for 20 degrees warmer than the thermometer says. If it’s 25 degrees Fahrenheit, for example, it will feel like 45 degrees (more or less, depending on the wind). If you feel a bit chilly for the first 5-10 miles, you’ll probably be comfortable during most of your workout.

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