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Winter running can absolutely mean heading inside for a temperature-controlled cruise on a treadmill. But you don’t have to automatically choose the indoor path just because the weather outside might be testy. Running gear has been evolving super quickly over the last decade, so the best accessories for winter running are getting better and better with each passing winter season.
While winter running clothing of course matters, getting the right accessory can make all the difference in the world. And sometimes even more than picking the right piece of gear, it can be more important to learn when to wear what and how. Years of running both very very fast and very very slow in some of the coldest temperatures in central Pennsylvania during my college years not only forced me to flee the East Coast for warmer climes, but those chilly miles have also helped make me a semi-expert on dialing in your winter running. So before we get to the best accessories for winter running, let’s look at a few pro tips on how to dress for success when heading out into the cold.
Rules of Dressing Right for Winter Running
1. Think Extremities First
Rule number one for running (and really riding, too) outside is make sure you’ve got your extremities covered. Riding is slightly different in that you’re using fewer muscles (think: feet, arms) and usually facing more wind chill, so the rules are slightly modified for running. Think about what you engage the least when you run: If you’re running right, you should have your hands and fingers loose—like holding an egg shell, they say. You’re also probably not using your head much (or at least you shouldn’t be—thinking is detrimental to good running), and while your feet and toes do get some blood flow, it’s not as much as your legs or arms.
I always encourage runners to wear gloves when temperatures dip under 50 degrees F, even if that means taking them off and stowing them after a few minutes. Even if that means wearing a short-sleeved-shirt-plus-glove combo that might not look so cool. Also, cover up those ears with at least a headband, maybe more. Finally, some good midweight socks will make a huge difference, regardless of shoes. Don’t go overboard on the hat or socks though, because if your feet or head get wet from sweat, you’ll be in worse shape than if you were just a little chilly and dry. Which leads to the next tip…
2. A Little Too Cold > Too Hot
A good rule of thumb for most running (we’ll get to exceptions later) at a medium pace is that you should be a little cold during the first 10-15 minutes of the run. This may seem counterintuitive for non-runners, but if you’re piping hot the minute you step out the door and for the first five minutes of your run, you’re almost guaranteed to be sweating through your gear as your heart rate increases. And no amount of expensive, wind-and-water-blocking gear will keep you warm if the inside of your clothing is soaking wet from sweat. It’ll just be a matter of time before you go from nice and warm to wet and chilly to super cold (and maybe sick). Always when training in the cold, wetness is your number one enemy—whether it comes from without (rain) or within (sweat). Avoid it at all costs.
3. Dress For The Speed You Want
This is where the above rules can get a little murky, but where layering can help (see below). If you’re doing a very very easy 1.5-hour jog where your heart rate is never supposed to go above Zone 1 or 2, then dress a little warmer. If you’re doing a fast tempo where you’re running at a steady tough pace for an hour, dress much “cooler.” If you’re doing intervals that are under a minute of “fast,” dress warmer than if you’re doing long intervals of three minutes or more.
While this may seem SUPER obvious to many runners, dressing for your speed can actually help you with your training! If you know you’re not supposed to go hard—but you have a tendency to do so anyway—then “overdressing” will help you keep it under control. If you start to sweat into your clothes too much, this is your natural ceiling telling you to slow it down. On the other side of the coin, if you’re supposed to really push yourself, guess what happens when you dress quite a bit too “cool?” You’ll run faster, just to stay warm.
4. Layers, Layers, Layers
While dressing in layers certainly isn’t anything new, knowing what to wear and when to take it off is more or less a soft science. If you’ve got an interval workout, put on more than you want, and be prepared to ditch the outer layer (or hat) when speed picks up. But don’t forget to put it back on basically two minutes after the last hard effort. If your body gets cold after a hard effort, you can get sick, you can get muscular issues, plus more. The best way to know when to “layer down” is just before you start to break a serious sweat. If you start taking off layers when you’re already too hot, you’ll probably end up wet, cold, and miserable. Again, it’s ok to be a little chilly for a few minutes at the beginning—you can always add more clothing or speed up as you go—rather than wet and sad for the entirety of your run.
Now that you know how and when to wear the best accessories for winter running, here are a few picks, based on features, for what to wear:
The Best Gear for Winter Running
Smartwool Merino 250 Gloves
While these may not be the best for the most extreme conditions (check out this roundup of more beefy gloves from our sister site, Podium Runner for some of those options), Smartwool makes some very high-quality Merino wool gloves that are the perfect storm for runners: breathable, soft, and warm enough. While you have to be more careful with wind and rain (they work ok), the long length and touchscreen capabilities are great details that help these stand out.
Darn Tough Vertex 1/4 Ultra-Light Cushion
Even though a pair of socks labeled “light” may seem out of place in winter running, these Merino wool blended socks are actually more like a midweight mix of breathable and warm for all but the most extreme chills. Wicking is key on these soft-to-the-touch socks, and a seamless construction ensures no blisters. Better yet, all Darn Tough socks are knitted in Vermont (where they know cold) and come with a crazy unconditional guarantee.
Buff Dryflx Multifunctional Headwear
So you may notice this looks more like a headband or a gaiter than a hat, but that’s sort of the point. This piece of “multifunctional headwear” can basically be whatever you need, allowing you to adapt to the conditions, your run’s pace, and your heatedness level as it changes. For most situations, it works as an excellent headband that allows heat to escape from the top of your head, but it can also transform into a hat-plus-facemask if things get arctic (or you’re trespassing…). This model is best for winter running as it’s 360-degrees reflective, so when you’re running in low light drivers can see you better.
Knog Quokka Run Headlamp
I get into lights much more in this column, but this headlamp continues to be a favorite this season and redefines what makes a good headlamp for runners. It’s super super compact, rechargeable, uses a goggle-like silicone headstrap, and it features an entirely unique flashing red “halo effect” that lets you be seen from the sides and front. As it’s entirely encased in silicone, you can also be super rough with it in your gym bag and not worry about pulling any wires or damaging it otherwise.
DeFeet D-Logo Wool Armskins
Yes, arm warmers have traditionally been a cyclist-only realm, but if you’re interested in staying warm in changing conditions and body heat (remember what we talked about above??), you’ll need something that can adapt. These Merino wool arm warmers would probably be a little bit too chilly for cold weather cycling, but are ideal for running, as they’re breathable, ventilate sweat well, and their soft feel allows you to use them to wipe that inevitable sweat off somewhere crucial—like your head—to somewhere less so.