Winter Running Guide

Be sure to also tune into the Michigan Runner Girl podcast episode “Everything You Need to Know About Winter Running” — check it out here »

It’s a common question: “You run outside even in the winter?”

Sometimes it’s followed up with, “You’re crazy.”

Non-runners are the usual culprits in such a conversation, but even runners have questioned my sanity when it comes to choosing snow-covered pavement over a treadmill. I (kind of) understand: exercising in frigid temperatures can feel like a daunting task. But I believe it’s one of the very best ways to feel alive. I also think it’s something that most every runner can learn to really enjoy. It’s all about clothing choices. (A sense of adventure and positive attitude also help.)

Ready to embrace your inner crazy and run outside all winter long? These winter running ideas, many of them from MRG readers, will inspire you to get out there. And as Michigan Runner Girl Denise Keely says, “Don’t worry about pace—just get out there!”

Starting at the Very Top:

A breathable hat will keep your noggin warm but not sweaty. Jeffery W. likes Headsweats hats. I really like my creme-colored SmartWool cap because it’s lightweight, soft, breathable, and fits over my ears (nothing worse than tugging a hat down mid-run). [shameless plug alert…] I also have a Michigan Runner Girl beanie I like, as well as a couple of hats from winter races I wear (thank you, Farmland 5K and Frozen Foot 5-Miler). Since I have long hair, having a ponytail hole is pretty important, too, though on really cold days I’ll forgo the hair-up thing and simply wear a hat and let my long strands keep my neck warm. I’ve also worn a Turtle Fur neck-warmer in sub-zero temps (or when the wind chill makes it feel like it’s below zero). This keeps your neck cozy as well as helps you breathe better—pull the neck warmer up so it covers your mouth slightly so that you’re breathing in warmer air. Friends with cold weather-induced asthma have said this aids their breathing while running. Another brand that many readers swear by: Buff. This is multi-use “headwear” that can cover your neck, face and head, protecting you from the elements, especially the wind. And to keep your face and lips from chapping or chafing, from Adrienne V.: “It helps to put balm on lips and also to use sunscreen on your face if there’s sun bouncing off the snow … I use Vaseline on my nose and cheeks.” Don’t forget your eyes on those sunnier winter days (we get a few, right?): “A pair of wrap-around sports sunglasses protects your eyes from glare and wind,” says Rose P. Or, you could try Cathy B.’s idea: “I wear ski goggles so I basically have nothing exposed and I will go out if not under -10 below—anything lower than that I cannot stay warm enough for a decent amount of miles.” Michigan Runner Guy Kevin M. agrees—”I’m a total fan of the ski goggles when it gets down into single digits or the wind is a factor!” 

All About Layers:

A great base layer is a fitted long-sleeved top, worn over your sports bra. I’ve gotten by the past few winters with one black, one white v-neck top from Under Armour. These wicking, breathable tops are absolute staples. In 30-degree weather I might top one of these with a tee or light jacket. Colder weather will find me using these base layers beneath a thicker jacket or hoodie—always made from wicking fabric that’s water- and wind-proof. I have two favorite running coats for runs in ridiculously cold weather: a greyish-black reflective Brooks coat that fits like a glove; and a blue-and-grey Columbia coat with zippers running the length of each arm starting beneath my arm pits—the perfect solution for long runs that get me so warmed up that an infusion of cool air is pure heaven mid-run. My friend Krista sometimes runs a warm-up lap around her ‘hood, then sheds a layer at her house before continuing on.

On the Bottom:

Breathable bottoms also are essential. Some of us female runners prefer the yoga pant-style, while others like the more fitted tights variety. Michigan runner Catey dubs her winter tights with brushed fleece on the inside “very comfy.” I’ve worn reasonably-priced, quality running tights I found at Target, but this year I bought a pair of Brooks thermal running tights and really like them. They keep me warm and I like the zippers at the bottom, making it easier to strip ‘em off after runs. Dawn T. likes to have a layer beneath on colder runs: “I also wear Cuddle Duds under my running pants. I found them at Kohl’s. They are thin thermals and keep my legs warm.”

Don’t Forget Reflective Gear:


Catey, of the brushed fleece winter tights, is all about wearing a reflective vest as her top layer. “Even in day light I want people to SEE me … I had a close call last year, not fun. My motto is I’d rather someone say ‘look at that dorky girl running,’ than “Wow, didn’t even see her.’ Agreed.

Fingers & Toes:

Gloves or mittens? Maybe both, many of you shared. Seems the breathable fingerless gloves with a mitten flap are a popular choice. For extra warmth, Jeff R. suggests hand warmers in his mittens. “Especially when it’s below 20 degrees—I have the option to take them out and put them in my pocket if they get too warm,” he says. For socks, I swear by SmartWool, especially the ones that have a touch of built-in cushion in the toes. Another key piece: traction for your running shoes, such as Kahtoola Nanospikes (my personal favorite) or YakTrax, to help prevent slips and falls. Dianna J. shares that she has “these things called ‘toe gators'” that keep her toes warm and dry. “They are neoprene and you wear them over your socks.” Denise K.—and a number of other readers—prefer screw shoes over store-bought traction. She mentions this tutorial, which you can view here » ‪

Speaking of shoes, wearing those with waterproof materials or heavier, supportive overlays and little or no mesh paneling is important. Makes sense since the porous mesh on lighter-weight shoes will let wind, snow, and water seep inside, quickly freezing your feet. And this from Denise, about how to keep muscles toasty and working well: “I’ve found that wearing knee high compression socks not only keeps me warmer, but also helps to prevent soreness that can sometimes happen when you’re muscles never really warm up.”

Finally, a few wise words from our awesome MRG community: 

“If you are cold when you walk outside, you are perfectly dressed for a run. Your body will warm up efficiently! Before a winter run, while my Garmin is trying to find ‘the mother ship,’ I get everything on, go to the front door, do 20 push-ups, 40 crunches, and 60 seconds of plank. Nice and warm and ready to get out there!” ~Cassy Stone

“The feeling of pride you have in yourself after going out and doing it goes a long way. Then tell all your family and friends so they can be proud of you, too.” ~Andrea Kern

“I try not to dress too warmly in the winter and commit to giving myself 10 full minutes of being chilly while I warm up. After 10 minutes pass, I find I’m not longer thinking about the cold and enjoying being outside. Beats a treadmill!” ~Sara Schillio

“Definitely running with a friend or two helps with motivation.” ~Dawn Cuddie

“I run early in the dark so I can’t see the weather. I can feel it and love the feel of it. … I enjoy the workout from the snow! I a lover of cold weather.” ~Christine Wagoner

“Just grab a friend, go out and have fun!” ~Paulette Pashak

“Find a great audio book and only listen to it when you are outside running.” ~Cindi Hammer

“On terrible days, I don’t judge myself on how far or fast I go. Instead of judging it as a run, I think of it as good cross-training for running. It is also helpful if you have a good winter race to look forward to.” ~Erin Zimmer

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—Heather Durocher