With all of the high-tech sportswear available these days, trying to figure out whats right and whats wrong is confusing. Luckily, todays sweat-wicking, wind-blocking, thermal-regulating fabrics have become remarkably efficient and light.
That said, I would like to first address the virtues of a horribly maligned article of clothing yet one that is still the most widely worn garment of runners everywhere the cotton T-shirt.
Say what you want about cotton. Once the #1 choice in running apparel in the 1970s, cotton is now snubbed by advocates of todays high-tech fabrics. And theres a reason for long runs in cold conditions, cotton can be a death sentence. Once its wet, it stays wet. So once you get cold, you stay cold.
I confess, though, that for the first 16 years of my running career, I wore a cotton T-shirt for virtually every run. When it got really cold, I threw on a cotton turtleneck. Yet Im still here to talk about it.
If youre on a budget or routinely run 40 minutes or less per session, then cotton is an acceptable layer. Just throw a nylon shell over it, and youre ready to roll.
That may not sit well with a lot of you, which is why the sports apparel business is doing so well. However the real value of products extends well beyond satisfying needs of fashion-conscious athletes.
Quality athletic clothing is as functional as it is fashionable, and the well-dressed athlete will be the one who makes the most of the winter off-season. So here is your head-to-toe guide to dressing for winter.
Hat and gloves
Warm fingers and ears will score the biggest points on the runner happiness meter, so my first rule of cold weather running is a good hat.
Every company has its catchy fabric names, but what you need to look for is a hat with fabric that wicks the sweat away, fits snugly and will insulate your ears from the cold.
For hands, my preference on most days is an inexpensive pair of cotton gloves the kind you can pick up for a few dollars at your local supermarket. They fit loosely and cradle your hands in warm air. They also have a soft cuff that is great for wiping your dripping nose. On the down side, if they get wet, your hands will get cold in a big hurry.
When the temperature gets really cold, I opt for a tight-fitting, sweat-wicking pair of light-weight gloves with an unlined nylon mitten over them. Nylon does a great job of keeping out the cold and the wind.
Maintaining your core body temperature is critical in winter, especially during longer runs. Many of us are in the midst of base training, which equates to long miles. The weather can change quickly, and if you are an hours run from home, you can find yourself in trouble if you are not prepared.
Dressing in layers is the only way to go, and its a one-two-three process.
First is the base layer, the one directly against your skin. The purpose of this layer is to keep you dry, because when youre wet, youll get cold. Base layers tend to be lightweight and are often fairly sheer. Ironically, the primary ingredient of these new high-tech moisture-wicking fabrics is polyestera material that was as popular on the 1970s dance floor as cotton was among the runners of the time.
The middle layer is the insulator. While this layer should continue to allow your bodys moisture to migrate away from your skin, its primary objective is to insulate you from the cold. Again, polyester will be the main ingredient, but the fabric will be substantially heavier.
Finally, theres the outer layer whose function is to protect you from the elements.
Rain, snow, cold and wind are winter enemies, and a good nylon jacket or shell will usually do the trick. Waterproof fabrics like GoreTex also breathe, but most nylon jackets are water resistant to a certain degree.
Also consider a jacket that is vented. In other words, the jacket will have mesh-covered openings that allow water vapor to escape, but are strategically placed to keep the elements outside.
Keep in mind, too, that winter brings with it shorter days and thus youre likely to be running in the dark. A reflective outer layer can keep you from getting flattened by that other enemy cars. If there is one word you should remember, its IllumiNITE, available at most running stores.
The one place you will definitely want to minimize bulk is your legs, and for most winter days, a pair of running tights will do the trick.
Running tights come in a variety of fabrics light for cool days and heavy for colder days. On your coldest runs, a pair of nylon wind pants over your tights will keep you cozy.
For guys, the cold weather brings another "little" concern. While your legs may be comfortable in a pair of running tights, a cold windy day can lead to penile frostbite. And while I have not heard of any cases that involved amputation, I have definitely scared myself on a few winter runs.
Pick up a pair of windproof briefs, the ones with a nylon panel in front. You may only wear them a couple of times a year, but its nice to know they are in the drawer.
Not many diehards run sockless in the winter, so Im not going to waste your time writing about socks. I will, however, mention a great product for those days when you find yourself ankle-deep in slush.
SealSkinz socks are thin, waterproof and breathable. Wear them over a lightweight training sock and you can splash through slush all day and never get cold or wet.
And of course, theres the most obvious need shoes. On days where the roads are especially snowy and icy, a sturdy trail running shoe is an excellent choice because in addition to being a bit stronger, trail shoes are more stable and will give you better traction.
Finally, dressing for winter is a lot like training you learn through trial and error. If this article gets you thinking in the right direction, then you are halfway there. Remember, running is supposed to be fun, and being cold isn't.
Shop for more winter running gear at the Active Sports Mecca