How to Dress for Cold Weather Running

Woman running outdoors in cold weather on snowy path


Val Thoermer/EyeEm/Getty Images 

Cold weather doesn't mean that you have to banish yourself to the treadmill all winter long. Thanks to advanced technology in winter running clothes, runners no longer have to trudge through outdoor winter runs wearing lots of heavy and uncomfortable clothing, or stay inside just to keep warm.

If you're taking your runs outdoors in lower temperatures, add 10 to 20 degrees F to the outdoor temperature (or the windchill/"real feel" temperature, if it's lower) to know the temperature you should be dressing for that day.

Use the lower end of that range for slower or shorter runs; if you'll be running longer or doing a more intense workout, you can estimate the temp at the higher end of the range. Once you've figured out what your "running outdoor temperature" is, you can begin to assemble your outdoor run kit.

Experiment with your running gear to find what works for you. Do loop runs so you can add or subtract layers or pieces of clothing as needed. The goal is to be a little cold when you're warming up and sweaty when you the finish.

Keep Your Head, Neck, and Hands Warm

On cold days, it's important to keep your head, ears, neck, and extremities covered and to wear a moisture-wicking hat to keep sweat off your scalp. You also want to protect your skin from the cold and wind, as well as prevent frostbite and chapped skin and lips.

Hat or Earmuffs

A fleece or wool hat is perfect for keeping your head warm during winter runs. You can easily tuck it into your pants if you feel like you're starting to overheat. A hat with a brim or visor is also a beneficial for sun and rain protection. Fleece earmuffs can protect your ears from frostbite while also allowing sweat to evaporate from your scalp.

Neck Gaiter or Bandana

A neck gaiter, like those often worn by skiers, can be extremely valuable on a frigid, windy day to protect your neck and face. You can pull it up over your mouth to warm the air you're breathing in, which is especially helpful when you first start your run. Some runners wear a simple bandanna over their mouth for the same purpose.

Another alternative is a Buff, which is a seamless tube of microfiber fabric that can be worn in many ways, including as a balaclava.

Balaclava or Face Mask

Also known as a ski mask, a balaclava is a type of headgear that covers your whole head, exposing only your face or part of it, and sometimes only your eyes. They're usually made of fleece or wool and are only necessary if the temperature or wind chill is below 10 degrees F.

Face masks designed for exercise can also help keep you covered. They're mad to be breathable and comfortable, while protecting you from cold air and even pollen or other irritants.

Skin and Lip Protection

Cold weather and wind can chap your lips and make exposed skin crack. Protect your lips with balm or petroleum jelly. Wear sunscreen as the winter sun and glare off of snow can give you sunburn. You can also use petroleum jelly on your nose and cheeks (or anywhere else on your face) to prevent windburn and chapping.

Gloves or Mittens

Keeping your hands and finger warm while running through cold temperatures or windy conditions is a priority. You want to keep your hands covered with insulated running gloves or mittens that wick away moisture, provide breathability and warmth, and have features to help you use your touchscreen phone for emergencies or route tracking.

If it's extremely cold, mittens are a better choice than gloves because mittens allow your fingers to share their body heat. Another option: Instant handwarming packets.

Layer Up

The key to dressing for winter running is layering. Not only do layers trap body heat, but they also allow sweat to move through the layers of clothing and prevent overheating. Moisture-wicking fabrics draw sweat away from your first layer to your outer layers, where it can evaporate.

Upper Body

Use a three-layer strategy to keep your upper body warm and dry. If the temperature is between 10 and 40 degrees F, you can usually skip the middle layer.

  • Wicking base layer: The layer closest to your body should be made from a synthetic wicking material, such as DryFit, Thinsulate, Thermax, CoolMax, polypropylene, or silk. Do not wear cotton for your base layer—once it gets wet, you'll stay wet.
  • Insulating layer: Your second or middle layer should be an insulating material, such as fleece (look for Akwatek, Dryline, Polartec, polyester fleece, microfleece, Thermafleece, and Thermax on the label). This layer should trap some air to keep your warm, yet release enough vapor or heat to prevent overheating.
  • Windproof and waterproof outer layer: This layer should protect you against wind and moisture, as well as allow heat and moisture to escape. Wear a jacket with a zipper so you can regulate temperature. Good fabrics for this layer include ClimaFit, Gore-Tex, Microsuplex, nylon, Supplex, and Windstopper.

Lower Body

You will need to consider what you wear on your legs in order to enjoy your winter runs. Your legs generate a lot of heat so you don't need as many layers on your lower body. You can usually wear just a pair of tights or running pants made of synthetic material such as Thermion, Thinsulate, Thermax, Coolmax, polypropylene, and/or silk.

If it's below 10 F (temperature or wind chill), you may want to consider two layers on your lower body: a wicking layer of tights and a wind-proof layer (like track pants).

Light Up

Since days are shorter and nights are longer in winter, you're more likely to be running in the dark in the cooler months. So add reflective or bright clothes to your gear list.

Opt for lighter colors—white, yellow, orange, or neon—or reflective clothing that will ensure you're spotted by motorists. Also make sure to follow safety precautions for running in the dark to make certain you're out of harm's way.

Protect Your Feet

You can keep your feet warm as long as you keep them moving and dry. Try to avoid puddles, slush, and snow. Look for a running shoe with as little mesh as possible, since that's where cold air and water will seep through to your feet.

If you can't avoid running in the snow, you may want to buy trail running shoes, which are somewhat waterproof and will give you a little more traction in the snow. You may also want to try YakTrax Ice Grippers or other brands of ice spikes, which slip right over your running shoes for added traction.

Never wear cotton socks (in cold or warm weather) when running. They won't wick away moisture, leaving your feet wet and prone to blisters. Instead, invest in wicking socks made of fabrics such as acrylic, CoolMax, or wool (in the winter). Modern wool blends such as SmartWool are itch-free and machine-washable and dryable.

If you wear thicker socks in winter, you will need to see how they fit in your running shoes. You may need to buy a half-size larger or get a wide model.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do cold weather running masks work?

Cold weather running masks—or a balaclava— can be beneficial in not only protecting your face, mouth, and lips from blistering cold and winds, but they can also help you breathe easier while running.

Frigid temperatures can make breathing in chilly air difficult, and a cold weather running mask adds warmth to air before you breathe it in.

Where can I buy winter running clothes? 

Winter running clothes are available at most major outdoor and sports retailers, including Dick's Sporting Goods, REI, The North Face, Lululemon, Amazon, and more. When purchasing athletic gear, make sure you're buying from a reputable retailer and brand, ensuring you can return the items should they not fit properly or perform the way you need.

What should I wear when running a 5K in the cold?

If you're racing in the cold, layer your running outfit for best performance. Whether it's a winter 5K or marathon, gear up with a sweat-wicking base layer, an insulating layer, and a waterproof top. Remember gloves, a thermal hat, a face mask, and a pair of wicking socks to ensure you can cross the finish line comfortably and safely.

What should I wear when running in cold rain?

Running in cold rain presents its own challenges. Dress for the cold with layers and add a rain-resistant shell jacket that will keep any moisture from leaking to other layers. Add a rain-proof cap with a brim to keep rain out of your eyes, and reflective lights or colors to ensure drivers see you through rain, fog, or overcast conditions.

A Word From Verywell

Whether you're running in high heat or lower temperatures, it's important to be prepared. Cold weather running requires you to take special safety precautions. You may enjoy running in the cooler temperatures, and your entire experience can be comfortable and safe if you prepare wisely.

2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Flatt AE. FrostbiteProc (Bayl Univ Med Cent). 2010;23(3):261-262. doi:10.1080/08998280.2010.11928631

  2. Fudge J. Preventing and managing hypothermia and frostbite injurySports Health. 2016;8(2):133-139. doi:10.1177/1941738116630542

By Christine Luff, ACE-CPT
Christine Many Luff is a personal trainer, fitness nutrition specialist, and Road Runners Club of America Certified Coach.