Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Beginners' Guide: Cold Weather Gear

My first winter training in Kansas, I half-heartedly looked for a guide to how much money I would have to drop for cold weather gear. I asked schoolmates from colder climes (i.e. Chicago) what they wore while running in the winter. I looked for articles on Trifuel and Ontri. I browsed forums. I wished for a blogger who would tell me all I need to know.

So to prevent my newbie readers from having to work so hard, I've collected what I've learned since returning from Southern California (where "cold" was anything below 60* and "windy" was gusting to 8 MPH).

Even with a wetsuit, don't bother. The water is going to be too cold for any but the most brazen, and there's no reason for you to swim in the open water, anyway (other than earning valuable badass points). Stay in the pool and work on your technique. You can wear your wetsuit there, if you want to (if you have one).

Ah, the gear required for biking--it makes paupers of us all. Presented in order of importance (in my experience), with options for those of you who have no money (or who spent it all on your bankruptcy-inducing bike).

1. Tights. Cheapskate option: wear a pair of running tights (or two or three) over bike shorts.

2. Hat/ear warmers. Cheapskate option: wear an old stocking cap, if you don't care about moisture control.

3. Full-finger gloves. Cheapskate option: wear a pair of $1 knit gloves over cycling gloves.

4. Toe warmers. Cheapskate option: put plastic bags (like the kind your newspaper comes in) inside your shoes to block the wind.

5. Balaclava. Cheapskate option: tie a scarf or bandana snugly around your face, and pull your ghetto stocking cap down all around it.

6. Wind vest/jacket. Cheapskate option: any wind-resistant jacket will do the trick, although most won't breathe as well as technical apparel.

And if it starts snowing? You're screwed anyway (for road biking, anyway; there are plenty of people who ride in the snow, but not usually on road bikes).

Possibly the least pleasant activity to do when it's cold and windy (right behind swimming and cycling). Most of the equipment you'll need to run comfortably (or rather with as little discomfort as possible) can cross over between bike and run. The one thing on which I strongly advise you to drop money is a pair of quality thermal tights. They should be fuzzy on the inside (you might want two pairs: one thermal and one light). Layering is a must. Smart Wool is, well, smart. Gloves, stocking cap, balaclava, all can be used for biking and running. If you're dealing with a nasty wind chill, wear pants and a jacket that will cut the wind (I wear a pair of $20 Adidas warm-ups when it's windy out). You might want to wear two pairs of socks (both wicking! not something that you can skimp on!), and the plastic bag trick works for running too.

Note on safety
Snow is okay; ice is not. If the road is slick, suck it up (buttercup) and get on the treadmill or the trainer. I know, I know, it's super boring. You can alleviate the boredom by downloading one of my (awesome) podcasts, though! Hurray! In all seriousness, be sensible. If you're going out when it's cold, bundle up, use common sense, and (always always always) let someone know where you're going and when you'll be back.

The coldest weather I've braved for running was temps in the teens with a negative wind chill; the coldest I've been out on the bike was in the high twenties. It can be done, and with relatively little up-front investment, but you kind of need a badass mindset to begin with. If you don't really, really want it, you're never going to get outside and run when it's below freezing. Then again, if you don't really, really want it, you probably wouldn't be doing this crazy sport.

I should also mention that Kansas has had a run of unseasonably warm days. By which I mean it's 10:00 p.m. and 60* F (with no wind, WTF?). So if all else fails, you can come visit me.

And I'm not (by a long shot) training in the coldest weather here (although I'd bet money that I get the worst winds). Northerners, Bostonians, residents of Lake Wobegone, what do you think? What are the best cold-weather investments for newbies' money?


  1. my mom got me some great running clothes are REI, i think the items she got me were cross country skiing but they seem to work for winter running. I live in New Hampshire and it's been 9* outside (not sure of the wind chill) and i have been warm. I also added a NIKE fit shirt to the mix and it makes me too hot most of the time.

    I did a blog post about my gear, not sure if the links are still active or not.

    I find the hardest part of winter running is having to wait a bit in the morning for the temperature to warm up some. I am so use to working out early in the morning that waiting until 11 or noon is difficult (But worth it)

  2. Girl. Don't know much about this topic since I live in So. Cal but I love SmartWool and my buddies use lots of plastic baggies in their helmets and shoes in the winter.

  3. I have to laugh, because i saw "balaclava" but read "baklava" and had to do a double-take. i guess you can tell where my mind is this morning.

    no badass points for me - i train inside all winter. First, i hate wisconsin winter weather, and second, i figure i pay for my fitness club membership and might as well get my money's worth. no treadmills for me, though - it's track running all the way.

  4. I love my Yaktrax -- make it possible to run in icy conditions. I wear them constantly until about May :-)

    Also love my polar fleece buff. That thing is toasty and versitile!

    And I must admit-- I do hit the treadmill on occasion and HATE it -- but I do listen to your podcasts while running and it really helps the boredom factor!