Running in the Winter Is Brutal

Here’s how to make it better.

A running jacket
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Patagonia.

Running is one of the few winners in 2020. With big-box gyms and neighborhood fitness studios shuttered or drastically restricted due to the coronavirus, hordes of people have taken to logging miles running around their neighborhoods. While pounding the pavement is relatively easy to do in March or May or even August, exercising outdoors in winter is a tougher challenge. (I’ll make up any excuse to stay under my cocoon of blankets on winter mornings.) So how do you keep warm and motivated when the temperature drops? Below you’ll find a roundup of recommendations and advice to keep you moving through the winter from the all-season, diehard runners of Slate.

Stay (a Bit) Chilly

If you’ve managed to drag yourself out of bed or away from the TV, the next challenge is figuring out what to wear. Winter weather is unpredictable, and in as little as the turn of a corner, a run can swing from comfortably cool to feeling like you’re running through an industrial freezer. Still, it’s hard to resist the temptation to overdress. My colleague Salomone Baquis says he knows he’s dressed appropriately if he’s a bit chilly when he steps outside. “If I’m feeling comfortable when I walk out, it means I’ve got too much warm clothing on and will be hot when I get going,” he notes. One rule of thumb: Check the temperature, add 20 degrees (Fahrenheit), then dress for that number.

Invest in Good Outer Layers

The absolute best investment you can make in your winter running wardrobe is in a quality pair of tights and a jacket or vest. I’m thrifty when it comes to my tees and tanks—they’re all from races, Target, or my local running store’s end-of-season sale rack—but I splurge on winter outer layers. A well-designed jacket and a pair of tights will make the difference between a comfortable run and one where you’re either freezing or sweating profusely (a recipe for hypothermia). Since these pieces are high-quality, they can also last for years, if not decades. In fact, when I surveyed my colleagues about their favorite winter running jackets or vests, none had one that was currently in production—they all bought them eons ago.


Just how heavy those pieces need to be depends on where you live. Here in D.C., where winter fluctuates between the climes of Seattle and Fargo, I live by the winter running gospel of layers, layers, layers. It’s much easier to stack a few thinner tops under a light jacket than to wear a single tee under a bulkier running jacket and find out in the first mile I’ve deeply miscalculated the temperature. For that reason, I swear by my Patagonia Houdini jacket—a light windbreaker that works with my layers to keep me cozy, whether it’s above freezing or well below. My colleague Abby McIntyre in Michigan, however, relies on a heavier running jacket to keep her moving through the reliably frosty winter there.

New Balance Impact Run Winter Jacket

This heavier weight jacket is similar to the now-discontinued jacket McIntyre purchased from New Balance years ago.

Baquis and my colleague Shannon Palus both recommend Under Armour running tights to keep their legs warm, winter after winter. “I’ve had mine forever,” Palus says.

If you’re overwhelmed with options or unsure what might work best for you, take a trip to your local running store. “These places are frequently owned and operated by actual runners, and they can help you much more than just browsing around online. Plus, they’re mom and pop businesses that could really use the support right now,” Baquis notes. Used gear from places such as Poshmark, Thredup, REI, or individual brands’ programs can also be a solid option if your budget is tight.

Make Sure Your Hands, Head, and Feet Are Toasty

Everyone runs at different temperatures, which is why you’ll see one runner in a puffy vest when it’s 50 and another in shorty shorts when it’s in the teens. But our bodies all have at least one spot that just seems to get colder than others, and figuring out what yours is—and buying something to keep it toasty—is key to staying comfortable in the winter.


My cold spot is my hands, and as soon as it drops into the 50s, I’m wearing gloves. I swear by cheap Target gloves—unless it’s going to be super cold or wet (or worse—both), in which case I return to layering and wear cheap gloves (sometimes two pairs) under a waterproof mitten, like this one from Salomon. If you prefer true running gloves, Baquis endorses gloves from Head. He also recommends a warm pair of socks, such as these from Thorlos. McIntyre will layer her running gloves under a pair of mittens, and she’ll double up on socks as well when the temperatures dip extremely low.

Headwear comes down to personal preference. My colleague Heidi Strom Moon likes skullcaps. Palus opts for headbands—easy to carry if it gets too hot, she notes. McIntyre prefers Buffs, which nowadays can double as running masks. She also adds an infinity scarf around her neck on her coldest runs. “I think it helps keep your neck and the area at the top of your clothes where cold air could come in warm,” she says.

Be Visible

According to one study from 2016, more pedestrians are killed by cars around the end of daylight saving time than any other time of year, likely due to the shift in visibility. So if you’re running early in the morning or later in the evening (or at, say, 4 p.m. in mid-December), you’ll want to invest in a light to make you easy to spot.


McIntyre uses a headlamp and a visibility vest to light her way and make her noticeable to drivers. In addition to my headlamp, I like to make sure my dog is safe too, which is why I’m an evangelist for Noxgear’s LightHound dog vest: It’s obnoxiously visible, lightweight, and holds a charge (via USB) for eons. (There’s a human version too!)

Find What Motivates You

My tried-and-true method of keeping myself moving all winter is to sign up for a spring race. Though it’s unlikely big running events will be returning anytime soon, many smaller races are resuming, with wave starts, mask requirements, and contact-free water stops in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. If you’re not ready to take that step, the options for virtual runs are numerous. Following a training plan or investing in a coach can help you stay focused.


Also helpful: a GPS watch. Palus recently purchased this Garmin watch, which keeps track of your pace and distance run, among other things. She says that in addition to signing up for a virtual race, this watch “has been really helpful in motivating me when it’s hard to be motivated, which I think will go double in winter.”

But the thing that gets me out the door, more than any warm jacket or looming race date, is peer pressure. It’s a coin toss whether I’ll drag myself out of bed to log some solo miles in the depths of February, but there’s a 100 percent chance I’ll get up and run if I’m meeting someone. Find a trusted friend willing to meet you once or twice a week, or start building up the mileage of your quarantine pup (with your vet’s approval). It’s much harder to bail when someone’s holding you accountable.