Brrr…Winter Running

Now that I have officially committed to the Vermont City Marathon (VCM) in the spring, I also have to commit to the challenge that is winter running. It’s multifaceted and complicated, but it’s also incredibly rewarding and a great way to stay in shape through the cold months. For the past 10 years I have trained through the winter for a spring event and have seen it all from early thaws to several feet of snow blocking a running route, to icy paths. The key is to be prepared for the challenges so the focus can remain on the run. My priorities are to be safe, warm and comfortable.

Amphipod Xinglet Vest
Amphipod Xinglet Vest

One of the major challenges is lack of daylight.  When the sun doesn’t come up until 7am and it goes down before 5pm… and you have a full time job, it doesn’t leave much time to get in a decent run during daylight hours.  My mid-week runs are usually 4-6 miles so I need to be out of the house before 6:30 to be back from my run and have time to get ready for work.  Add in walking/feeding the dog and getting my act together that early and it’s a really busy morning.  Everywhere I run is pretty well lit with street lamps and road traffic but it’s going to be an extra early run and still dark out I will wear a reflector vest.  I wear the Amphipod Reflective Xinglet Vest.  This is the only vest I’ve found that fits me properly because the straps are all adjustable.  Most vests are too large on me and move around while I’m running.  It’s very uncomfortable and distracting so I was happy when I found this option at Marathon Sports.  You can find it at most sports stores and online.  I also have a headlamp but that’s usually not necessary with the exception, of course, being the Reach the Beach night run.

What to wear?

The number one rule is to avoid cotton. While cotton is warm and comfy when its dry, it absorbs moisture so once you start sweating you’ll be cold and wearing wet clothes – gross. Appropriate tech running materials will wick moisture away and keep your skin dry and warm.  Over the years I have acquired a decent running wardrobe by buying a few pieces every year. They can be pricey so I try to space out my purchases and take care of my gear by keeping most things out of the dryer and avoiding fabric softener which can ruin moisture wicking properties. The upside is that quality winter gear is well made, lasts a long time and can be really flattering and pretty – essential for those of us proud to Run Like A Girl.

lululemon What the Fluff Pullover
lululemon What the Fluff Pullover

On my upper body I usually have two layers (not including my sports bra). The first layer, or base, is a light weight super breathable fabric that’s going to fit close to my skin. My absolutely favorite is the Run: Swiftly Tech Long Sleeve from lululemon. It’s a perfect weight, very comfortable, has thumb holes to keep sleeves down and hands covered and comes in some beautiful colors. I have similar layering tops by Craft and Helly Hansen as well. They are all very comfortable fabric with minimal seams so they don’t chafe.

The top layer over the base is either a jacket or half zip. This can sometimes be the tricky choice determined by the weather.  One favorites is Saucony jacket similar to the current NMD Jacket (mine is an older version). It’s very light but keeps warmth in and its wind proof which is essential many mornings when it feels 10 degrees cooler than the actual temperature thanks to the wind chill. For cooler mornings I grab a new favorite – the lululemon What the Fluff pullover. This is usually reserved for lower temperatures because it’s made of goose down, but when I warm up there are vents on the sides to offer some relief.  Some features I really like on this jacket is the longer length so it covers my butt,  the neck comes up high to protect me from wind and has a very flattering fit.  My ‘3rd string’ jacket that is from Brooks and is comfortable and light weight but the cuffs of the sleeves are too bulky to accommodate my Garmin watch.

On milder days I may choose a half zip like this one from Nike – the problem with that choice is that there are no pockets so I do not have option to take of f my gloves or hat if I need to. Another great option for a mild day is a vest over a heavier base layer if you don’t need full coverage over your arms – I sometimes take this option for racing a longer distance since I know I will get warm quickly but want the pockets for nutrition. Every time I wear a vest I think of Nelson Muntz saying “because my chest is cold and my arms aren’t” and it makes me giggle.

Nelson, rockin the vest.
Nelson, rockin the vest.

I have tried several running tights over the years and sometimes they can be difficult to fit right since I’m thin but have long legs. Quality running tights can be expensive so you want to get it right the first time rather than investing in a pair and then running in them a couple of times only to discover they are a bad fit. I don’t know of too many places that will accept returns after they have been worn (especially sweaty worn) with the exception of Athleta who has a very flexible return policy.  I usually buy tights once a year so at this point I have a lot of options for each run but if you are a beginner or only have one or two pairs – you’re doing a lot of laundry. Currently I have several pairs in my rotation – the lululemon Clear As Mud Pant which has a soft tight leg and then (this is freakin’ brilliant) water resistant gaters from the calf down – perfect for slushy or muddy runs. I’m really happy with this pant.  Last year I bought the Run Free Pant also from lululemon and I usually alternate the two. What I love about the Run Free is that the front has a soft shell fabric that is awesome on windy days. Both of my lulu pants have a zip pocket in the back and one or two smaller pockets in front. I also have a collection of basic run tights that aren’t fancy but get the job done. I even have the very first pair of running tights I bought back in 2002 when I was starting to train for my first Boston. They are pilly and only have one pocket that is held together by a safety pin, but still totally functional.

lululemon run swiftly, Brooks vest and Run Free Pant - Hyannis Half 2012
lululemon run swiftly, Brooks vest and Run Free Pant – Hyannis Half 2012

To round out the ensemble are some basic accessories. For socks I am loyal to Balega (these ‘hidden cool‘ low cuts are my favs right now) but anything that is not cotton is appropriate. I need my gloves to fit my skinny long fingers right and for a really cold day I might have to start out doubling up or the chill causes some pain. I often start out with gloves and then shed them a couple of miles in once I warm up.

We recently learned that it’s not true that 70% of a person’s body heat escapes through the head (see video below) but a hat is still important to stay warm and comfortable.  My favorite is the Trailheads Goodbye Girl Ponytail Hat. Like pretty much all hats, it’s a little too big for my tiny head so I have to fold it up but the strategically placed opening for my ponytail is genius. I got mine at Marathon Sports and probably should invest in a second. I also have one from lululemon that I bought last year but it’s a little tight to my small head so its not flattering and I don’t wear it as often.

Lets Go Shopping!

For everyone in the Boston area, I highly recommend Marathon Sports for your gear and especially your shoes.  They have a great staff that all are well informed and can help you find the pieces that are right for you and your training.  They are the best for finding the right shoe fit but that’s a totally different post.  Be sure to sign up for their e-newsletter prior to shopping because every newsletter includes a coupon for 15% off of non-sale merchandise.  You can even stay green by showing it on your phone rather than printing it out.

As you’ve probably figured out, I love lululemon.   It can be more on pricey side of the spectrum but they have quality, beautiful clothing for running, yoga and training.  The turnover for their merchandise is quick so I’ve posted links to the Lululemon Addict blog so you can see the pieces I’m talking about and possibly find something similar that they currently have or start searching ebay.

Another option I am a fan of is  Their size selection isn’t always ideal but if you know what you are looking for and you’re lucky, you can score good deals.  They have free 2 day shipping so if you place your order by Wednesday morning, you’ll have it for your Saturday long run!

A good way to find winter gear if you are on a budget is to browse the racks at Marshalls and T.J. Maxx. They often have quality gear from North Face, Nike, Asics and some other brands that are discounted because they are from previous years. It takes some patience to keep looking but if you get a few pieces you’ll save quite a bit.  If you’re city is lucky enough to have a City Sports, they are also a great place to find all the major brands and they always have a packed clearance rack.

It seems like a lot of work and effort but I truly believe it’s worth it. Nothing makes the winter go by faster than a spring race goal and spending that time outside feels great even when it’s chilly. Before I know it, the snow will be melted, the flowers will bloom, the temperature will rise and I’ll be counting down to VCM – my 13th marathon. I’m looking forward to sharing when happens on the way.

Share with me your favorite winter gear and strategies to get through the colder running weather.

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