What should you wear to run in the cold? Build an outfit with this paper doll

Practice gearing up for a cold-weather run by printing and cutting out this paper doll of NPR's Wynne Davis. It looks best when you print on card stock and in color, but regular paper is fine too. Download the file here.
Practice gearing up for a cold-weather run by printing and cutting out this paper doll of NPR's Wynne Davis. It looks best when you print on card stock and in color, but regular paper is fine too. Download the file here.
Malaka Gharib/NPR

I'm training for my first full marathon this year. But it's hard for me to stay motivated when the weather gets cold. Where I live in Washington, D.C., the temperature can have such a wicked bite that I'd rather stay in my cozy bed than go out for a run. How do other runners do it?

To get advice, I turned to Alison Mariella Désir, an athlete, activist and the author of the book Running While Black: Finding Freedom in a Sport That Wasn't Built for Us. She's the founder of the running collective Harlem Run in New York City. And she's a huge fan of running in the cold.

"I love the cool air on my face. I love the feeling of being really badass because you're one of the only people out there," she says.

The key to facing the cold, says Désir, is your outfit. You need to dress for the weather, which means wearing clothing and layers that can protect you from the wind, rain or snow.

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And remember — once you get moving, your body is going to feel about 15 to 20 degrees warmer than it actually is outside, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Désir and Dr. Kelechi Okoroha, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at the Mayo Clinic, explain what to wear in three different temperatures: when it's in the 50s, when it's in the 30s and when it's below freezing. Make sure to pair all these outfits with a solid pair of running shoes.

When it's in the 50s: Focus on sweat-proof materials

The goal in dressing for this weather is anticipating that you're going to start off feeling cold. But once you start running, it's going to feel like the 70s, says Désir, which is pretty warm.

For this reason, layers are your friend, says Okohora.

"A common mistake in dressing outdoors is dressing too warmly which can cause excessive heat generation and sweating, which ultimately makes you more cold," he says. "So dress in layers that you can remove as soon as you start to sweat — then put them back on as needed."

Start out with a short-sleeve shirt and shorts (yes, shorts — they're going to give you more of a breeze when you start to warm up), then add a long-sleeve shirt to go over the first layer, says Désir. "Very quickly that long-sleeve shirt [will] come off and [I'll] tie it around my waist."

"Make sure the layers closest to your body repel water," she adds. Moisture-wicking material pulls sweat away from your body without soaking your clothes. This helps regulate your body temperature and keep you dry. Look for sweat-proof shirts, sports bras, shorts and socks made out of synthetic fiber like polyester or nylon. A wool blend works too.

Avoid cotton as your base layer. When cotton gets wet, it stays wet and that can lead to a soggy, miserable run.

Running in the 50s checklist

  • Moisture-wicking shirt, bra, shorts and socks 

  • Long-sleeve shirt

When it's in the 30s: Add layers and accessories

As the temperature drops, add more layers to your base outfit. Start by trading your shorts for leggings. "If it's 30 degrees, I would go out wearing sweat-wicking tights and another layer [of tights or pants] on top of that. Or I would wear fleece-lined tights," says Désir.

For the top half of your body, keep the moisture-wicking layers and the long-sleeve shirt, then put on a light windbreaker jacket or an insulated vest for extra warmth.

Then consider your accessories, says Désir. Keep your ears toasty by donning a hat, a fleece headband or earmuffs. Wear breathable, moisture-wicking gloves. As for your feet, switch from regular socks to wool socks to keep those toes warm and dry. Wet socks can soften the skin — and the heat, moisture and friction from running can cause blisters to form.

Running in the 30s checklist
In addition to the items above, add:

  • Fleece-lined tights

  • Lightweight windbreaker

  • Insulated vest

  • Earmuffs, fleece headband or hat

  • Gloves

  • Wool socks

When it's below 30: Consider your face, neck and safety

When the temperature dips below freezing, I don't know that I personally want to run outside. But if you do, put on all your previous layers, says Désir. They'll continue to keep you warm in this weather. Add a balaclava, scarf or neck gaiter to protect your face and neck from the chilly air (you can pull the gaiter or arrange the scarf over your nose and mouth).

And if the streets are wet from the rain or slushy from the snow, switch to running shoes that have a good tread on the bottom and are made with a waterproof material like Gore-Tex. They can help keep your feet dry and give you a little more grip on slippery surfaces when you run.

In these conditions, you might also want to slow down your pace and shorten your stride to avoid slipping and falling, says Désir.

Keep your head up too and avoid looking at the ground. "Rain often makes us look down directly at our feet, meaning we might miss hazards ahead of us," she adds. She recommends a waterproof hat with a brim that can allow you to see more clearly and stay dry.

You should also consider how dark it's going to be when you're outside. There are fewer hours of sunlight in the winter — and rain or snow can lead to gray skies that decrease your visibility. Wear light-colored running clothes and reflective gear, like a light-up safety vest, so that drivers and pedestrians can see you on the road, says Désir.

Running below 30 degrees checklist
In addition to the items above, add:

  • Balaclava, neck gaiter or scarf

  • Waterproof running shoes with good grip

  • Safety vest

Is it ever too cold to exercise outside?

Okoroha of the Mayo Clinic says there are times when you should opt for a treadmill run or another type of indoor workout.

Before exercising in cold weather, make sure it's safe for you to do so, says Okoroha. People with medical conditions such as asthma, heart disease or Raynaud's disease, which can cause body parts to feel numb or cold, should check with their doctor first as these conditions may be exacerbated by the cold.

Once you get the green light, the first thing to do is check the temperature.

"If the wind chill or the temperature is below zero degrees, consider indoor activity because the chances of frostbite are higher," Okoroha says.

Frostbite happens when it's so cold that "your blood flow gets concentrated in your body's core and leaves other areas like your hands, your feet, your head, your ears, [which then] become vulnerable to frostbite."

You also want to check for rain, snow or other precipitation before you go out. "Getting wet makes you more vulnerable to cold and should be avoided if possible," he adds.

That's also when hypothermia, a condition that happens when your body temperature is abnormally low, can become a risk.

It's most common when temperatures are extremely frigid, though it can happen with temperatures in the 40s if you are already chilly from wet conditions, like sweat or rain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The good news is that wearing outfits made up of layers can help prevent both frostbite and hypothermia, Okoroha says — so be diligent about checking the temperature before you head out and wearing the appropriate gear.

As for me, this guidance has made it easier for me to get my winter runs in. Last week, I went out in my fleece-lined leggings and puffer vest in 30-degree weather after some rain and it was refreshing. I'm not ready to say I love the cold like Désir does, but I am learning to enjoy it more.

This episode of Life Kit was produced by Clare Marie Schneider. Our visuals editor is Beck Harlan, and our digital editor is Malaka Gharib. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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