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Winter running: gear and tips for cold weather

Running in the cold might seem intimidating, but it’s totally achievable with the right gear and a few helpful tips. Whether you’re in frigid Ottawa or stormy Vancouver, get ready to trade the treadmill for fresh air with advice on these topics:

  • What shoes and socks to wear: Grip and waterproofing are definitely key.
  • What to wear running in winter: It’s all about layers and a few extras.
  • How to stay safe: Being visible and planning a good route are important.
  • How to run on icy roads: Traction devices and technique tips can keep you upright.

Winter running shoes and socks

The ideal winter running shoes are waterproof with aggressive traction. For these reasons, trail running shoes are popular. Avoid airy mesh ventilation – your feet will be cold and wet. Make sure your shoes fit well, especially since snow and slush makes running surfaces uneven. Try different brands to find the right fit, then look at the brands’ waterproof trail options.

If you’re holding off on investing in winter-specific shoes, run-specific traction devices are a good solution. They’re also helpful if you wear specialized footwear that doesn’t come in winter options.

For your socks, go with merino or merino-blend running socks. Try out a couple different pairs to see what feels good before you stock up.

Skip the no-show socks for winter running and wear socks that are tall enough to cover the gap between your tights and your shoes… nothing’s worse than freezing ankles! – MEC staffer tip

What to wear for winter running

Underdressing is the first mistake that comes to mind in cold weather, but overdressing can be just as problematic. If your layers are soaked with sweat, it’s a recipe for cold to sneak in. You want to try and keep your body dry in winter.

Layer for the warmth you need during your run, instead of layering for the warmth you need while standing around. When you start out, you may feel a bit chilly but you’ll heat up fast.

  • Base layer: Choose a snug fit close to your skin. Never use cotton – go with merino or warm synthetic materials. Pair your base layer with a outer shell for early winter conditions, then add a good mid-layer as temps drop.​

  • Mid-layer: This is your insulating layer for extra cold days. Choose synthetic fabric or synthetic insulation to wick moisture away from your skin. Skip the down, as it won’t stay warm if it gets wet.

  • Outer layer: The best winter running jacket is a light shell to block wind and shed light precipitation. It needs to be breathable material, too.

  • Winter running pants: Start the cold season with good winter running tights. When it gets colder and you start seeing red or numb thighs after runs it’s time to change it up. Deep winter conditions require a thermal base layer, with wind pants or Nordic pants on top.

Stash layers in your car for before and after your run, or do indoor exercises at home to warm up your body before you head outside. – MEC staffer tip

Keep your head and hands warm

Don’t forget about your extremities:

  • Head wear: Merino head bands keep ears warm without overheating your head. As temps drop, go for wind-blocking sport toques.

  • Neck and face: When it’s really cold, cover up. Try a merino neck gaiter with a toque, or a balaclava with air vents.

  • Running gloves or mitts: If it’s a deep freeze, mitts are warmer than gloves. Nordic mitts are designed to block wind and wick sweat without being bulky.

Tips to stay safe for winter running

The biggest thing to remember: respect the weather. If it’s dangerously cold or icy outside, swap your run for an indoor cross-training session. In general, expect your winter training sessions to be lower intensity – save your plans for a personal best for a different season. A few more safety tips:

Stay warm

Watch the temperature and windchill. Frostbite isn’t something you want to mess with, and Health Canada has helpful advice on what to look for. Depending on your route and how long you’re running, you may want to bring extra layers or handwarmers in a running pack.

Stay visible

Winter means running in darkness. Be proactive and help drivers and other people spot you. Reflective strips on running gear are good, but a headlamp is even better. Not only does a headlamp make it easier for others to see you, it also lights your own way to dodge slushy sections.

Runner at dusk wearing a headlamp with snow in the background

Stay fueled

Running in the cold burns more calories. Fuel smart in the winter and carry a few additional snacks (heads up: some snacks freeze, so be careful when you bite into one). Hydration is also important. You may not feel as thirsty in the cold, but your body still needs water. Hydration pack tubes can freeze up in low temps, so pack an insulated water bottle for longer runs.

Plan a safe route

You may need to change up your usual run routes when winter arrives. If it’s -15°C outside, any minor issue – twinge in your ankle, slower than usual pace – can become serious due to cold exposure. Make sure to let someone know where you’re going and when you should be back.

Route planning tips for winter runs:

  • Don’t rely on your phone: Cold temps drains batteries fast. Keep your phone close to your body and save it for emergencies only.

  • Plan for shelter: Is there a safe spot along the route you could warm up in if you need to? Coffee shops, community centres or stores are nice options.

  • Get creative: Instead of a long out and back, consider a cloverleaf route that loops back to your safety point or home.

How to run on icy roads

Slick roads or packed snow means there’s a higher risk of slipping. If there’s sheer ice everywhere, that’s a sign to take a rest day or train indoors. For regular winter conditions with the occasional icy area, there are a few things you can do to help stay upright:

  • Wear traction devices: Traction devices slip over your shoes and provide solid grip. Use the run-specific models instead of the ones for walking.
  • Get grippy shoes: Trail runners have aggressive tread to bite into snow.
  • Take it slow: Get a feel for the conditions and listen to your body.
  • Shorten your stride: Responsive footwork and a good centre of gravity are key.
  • Concentrate: Keep your eyes on the road or trail and pay attention to what’s coming up.