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Running in the Rain, Wind, and Cold

On a transcontinental run, even if you average 30-40 miles a day, you’re looking at starting in one season, running through the next, and finishing in yet another season.

If you’re lucky, that’s Spring-Summer-Fall; but given injuries, speaking engagements, rest days, or unforeseen delays (such as the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic), chances are you’re looking at doing some running in early Spring or late Fall, seasons that look and feel at times a lot like winter.

It won’t be a one-off thing; it’s the season you’re heading into our out of. You’ll almost certainly encounter rain and wind, and a lot of that is going to be cold rain and harsh wind.

Gear Considerations

If you want to know more about my gear choices, check out my post on gear.

What kind of gloves are best?

Ideally you want gloves or mittens that keep the wind out, consolidate body warmth, and preserve dexterity.

There are tradeoffs:

  • Mountaineering mitts are generally weatherproof and will keep your hands VERY warm. They’re often lined in a downy fabric that absorbs moisture and keeps your hands warm and dry. However, this is at the expense of dexterity. You won’t be able to handle a cell phone without taking off the mitts and exposing your bare hands, which can be very painful in truly cold temps.
  • Certain cycling gloves called “lobster mitts”, provide the hand-warming benefit of mittens and allow just enough dexterity to shift gears. It won’t be enough to use a cell phone, but if you need to grab a water bottle you may find it helpful.
  • Wind mittens will keep the wind out and can be worn over full-fingered gloves. The windproof barrier will capture heat escaping from your fingers and keep them from chilling as quickly as no wind mittens at all. If the glove layer under your wind mitts are the “e-touch” variety of gloves designed to allow use of a smartphone, you’ll be able to text or call your crew without freezing your hands. But they’re only windproof, not weatherproof, and if you’re running in freezing fog, all bets are off. Your hands will probably still get soaked.
  • You can also wear just a single layer of gloves, which maximizes dexterity but is the coldest of the options.

Legs: tights, leggings, or weatherproof pants?

There’s a special challenge with legs: while they represent a large body area for heat loss, they’re also less sensitive to cold temperatures than your torso, face, or hands. Your feet will get cold, but it will take quite a bit of cold before your thighs hurt.

  • Tights will probably keep you warmest without prodigious sweating.
  • Weatherproof pants or rain pants will keep out pretty much all weather but will feel like a steam sauna.
  • Leggings will keep your thighs warm, and if you’re a guy, you’ll find roadside “quick” restroom stops much more manageable.

Personally, I’ve found it easier even at near-freezing temperatures to just wear warm shorts. I’ve found that when the rest of your body is overheated, it’s often quite pleasant to let another body area bleed off the excess heat.

Below freezing, it’s best to wear something over bare skin because frostbite can turn into an issue even before you notice.

Socks and shoes

Get a clear picture in your mind whether you are trying to keep your feet warm or dry. Some socks do one but not the other. Some do both. In the long run (literally), dry feet are warmer feet, so if you don’t know, pick socks that keep your feet dry. Wet feet tend to not only get cold but create more friction in an environment that’s conducive to infections once skin breaks. That’s the last thing you want.

Keeping your shoes dry can usually be done with a pair of “dew gaiters.” They’re not rainproof, and they won’t protect you from soaked feet from running through puddles, but if you’re running along the side of the highway in an area with no shoulder and tall, wet grass, they’ll help. I haven’t found a brand that I’m loyal to yet, but REI sells a wide variety of trail gaiters. Look for the ones marked water-resistant. They’ll usually feel a bit more thick and “rubbery” than the others.

When all else fails, change into dry socks and shoes even if it means soaking every pair you have. Stuff your wet socks in a bag and dry them at the hotel. You can put your wet shoes against the blower vent on your crew van’s floor heater while you’re at it, or rest them on the heater in the hotel. But running in wet socks is just going to macerate your feet, create friction sores, and cut your run short, so don’t do it.

Jackets: weatherproof, wicking, or layered?

It goes without saying that you’ll need some kind of jacket and gloves if you want to stay warm. But there’s an art to it.

  • A weatherproof jacket will keep out rain and fog, but it’s also going to cause you to sweat, and whenever the temperature drops, you’re going to feel it.
  • Wicking fabrics will draw the sweat away from you, but the problem is still the fact that you’re sweating. When you sweat, you’re losing heat from your body that you may not want to lose, and nothing is more miserable than feeling soaking wet when the weather is a miserable 40-degree drizzle. It’s better if you lose only the heat that’s in excess of what you need to keep warm.
  • Wearing layers and taking off just what you need to avoid sweating without getting too cold is a good strategy. Try to think ahead about layers you can store in your waistpack, tuck in your pockets, or in your ultra vest when you don’t need them. You can combine long-sleeve shirts, vests, cycling gilets, and other layers to achieve a level of warmth satisfactory for running.

Wear a layer or two less than you’d want to wear if just standing around, so it means you’ll start to get cold if you stop running. I like to follow the rule of “dress like it’s 20 degrees warmer.” You can always slip on a windbreaker for your aid stops.

Other Gear Considerations

Face and lip protection

During cold weather–especially windy, dry cold weather–lips can chap and faces can get frostbitten quickly. I’ve tried store-bought Chapstick and it’s good up to a point. What I’ve found works best in the desert, however, is actually diaper rash ointment. It’s thick, won’t come off in moisture (that’s why channel swimmers use it), and since it’s zinc-impregnated, it doubles as a sunscreen on those cloudless days when it’s so cold you don’t think the sun will actually affect you until it does.

Neck protection

I learned quite by accident that wearing a neck gaiter / buff works not only to keep your neck warm and free of wind and sand, but it also keeps the sun off your neck when it’s not high enough in the sky to be diverted by the brim of your boonie hat.

But in cold weather, sometimes a neck buff can keep your face and neck too insulated. Water vapor from breath that would normally escape into the air condenses on the inside of the buff. After it cools, it can feel cold and wet on your face. I’ve found that it helps to pull it up to just past your chin and let your mouth and nose breathe into the loose pocket made by the opening. It will hold some of the warmth of your breath (not all) and it’ll be less likely to hold moisture or fog your glasses.

Eye protection

I’m nearsighted, so I have to wear glasses anyway. I’ve never been a fan of fashion brands, but I’ve found to my own amazement that a pair of Oakley Splitjackets does a fantastic job of protecting my eyes from cold, dry wind.

Regardless, consider a pair of wraparound sunglasses that might help protect your eyes and face from the wind. Combined with a neck buff pulled up to your nose, it’s reasonably effective.

The only exception to using them that I’ve found is when the humidity is so high as to cause fogging. This can come from the weather or simply your own breath. The Oakleys have holes drilled into them to prevent fogging, but it requires a breeze, and some days (like March 23, 2020 in Andrews, TX) are nothing but dense, freezing fog and no breeze whatsoever. (Not that I’m complaining about the lack of breeze, since it was in the low 40s (deg F) that day.) If you run into that issue, you trick you might try is to loosen the fastening strap on your glasses so that they’re farther from your face.

Temps During Breaks and Rest Stops

Sooner or later you’ll have to stop running.

You may need to eat, treat a minor injury, or massage a cramping muscle. You may just need time off your feet.

When you stop running, you’re going to cool down. If it’s for less than 10 minutes or so, I’d recommend just leaving your jacket zipped up. Get your break over with as quickly as you can and keep moving.

If it’s for 20-30 minutes–for instance, a lunch stop–try to get as far away from the wind and rain as possible. Take your break in the passenger compartment of your crew vehicle, or take it in a sheltered location with some kind of windbreak. A gas station, fast food restaurant, rest area, or even a sheltered picnic area offer some protection from the wind and rain.

At the end of the day, as you’re cooling down, make sure you put on an extra layer of clothing in addition to whatever you’ve been running in. Your body will be cooling down and it’s quite possible that the stress from running all day will have produced some inflammation and associated cytokines, which tend to raise body temperature and produce a feeling of chills (or an upset stomach), sometimes called “runner’s flu.”

Outdoor Lodging and Temperature

If you’re staying at a hotel or B&B, good for you. It’s expensive, but you’ll probably wake up toasty warm.

If you’re running cross-country and plan on sleeping outside, keep in mind that especially at elevation, nights can get cold. Temperature drops around 3.3 degrees F for every 1000 feet of elevation, and in the desert southwest of the US, desert air doesn’t hold the day’s heat for as long even at sea level.

You can run into some balmy 60-degree days with 34 degree nights.

If you’re in a fully-enclosed weatherproof tent with a sleeping bag, your body heat will probably be sufficient to get you through the night on an early Spring or late Fall run, provided you tuck in right after a nice warm meal around sundown.

If you’re backpacking it, pushing a baby stroller, or otherwise sleeping in the open, you’ll need to make sure you have some way of protecting yourself from the elements. Military surplus stores and some companies that make expeditioning gear may have “poncho tents” that are lightweight enough to pack with the rest of your gear and may double for a good weatherproof jacket during the worst days.

Don’t count on your gear as adequate lodging in extreme weather unless you’ve practiced it and are satisfied with the results.

Final Comments

When it comes to running in cold weather, the only right choices are the ones that protect you from the elements without getting in the way of your effort.

Safe running out there, and stay warm!