Runners Education: Clothing Considerations and Marathon Training
This is another installation in a series of runners education articles written by UW Health Sports Medicine staff.
Clothing plays a vitally important role with ensuring running safety during cold weather. With proper planning and adequate layers of clothes, runners can train outdoors throughout the winter with minimal interruption.
Maintaining appropriate temperature levels within runners' Personal Running Environment (PRE), the area immediately surrounding the runners body, is essential to cold weather running. As the temperature drops, runners must protect the areas most affected by cold injuries: the ears, nose, cheeks, fingers and toes.
For the Head and Neck
- Hats: The head loses more heat per square inch than any other portion of the body. Runners need to cover their heads during cold weather so their body retains enough heat. Fleece hats and wool hats provide an excellent measure of protection while also being easy to stow in a pocket, tucked inside the waistband or simply carried in hand. Hats help the body maintain heat and help protect the ears1-5.
- Head band: Head bands provide less head coverage than hats but do provide full ear protection. A head band allows for some heat release while maintaining a low level of heat retention and providing excellent ear protection5.
- Balaclava: Used for particularly cold days, balaclavas cover the entire head and face. These can be worn as a hat and often are designed to be worn like a neck ring. The versatility of balaclavas makes them particularly useful as face shields in very cold conditions.
- Neck ring/scarf: Neck rings and scarves provide protection for the runner's neck and acts as a sealer at the top of the jacket/shirt by preventing cold air from seeping down the neck line. This clothing also can be pulled up to cover the runner's face, providing protection and acting as a filter prior to cold air passing through to the mouth.
- Hood: While a hood is not ideal protection for the face and head when running directly into a wind, it provides an excellent microclimate for the head in most other situations. Hoods retain the heat from the head and protect the ears. When extended two inches beyond the face4, hoods also provide protection by creating their own supportive microclimate and protecting the head and face from side and tail winds.
For the Torso
Temperature and moisture levels at the torso can be controlled with multiple layers of clothing and layer-specific materials. Moisture should be moved away from the body while clothing protects the body from significant air and wind exposure. A layering system allows for the use of a variety of materials with specific functions. Further, the layering system creates increased insulation by creating an air barrier between the layers, which is similar to an airlock between doors1-5.
The layer closest to the skin should be made of a wicking material (such as polyester or polypropylene) that allows moisture to be pulled away from the body. The outer layer should be wind- and water-resistant while allowing heat and moisture to escape, which maintains a balanced body temperature. The layers between the base layer and outer layer should be made of a material that will allow moisture to pass through while retaining heat within the layer, such as polyester fleece or wool3-5.
Avoid cotton materials because cotton will absorb moisture and prevents further removal of moisture from the skin. Any material that traps moisture near the body potentially acts like a refrigerator. If moisture is trapped near the body and cold air reaches the moisture, the moisture will cause rapid cooling of the body and increase the possibility of cold weather injuries. In cold, windy conditions, consider adding a later for every five miles per hour of wind speed3-5.
For the Hands
Gloves and mittens are useful for keeping the hands and fingers warm but mittens allow for a greater use of body heat. With gloves, each finger has to keep itself warm. Mittens allows the fingers to use the heat from the other fingers and the hand. Collectively, the warmth of each finger helps protect the other fingers. A mitten also has space for an air barrier for the fingers that gloves do not1-5.
For the Legs
Running in cold weather often requires only one layer of protection made of a synthetic material, but another wind-resistant layer may be needed as temperatures drop. The same layering system used with the torso should be used for the legs. Runners may benefit by not having the external layer of clothing tight to the skin, so that layer does not transmit the cold temperatures directly to the skin3-5.
- Socks: Feet are very prone to cold injuries and do not rewarm easily so runners should take steps to keep their feet warm and dry4. A wicking material should be used to move moisture away from the skin. Wet feet can lead to general discomfort and a higher probability of cold illnesses1-5. Many companies sell socks that can be layered, similar to the methods used with the torso and legs, while not making the shoe too full. Avoid cotton socks, since cotton absorbs moisture and holds it near the skin.
- Shoes: While trail running shoes can provide a measure of water resistance. Shoes with minimal mesh can prevent outside moisture from entering the shoe, so runners often can run during the winter in regular running shoes. Be sure to avoid puddles, slush, and more than superficial snow or your feel will become wet. Runners encountering wet areas or working out in excessively cold conditions should wear water-resistant running shoes.
Runners also may want to consider ice treads, shoe treads or ice grips that fit over their running shoes to provide additional traction on slippery surfaces. Usually this equipment will include some type of metal or alloy with contact points that increase stability on slippery surfaces. Keep in mind that using this equipment does not ensure a runner will not fall or slip on slippery surfaces. Instead, runners need to remember to slow down, shorten stride length and maintain a wider base of support than they do when running in dry conditions.
Hand and Foot Warmers
Hand warmers and foot warmers can offer tremendous help with keeping the hands and feet warm. Runners may need to experiment with different types of warmers based on conditions as well as length and intensity of a run. Runners should not use these warmers if their fingers and/or toes are numb, since they would not be able to feel if the body part is being burnt by the chemical pack.
For Skin Not Covered During Cold Weather Running
- Emollients: As the temperature falls, expose less skin to the environment, and the skin that is exposed should be monitored closely for cold-related issues. Some runners believe that emollients such as Vaseline can be applied to the skin to protect against the cold while running. This claim is unproven. Research indicates runners may be increasing the probability of sustaining a cold weather injury, since they may continue to participate instead of seeking a warm environment to prevent injury3, 4. While some of these products may provide the perception of warmth and protection, no evidence exists to support any protective effect.
- When choosing your attire for running, plan on using layers if the weather is cold.
- Moisture makes layering even more important.
- If you are warm when standing outside without running, you likely are overdressed for running.
- Remove wet clothes as soon as you have returned to a warm environment.
- Outdoor Safety. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed January 20, 2012
- Winter Weather FAQs. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed January 20, 2012
- Mecham, C. Frostbite. Accessed January 20, 2012
- Hassi, J. Prediction and Prevention of Frostbite. Accessed January 20,2012
- Castellani, J. Prevention of Cold Injuries During Exercise: Hypothermia. Accessed January 20, 2012