Keeping Warm vs. Not Getting Cold


Across much of the east and north there was some really significant cold this week along with a dump of snow. This morning it was a bit of a ‘warm up’ – it was 6F when I headed out for my run and 9F when I returned, but with no wind. Somewhere between the extreme cold and the snow and my various outfits I thought about the differences between Keeping Warm and Not Getting Cold and dressing for each.

Next month marks 25 years since I started running – and the image above from Real Genius is very representative of a ‘track suit’ from the 80s that would have been seen everywhere. Running in the cold back then meant layers – thermal underwear with sweats and perhaps more top layers over that … all made from cotton, and all of which STUNK after a couple of wearings.

Yesterday I ran with a thin base-layer and another ‘base layer’ on top, with running tights on the bottom. I had a hat and my new Under Armour ColdGear InfraRed gloves. And in spite of the appearance of not wearing much I was never cold, and by the end was warm enough to take off my hat for my final half-mile dash! I ran a great 12.5 miles including hills and flats and felt the cold on the exposed areas of my face by the time I was within a few miles of home – and my hands felt the chill as I started the run.

For many people one of the toughest things about winter running is stepping out the door into the nasty cold temperatures. But if you ask people who actually DO get out there, they will tell you that once they are running they warm up and enjoy the run.

So what is the difference between the two?

Keeping Warm:

If you are going to watch a football game, go ice fishing, or otherwise pretty much stand around outside in the cold for an extended time period, you want to keep warm. Typically we do this with heavy clothes, thermal socks, heavier shoes, thick insulated gloves and hat, and a jacket that uses a combination of bulk and thermal materials such as Thinsulate to trap body heat.

This is why the term ‘bundling up’ is used – you want to have systems in place to trap all warmth inside and minimize loss, for one simple reason:

You will NEVER be as warm as the moment you leave the house.

Since you will not be very active, you will not be generating much warmth, so the goal is to keep what you already have from escaping, which is tricky since some portion of your body is likely exposed, and there are likely parts of your clothing that leak heat (have you ever used a thermal imaging camera to check this? A few old work friends and I did once). As a result you end up jumping around, shaking, and so on in order to regain some warmth … or deciding that perhaps ice fishing isn’t for you after all!

Not Getting Cold:

When you are going for a run, the conventional wisdom is to dress as if the temperature was 10-20F higher than the thermometer says. I tend to go more by the wind chill because I find that has a greater impact on my comfort.

But what does it MEAN to dress for running? That is a tougher one – because everyone feels different in the cold and heats up to a different extent while running. As I said I dress for wind chill – which can be a problem if the wind dies down or is erratic.

But regardless of your ‘temperature target’, modern athletic ‘tech’ fabrics mean that you are working with thin layers that are designed to wick moisture away from the skin and keep your body warmth in. I’ve mentioned Coldgear Infrared from Under Armour, but all of my Nike stuff does the same basic thing, as do clothes from Brooks, Reebock and so on.

I mentioned going running yesterday morning, and what I was wearing in 6F temperatures was the equivalent of two t-shirts stacked on top, thin thermals on bottom, basic socks, thin hat and light gloves. And yet running nearly an hour and a half I never got too cold.

I started off a bit cool – especially in my hands – but as I ran I warmed up, and my clothes made sure to keep that heat trapped inside so I would be comfortable. The sun was a major factor, because when it went in I felt the air cool down, and when it came out I was warmer.

My hands are my worst point in terms of getting cold – and I would have been miserable with cold hands for a long run, but after a couple of miles, all of that thermal energy was reflected back.

As I was completing my run the wind was starting to come up a bit, and I could feel it – which reminded me: these clothes are there so I don’t get cold, NOT to warm me up. Sure my goal is comfort, but it is important that I don’t overheat.

Implications for Runners:

I had started and planned to write this on Sunday, but am finishing it Monday night after a very long couple of days for various reasons. This morning I headed out when it was 50F at 4AM, and I could tell it was windy. Since I knew the brutal cold was coming I over-dressed a bit – I wore shorts and a thin top, but wore light winter gloves and a light winter hat. And I am glad I did – at first I was a bit warm, but neither the hat nor the gloves are very efficient at trapping heat, they are more about basic warmth.

So I ended up with my hands feeling colder in 50F temperatures this morning than at 6F yesterday, because the gloves are more about ‘keeping warm’ than ‘not getting cold’.

When it comes to clothes for running, be sure to understand what you are buying and what the basic function is – is it going to bock wind, wick sweat and trap heat, or is it just part of ‘bundling up’?

2 thoughts on “Keeping Warm vs. Not Getting Cold

  1. This is such a great, informative post! I am still trying to get the whole dressing for winter running thing down and getting myself out the door is mostly definitely the hardest part. I’m never sad that I went out when I’m actually finished with my run! Also Real Genius is an awesome movie. 🙂

    • I loved Real Genius … of course I went to school in a similar environment (except the weather) and worked on a team building a laser system as a project!

      And you’re right – getting out the door is key!

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