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How Many Layers Do You Really Need to Run in Winter?

And, let’s be real, how long can I keep wearing my summer gear before I get frostbite?

This weekend, as the first major temperature drop of the season hit New York, I reluctantly put on my Nike running leggings, which had been sitting in my closet since March. I stepped outside, eagerly met the crisp autumn air, basked in the presence of golden leaves and happy Brooklyn pets and… ran my slowest 5K in months. 

Was it because I took two weeks off from running? Or because I ran hungover? Maybe it was because I’d scarfed down eggs and tortilla chips 45 minutes earlier. But I blame the extra layers. I’d rather risk frostbite and return to my usual running uniform: Life Time Fitness shorts, an Under Armour nylon shirt and orange Nike sneakers (always with black mid-calf socks). 

I have a short window of reprieve. Once November hits, my hands get cold and my ears start turning red around mile two. Still, I plan to ardently jog through Prospect Park in shorts until my legs go numb and the bundled-up Park Slope families give me weird looks.

My big question, then, is this: Is there a temperature cutoff for warm-weather running gear? And maybe more importantly, when does it actually get dangerous?

The unofficial ruling is 40 degrees. Lower than that, and I’m risking my health to maintain my runner’s ego. “The 40-degree mark is pretty good for tights, and shorts for over 40,” Kyle Kranz, a running coach, marathoner and ultramarathoner from South Dakota, tells me. (Sounds like I have a few more weeks to show off my quads.)

Still, it wouldn’t hurt to start scrounging around for my winter gloves and hat. “If it’s 40 degrees and I’m in shorts, I’ll probably still have gloves, a jacket and a hat on,” Kranz says. 

Coach Kyle’s FAQs: Winter Running Surfaces from running

Legs are one of the last parts of the body to get cold when running, as their muscles are working overtime and generating heat. On the flip side, extremities like the hands, feet and head are mostly stagnant and the first to get cold. Even your ass can get chilly. After all, fat doesn’t generate heat. 

“Fat also has very few blood vessels in it, so while you’re running, circulation to your muscles increases but not to your fat. That tissue would actually cool down when exposed to the cold,” Polly de Mille, exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, tells Shape

So layer up once it drops below 40 degrees. But make sure you’re not overheating. Lawrence Riddles, area manager for Super Runners Shop in New York, recommends that you look for products that “push the moisture away” when searching for winter running gear. The standard cotton winter hat will do the opposite: absorb snow and sweat. 

Instead, Riddles recommends clothes made of merino wool. Merino wool is thinner than regular wool, making it less absorbent. Apparel company Smartwool boasts that its material is great for regulating body temperature. When cold, the fibers trap air and insulate you. When warm, they transport sweat away from the skin. 

Riddles is such a fan, he wears merino wool socks year-round. “You’re warm and you’re dry, not warm and sweaty,” he raves. Popular brands carrying merino wool include Bombas and Icebreaker long underwear. 

That’s not to say you’ll run slower if you’re in classic running gear. Kranz — who has completed an Iron Man and a 100-miler — says one of his winter staples is a Champion pullover he got for $10. “It’s the warmest thing I have,” he says. 

As winter approaches, maybe I need to embrace the weather, not work against it. I mean, ’tis better to have run at any pace than not to have run at all. “You’ve got to have empathy with your future self,” Kranz says. “It’s always worse in your head from inside than [it actually feels] outside when you get started. Don’t let the fear — the thought of how cold or crappy you think it is outside — prevent you.”