What to wear for sub-zero running in Chicago

The running group that’s forming in my neighborhood was supposed to do its first run last Tuesday night and I’d been looking forward to meeting everyone (and getting in some outside time) for a while now. Sadly, our inaugural run coincided with the coldest weather Chicago’s had in almost 2 years.

I checked out the group’s online board to see what people were thinking about meeting up, and I couldn’t believe it.

They still wanted to meet.

They didn’t just want to meet — they were super amped about it (spoiler alert: everyone changed their tune later that afternoon).

A part of me wanted to sit it out — especially because I have only one pair of running tights that haven’t been tested in <15 F temps. But I couldn’t think of any better way to hook up with hardcore, no-drama runners than an easy 5 in sub-zero darkness.

I fretted for a while at work about what I could wear that would keep me from freezing to death out there and searched for that Runner’s World “What To Wear” tool, which was apparently taken down a few months ago. In its absence, Mark Remy is now personally advising any runner who writes to him what to wear.

I emailed him my question and he wrote back:

Wow, that’s cold. I hope this isn’t too late—if it is, sorry—but basically I’d recommend wearing as much as possible, within reason.

At a minimum, that means…

* Tights or pants with briefs underneath
* Long sleeved tech or wool shirt (two, if they’re very thin)
* Windblocking vest
* A decent jacket over the vest
* Warm hat that you can pull down over your ears
* Warm mittens or gloves, possibly with thin “liner” gloves underneath

Also, try a thin layer of Vaseline on your face. That can really help, especially when it’s windy.

BTW, I’m sure you’ll master getting dressed for very-cold-weather running very quickly. Your new friends will be a great source of help, I’m sure. In fact, I’d recommend you break the ice (ha!) with them tonight or whenever, by telling them point-blank exactly what you told me: “I am completely baffled by how nonchalant you people are being about the temps. What should I wear?”

Good luck,

I wrote back with my very grateful thanks, and he replied and added: 

[…] BTW, you’re supposed to be cold when you first start your run; if you’re warm before you even begin running, you’re definitely overdressed and you’ll regret it very quickly.

If your clothes are soaked halfway through, though, that could mean that your base layer isn’t doing a very good job of wicking moisture away from your skin, or your jacket isn’t breathing as well as it should. Or both. Also: There are things you can do to nip that “soaking” in the bud. E.g., At the first sign of overheating, try removing your hat. Or unzipping your jacket a bit.

The other danger, which I didn’t mention earlier but should have, is starting your run with the wind at your back. If you do that, you’ll likely work up a real sweat and then turn around to run back home directly into a freezing wind. Which is like torture. So, whenever possible, start runs by heading INTO the wind.  

Good luck!


In the end, a sensible person decided to reschedule the sub-zero meetup to today, but now it’s 30 minutes before meetup time and it’s pouring. I’m not sure what I’m going to do about the rain tonight. This bizarre winter weather we’ve had lately is presenting a lot of running-related challenges for a n00b like me.