How to Layer in Winter
by Greg McMillan, M.S.
This discipline keeps our fitness program on track, but it's important to remember that running
in cold, often wet and frequently changing weather conditions can be dangerous. You must be
dressed properly. If you're like me, you want to make an educated decision when it comes to
high-performance, winter running gear. When choosing your gear, evaluate it based on these
three critical attributes:
How water-resistant or waterproof is it?
How breathable is it?
How wind-resistant is it?
Water-resistant vs Waterproof
Simply stated, water-resistant gear resists - it doesn't prevent - penetration of water
through the material. Gear that is labeled water-resistant usually has some type of protective
coating to limit or delay the eventual absorption of moisture. This works great if you only
occasionally find yourself running in a light rain or snow shower.
Waterproof, on the other hand, means that water will not penetrate the fabric, no matter what
the weather conditions. Gear labeled waterproof can withstand heavy downpours and very snowy
conditions with no penetration of water whatsoever. Even the seams and closures are sealed to
prevent water from getting in.
If you run in areas like the Northeast where you frequently have to slog through cold rain,
sleet, snow and slush, you'll want to look for fabrics that are waterproof. You may have to pay
a little more for waterproof gear versus water-resistant gear, but it's well worth it.
What exactly is breathability?
One of the greatest advances in our running gear is its ability to "breathe." When
you run, no matter how you're dressed (although most of us overdress for our runs), you'll
sweat a little. If this moisture is left against your skin, it will build up, soak your shirt
and give you a chill. If your gear is breathable, this moisture will be transported (or wicked)
from your skin to the outside air. The end result is that your skin stays dry and you stay
One of the most important attributes to look for in running gear is its breathability. The more
breathable the fabric, the drier and warmer you'll stay. Look for materials that are breathable
or have "moisture management" properties. For those running in winter climates where
you tend to heat up during a run - those cold but sunny runs in Colorado, for example - a
breathable material is a must. Otherwise, you will finish each run soaking wet, which will
quickly make you cold.
In general, the more waterproof and windproof the gear, the less breathable it is. So, if your
winters are more cold and sunny than wet, windy and cloudy, sacrifice waterproof and windproof
for greater breathability.
Dress for your run as if it's 10 degrees warmer than the actual outside temperature. You'll be
slightly chilled for the first 10 minutes or so, but then toasty warm (and dry!) for the
Wind-Resistant vs Windproof
Wind-resistant versus windproof follows the same lines as water-resistant versus
waterproof. Wind-resistant means that the gear will provide a barrier against air penetrating
the material and chilling your skin. It will resist light to moderate wind conditions. However,
windproof means that no wind will penetrate the material. With windproof gear, there is no risk
that the warm air between your skin and your clothing will be replaced by cold air. If you're
running in places like the Windy City, make sure your gear is windproof.
The degree to which you need all three attributes depends on your "normal" winter
running conditions. If your winter running is frequently in rain and snow showers with heavy
wind, you'll need to invest in some gear that is waterproof, windproof and breathable. If your
winter running is frequently in cold temperatures with some wind but only occasional snow or
light rain, you can get away with gear that is water-resistant, wind-resistant and
When you choose the right outerwear for your running, winter won't be time to hang up your
running shoes. You can get out there and have a blast sloshing through the slush with a smile
on your face!
The Lowdown on Three Popular Materials
Gore-Tex®: Gore-Tex was the first to utilize new technologies to create a material that
delivered the protection desperately needed by those who are active in windy, wet and cold
weather. Gore-Tex is actually a membrane that is composed of two parts. One part is a film that
contains pores that are 20,000 times smaller than a raindrop. This makes the material
waterproof. These pores are also 700 times larger than a molecule of water. This makes the
material "breathable." The second part of the membrane is a material that resists
oily compounds such as body oils and make-up that could clog the pores of the film mentioned
above. The result is the best outerwear for extreme winter running conditions. It's waterproof,
breathable and windproof. This level of protection, however, comes at a cost. You'll pay more
for a Gore-Tex suit than other types of suits.
Activent®: Created by the same folks who created Gore-Tex,Activent's greatest benefit is
its breathability. It allows huge volumes of moisture vapor to move from your skin to the
outside air. This is essential to keeping you dry and warm. You'd think that being breathable
would mean that it's less wind resistant, but Activient is totally windproof. It's also
water-resistant. It will easily handle light precipitation and drizzle. Activent is a less
expensive and more breathable option than Gore-Tex for those in milder winter climates where
heating up on a run is common.
Dryroad: Finally, if you find yourself running in windy, wet conditions but you don't
want to spend a bundle on a running suit, then Dryroad is the material for you. It's waterproof
just like Gore-Tex, so you'll stay dry no matter what's falling from the sky. It's also
windproof, so when the cold wind blows, you'll be protected. While still very breathable,
Dryroad is slightly less breathable than Gore-Tex or Activent. The price, however, is much
lower. So if you find yourself slopping through rain, wind and snow for many of your runs,
Dryroad may be the suit for you.