How to Layer in Winter
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How to Layer in Winter

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 warm.

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 duration.

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.

Final Thoughts
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 breathable.

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 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.

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