February 21·6 min read

How to comfortably dress for cold weather workouts

With the right apparel, you’ll be ready to walk, run, or bike in any winter wonderland.

There’s a reason so many people flee from winter weather in search of warmer climates. Unfortunately for those living in more temperate zones, putting up with cold and occasionally snowy conditions is an unpleasant fact of life — or a convenient excuse — for those who do their exercising outdoors. But if you’ve got a big race coming up in the spring or you’ve just gotten into a good groove with your cardio and don’t want to give up, it can seem like there’s no choice but to suffer through winter’s chill.

In Scandinavia, there’s a saying: “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” Given that Norway led all countries with 16 gold medals at the 2022 Winter Olympics, there’s probably some merit to that mantra. For your purposes, that means that staying active outside all through the winter can be a lot more bearable if you know how to dress for success. So whether you’ve got cabin fever and need to get moving, or you just want to stay disciplined in your routine without sacrificing comfort, here are some fitness fashion tips that can keep you warm as you feel the burn. 

First, some words about wicking. 

Sweat can happen at any temperature. And in cold weather, it’s your worst enemy, because damp skin loses heat significantly faster than dry skin. So when the temperature drops, ditch the cotton you may be used to in favor of moisture-wicking fabrics, which both move sweat away from the surface of your skin and dry that moisture more quickly. Synthetics and polyester blends are a good choice, but wool can also add some wicking and a whole lot of warmth. These performance layers may not feel warmer when you first slip them on, but it only takes one run to realize what a difference they can make.

Temperature is relative.

No matter what the thermometer says, different places — and different people — can often perceive the same temperature much differently. A 50º day in Los Angeles constitutes a cold front, whereas it would register as downright balmy on a March day in Minneapolis. You might also remember that one classmate who’d walk to school in shorts and a t-shirt in the dead of winter, or know a friend who always needs one more layer than everyone else in the same room. Time of year is also a factor, as the first 50ºF day of spring sure inspires more warmth and optimism than the first 50ºF day of fall. So with that said, apply the following recommendations with your existing tolerance for cold temperatures in mind. Still, they should be a good rule of thumb for most. 

50ºF and up: It’s t-shirt time. 

Regardless of our temperature perception, most of us can probably get by in a t-shirt (or at least a long-sleeved shirt) and shorts when the thermometer tips above 50ºF. The key thing to remember in this weather is that you shouldn’t dress for how cold you feel when you’re at rest, because your body heats up as you get moving. Overdressing could be counterproductive,  as it will likely leave you feeling sweaty. Err on the side of dressing less warmly than you would if you were just sitting around outside. It may not feel ideal in those first few moments, but that’ll only inspire you to start moving. And once you do, you’ll be glad you aren’t feeling a little hot under the collar. 

50ºF-40ºF: Feel that chill in the air? 

We’re still above freezing here, but it’s getting a bit nippy. To feel comfortable on days like this, lengthen the sleeves a bit. This is also the territory where a pair of moisture-wicking leggings starts to sound like a good idea, and you shouldn’t have to worry much about feeling overheated as long as yours aren’t fleece-lined. A light second layer up top may also suit you, especially if you’ll be engaged in less taxing movement like walking, or higher-speed exercise like biking. A zippered layer (or one with zippered vents) can add an extra bit of climate control for these in-between days without forcing you to finish a run with a sweatshirt tied around your waist. 

40ºF-30ºF: Winter is coming. 

You’d have to spend a very long time outside to get frostbite at the bottom end of this range, but you’ll definitely start seeing your breath. That’s why it can be worthwhile to add some accessories that cover your extremities in addition to the light jacket and leggings (or pants) you put on when the temps were in the 40’s. 

If you expect to exercise in this weather (or colder) regularly, invest in a good pair of running gloves made from a blend of synthetic fibers. Keeping your hands and fingers covered can help with circulation and minimize discomfort. Up top, ear warmers can also add a useful bit of warmth in this range, since this cartilage-heavy extremity can often turn cold rather quickly. An insulated headband also works, with the added bonus of helping to keep any sweat out of your eyes and off your face. 

30ºF - 20ºF: Look out for ice and snow. 

Once temperatures decidedly drop below freezing, it’s time to bundle up a bit further. Though it’s a myth that we lose the majority of heat from our heads, there’s definite value in upgrading from ear warmers or a headband to a beanie that properly covers your head in addition to your ears. Gloves become a must-have at these temperatures as well. If you find you’re particularly sensitive to colder temps, or you’ll be engaged in less strenuous outdoor exercise for a longer period of time (think walks or hikes), it might be worth layering some long underwear on the bottom as well. Just make sure bundling up that much doesn’t overly restrict your movement or blood flow. 

For runners, sub-freezing temperatures also bring ice and snow, which significantly increases the odds of the kind of spills that lead to injury. If black ice or poorly-shoveled sidewalks are a concern, attachable cleats can be a great way to regain some traction. Most options you’ll find can easily slip over your existing pair of running shoes, helping you get a grip on slicker-than-normal surfaces. Even still, it’s worth being a bit more mindful about where you’re stepping and shortening your stride to mitigate the risk of slipping. Even if you have to dial back your pace a bit, slower and steadier is definitely preferable to falling on your face. 

Under 20ºF: You better bundle up 🥶.

When temps drop into the teens, single digits, or below zero, it’s time to pull out all the stops to minimize skin exposure to the open air and keep yourself insulated. In addition to all of the layers and accessories already mentioned, consider adding a neck gaiter or a balaclava to keep covered.

At these temperatures, it’s also not just about coverage and layering, but about the insulation that those layers provide. Thicker ski socks can come in handy, especially given that most running shoes are designed to keep your feet cool rather than warm. The same goes for adding in fleece. While it lacks the moisture-wicking you’d want from a base layer, adding it on top provides the mix of warmth and breathability you’ll need to get out there and get after it on the coldest days. 

How to prep for frigid temps.

When the weather outside is frightful, it’s important to do a little extra time planning and preparing, so you can maximize your own comfort — and safety. Set aside some more time to warm up inside. That can not only counteract the muscle stiffness that cold weather inspires, but it raises your core body temperature a bit before your workout starts. 

You’re still losing water even on the coldest days, so remember to pay attention to your hydration. That’ll also help your skin keep from drying and cracking in the cold, but you may also want to consider applying moisturizer or vaseline to any areas that you can’t keep covered. If you’re worried about windchill, start your journey by moving into the wind rather than saving it for the end. Not only are you getting the most unpleasant part out of the way first, you won’t have to worry about what that stiff breeze will do to your core body temperature once you’ve worked up a sweat.

So how cold is too cold to exercise outside?

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that outdoor exercise be avoided whenever temperatures dip below -8ºF (-27ºC). At such extreme temperatures, tissue injuries — including but not limited to frostbite — can occur after less than 30 minutes of exposure and exertion. No matter how badly you may want that endorphin rush or how much you feel like you “need” to exercise outside, -8ºF is officially the cutoff point at which you should find a way to get moving indoors. 

Fitness doesn’t have to be lonely or cold. 

The good news is that training with a Future coach can keep you moving towards your goal all year long. Whether you need the motivation that fires you up on a frigid day, or advice on how to modify your cardio plans for an unexpected blizzard, your coach will create a customized plan that’s flexible enough for any forecast. From warmup tips all the way through post-exercise nutrition, their on-demand expertise can keep you making strides toward your goal no matter where you are, when you work out, or what’s in the forecast. 

What’s cooler than being cold? Saving $130 on your first month of truly personal training with Future when you sign up now for just $19. It only takes a few minutes to find a coach who makes you feel warm inside, and cancel any time if you aren’t completely satisfied. 

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