Perfect Layering for Winter Workouts


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
12/17/2012 12:00 PM   :  22 comments   :  62,428 Views

Believe it or not, outdoor exercise can be enjoyable year round—yes, even in the winter months! 
When there is a chill in the air, it's easy to assume you'd be better off to pop in a workout DVD or take your daily walk indoors at the local mall.  But as long as you dress properly, there's no reason you can't venture outside for a workout that is both comfortable and enjoyable. 
The tricky part is wearing enough that you're not shivering from the cold, but not so much that you're sweating because of all of the heavy layers.  Here's a guide to knowing what—and how much— to wear so that you can be prepared all season long.
Layering for winter workouts typically consists of three basic layers:
  1. The Base Layer
    Start with your base layer, which includes undergarments, socks, and the first layer of clothes (tops and bottoms) closest to the skin.  This layer should be made of "wicking" material, meaning it pulls moisture away from the skin.  Remember: Just because it's cold outside doesn't mean you won't sweat, and when you do, wet skin is going to lose heat significantly faster than dry skin.  Look for words like breathable, Dry Fit, wicking, or Cool Max on the label.  These technical fabrics might cost more than cotton, but are worth the extra expense for the comfort they provide.   
  2. The Insulating Layer
    This middle layer helps trap warm air, which is especially important on those really cold days.  Popular insulation materials include fleece, a synthetic fabric that dries quickly and maintains its insulating ability even when damp, and wool, which naturally wicks moisture away. This insulating layer should be loose enough to trap air between layers, but not so heavy that it restricts movement; your insulating layer should fit comfortably, offering you maximum range of motion for your workout.
  3. The Protective Layer
    The outer (protective) layer acts like a shell to keep out wind, rain and snow.  This layer will depend on the weather and your comfort level.  For example, some people don't like to get rained on at all and therefore want to wear a full-force waterproof layer.  Others (myself included) don't mind getting a little wet if the rain or snow is light, so they only use a protective layer when these elements are really heavy. Whatever your preference, this layer should be protective (waterproof or water resistant), but also breathable enough that sweat can still evaporate so that your body doesn't overheat.    Water-resistant clothing (nylon is a good option) can be a better choice than waterproof.  Although waterproof will keep you totally dry, it's not very breathable and can make moisture under your clothes more of an issue.  However, when you are mixing very cold temperatures with rain or snow, waterproof is your safest option.
Additional Weatherizing Accessories
We lose the majority of body heat through our heads, so a hat is a good idea when exercising on a cold winter day.  In fact, you might find that you don't need as many layers of clothing because of the warmth a good hat can provide. 
Like clothing, you want gloves and mittens made of sweat-wicking, waterproof and breathable fabrics. Mittens are generally warmer than gloves, but offer less dexterity, so consider the type of activity you'll be doing.  Be careful not to buy gloves or mittens that are too tight. You want a bit of air space at the tips of your fingers to act as additional insulation. For me, the worst part about being outside is cold fingers.  I use lightweight stretchy gloves for cool days, and thicker gloves for when the temperature dips much lower.    Consider investing in a quality pair of gloves or mittens, or even a couple different pairs for different weather conditions.   
Wondering what other cold weather accessories might be important?  Coach Nicole has one winter workout accessory she can't live without completely revolutionized her winter runs!
After reading about the various layers and clothing possibilities, you could be wondering how you'd ever afford to buy it all.  You can spend tons of money on winter workout clothes, but the good news is that you don't have to!  Here are some great tips for saving money on high-quality workout clothes
What to Wear in Any Winter Temperature
Now that you have all of these clothes, how do you know how much to wear and when?  My suggestion would be to experiment with what works best for you.  Temperature is relative, so if you come from a cold-weather climate, a 50 degree run might sound hot to you.  If you're from Texas, 50 degrees might be a cold day.
Everyone is different.  My dad runs in shorts if it's 40 degrees Fahrenheit, while I would be in pants at that point.  As a general guide for winter layering, follow this chart.
Be sure to "Pin" this graphic for future reference.

Temperature Base Layer Insulating Layer Protective Layer Accessories
> 50⁰ F/
> 10⁰ C
Shorts + Shirt (long- or short-sleeved) n/a n/a n/a
40 to 50⁰ F/
4 to 10⁰ C
Pants (cropped or full-length) + Long-sleeved shirt Light sweatshirt (optional) n/a n/a
30 to 40⁰ F/
-1 to 4⁰ C
Pants or tights + Long-sleeved shirt Sweatshirt or Fleece n/a Light gloves + Ear warmers
20-30⁰ F/
-6 to -1⁰ C
Tights (optional) + Long-sleeved shirt Pants + Fleece Lightweight jacket Heavier gloves + Hat
< 20⁰ F/
< -6⁰ C
Tights + Long-sleeved shirt Pants + Fleece Lightweight jacket Hat + 2 pair gloves + Neck/face gaiter

I've always followed the rule that if I step outside for a run and I'm comfortable, I'm overdressed.  You should feel slightly chilly for the first few minutes of your workout since your body will start to heat up as you get moving.  Being comfortably dressed during your outdoor workout will keep you motivated to stay active all winter long!
What's the best tip you've ever heard for winter layering?  Are there any types of clothing that you'd recommend?

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  • 22
    I saved this graphic on my iphone - it's SO helpful! Also, I had no idea what on earth a neck gaiter is....but I always listen to Coach if she says it's an essential....I think I better get one! - 11/9/2014   1:42:08 PM
  • 21
    Very helpful. - 2/16/2014   9:25:35 AM
    Great article. I feel the cold before anyone and wear wicking under garments even to work (inside job). I am going to try to walk even when it is cold but it is difficult for me. - 2/15/2014   9:17:18 PM
  • 19
    So happy I live in Hawaii. I my biggest choice is sleeves or no sleeves, since I prefer capri length leggings, no matter what activity I am up to. - 2/15/2014   9:09:22 PM
  • 18
    I read this article in the early winter and clicked on the link to find out what piece of apparel Coach Nicole couldn't live without. Based on that article I bought myself 2 neck gaiters for this winter and I agree, a neck gaiter is a must. On those truly brutal days they really saved me and kept me warm for my long daily walks. - 2/15/2014   3:45:39 PM
  • 17
    Great article, I wish I read it when I started to run outside!
    For me the clothing suggested under 40 oF seems perfect for walking but a bit too warm for running. Usually I wear 1-2 layers less or thinner layers for running.
    And thank you for providing the temperatures in oC too! - 2/15/2014   12:06:04 PM
  • 16
    I find the humidity and wind factor of the day plays a big role in what I need to wear also. I enjoyed and appreciated this article. The graphic was excellent in my opinion. - 2/15/2014   11:19:29 AM
  • 15
    Great post - I found the graphic really helpful and loved that I could "pin" the graphic for later reference! - 1/23/2014   4:04:31 PM
  • 14
    I have such a hard time figuring out what to wear when it is cold. I tend to be chilly most of time anyway. I want to be warm enough but sweating is bad too. I need breathable clothing that is moisture wicking. - 1/23/2014   8:26:11 AM
  • 13
    Head bands too can be really useful when a wool or fleece cap is too much. They come in different weights and keep your forehead and ears warmer ... at least warmer :-)
    I play between using both a wool hat and a light headband underneath today for instance. Depending how hot I was and how cold where I was running through I used one or the other and in the beginning both! - 2/10/2013   3:30:04 PM
    I also wear a hat much earlier than the chart shows. And as a walker, I don't get a warm as a runner/jogger might, so I usually have a scarf too if it's in the 40s or lower. - 12/18/2012   2:45:00 PM
  • 11
    Some of the best undergarments are really hard to find, if you can find them at all. I've used fishnet under ware as the first layer for 30 years. And when you add wicking layers on top of this its just awesome. This stuff even works in the summer also because it give a good air flow. - 12/18/2012   8:15:09 AM
  • 10
    Great article - it would have been nice to have temperatures in Celsius, too! - 12/18/2012   7:33:44 AM
  • 9
    On occasion in the winter I have worn sweats under my jeans and believe it or not it works for me. Oh and BTW I HATE long johns !!! I avoid wearing them at all costs (even if my 80 year old mother chides me). - 12/17/2012   8:34:34 PM
  • 8
    Thank You For This Very Informative Article. I Needed It This Past Weekend! lol - 12/17/2012   7:22:48 PM
  • 7
    LOL w/dragons4me!!! As a fellow Cali gal (L.A.), I too do not do the whole layering thing - way to warm here in SoCA. While some mornings may be a little nippy when I first walk outside, a half-mile into my run and I'm sweating with just my tshirt and jogging capris. Occassionally, my ears will get cold if the temps drop below 40, which is not often. - 12/17/2012   5:04:37 PM
  • 6
    one thing i have learned living in finland and outside exercise. layers! we do not skimp on technical longies here as our first layer.
    today it was 16f i still came home sweaty :) - 12/17/2012   2:27:13 PM
  • 5
    This article is very helpful.

    I think I will have to go down two "temperature brackets" on the chart for a walking workout, as I wouldn't wear shorts when it is 51+ or no jacket when it is 30-40. - 12/17/2012   2:03:47 PM
  • 4
    see i live in sacramento where it just doesnt get that cold. if i go out with this many layers on ill pass out from heat exhaustion. the coldest it gets when im up and about ready to workout is 48 degrees. i put on sweat pants a t shirt and a zip up hoodie and im good to go. once in a while i have to wear gloves because my body cant regulate its own heat because of medical issues and my fingers will get so cold theyll hurt. but once im moving they slowly thaw then the gloves come off. - 12/17/2012   1:42:54 PM
  • KDC011
    I use the 20 degree rule. It follows the idea that your body heats up during exercise to the point where it feels like it is 20 degrees warmer out than it really is. Whatever the temperature is outside you add 20 degrees and dress how you would for that temperature if you were not working out. - 12/17/2012   12:54:25 PM
  • 2
    Amazing how much more comfortable you are with a hat. Never forget this accessory! - 12/17/2012   12:44:40 PM
    I agree with this article - I have in the past stepped outside and have been comfortable and was way to warm during speed walking . Thanks - 12/17/2012   12:20:58 PM

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