Perfect Layering for Winter Workouts

By Jen Mueller, for SparkPeople

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.

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.

Temperature Base Layer Insulating Layer Protective Layer Accessories
> 50⁰ F Shorts + Shirt (long- or short-sleeved) n/a n/a n/a
40-50⁰ F Pants (cropped or full-length) + Long-sleeved shirt Light sweatshirt (optional) n/a n/a
30-40⁰ F Pants or tights + Long-sleeved shirt Sweatshirt or Fleece n/a Light gloves + Ear warmers
20-30⁰ F Tights (optional) + Long-sleeved shirt Pants + Fleece Lightweight jacket Heavier gloves + Hat
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?



Related links:
6 Good Reasons to Work Out in Wool
A Must-Have Accessory for Winter Workouts
How to Shop for Workout Clothes without Going Broke

SparkPeople is the country's largest health and fitness website. Learn more--and get a free fitness and diet plan.