Running in Winter: How to Keep Hands and Feet Warm When It’s Cold

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how to keep man-parts warm on runs in the winter. The response to that post was incredible (now nearing 15,000 hits!), so clearly it was a topic of interest to runners, especially considering how cold this winter has been in many parts of the world (one of the coldest I can remember).

Earlier today I got a message from a fellow New Englander asking about how I keep my hands warm on winter runs, so I thought another post on the topic of keeping warm on winter runs might be helpful. Here goes!

Keeping Hands Warm

I used to have a lot of problems with my hands freezing on cold winter runs. Then I discovered running mittens. Problem solved.

For the longest time I had only ever used gloves, and when it got really cold out they just weren’t cutting it. My fingers would get frigid to the point of hurting, and this discomfort added to the list of reasons my brain would confront me with in an attempt to keep me from running outside in sub-freezing temperatures. My brain never won though since my hatred of the treadmill is greater than my fear of cold fingers.

Saucony Run MittsI don’t recall if it was last winter or two winters ago, but I was in the Fleet Feet store in West Hartford, CT (my hometown) and I saw a pair of Saucony Run Mitts on the wall. I’d never tried running with mittens, so I figured what the heck – they weren’t terribly expensive, why not give them a try?

There’s nothing particularly fancy about the Saucony Mitts – just a layer of windbreaker type material on the outside and a softer layer of knit material on the inside. They aren’t particularly thick either, and other brands seem to have comparable options (if you have a favorite, leave a comment). But man do they work!

If you’ve never used mittens for cold-weather running, I highly recommend that you try them. I ran seven miles earlier today, it was about 20 degrees F outside and breezy (downright balmy compared to the past few days!), and with the mittens my hands were sweating within a few miles into the run. By keeping your fingers in contact within a single, enclosed compartment, the body heat generated keeps things nice and toasty. And if your thumb starts to get cold, you can just pull it into the mitten and make a fist to warm everything right up. Mittens are so effective for me that I typically only wear them when it’s below freezing out, otherwise my hands get way too hot. If it’s above 30 degrees F or so I opt for thin gloves.

I would like to make one distinction – I also have a pair of mittens where the fingers stick out and a mitten flap can be wrapped over them when desired. I don’t find this design to be nearly as effective as a standard mitten where everything is fully enclosed in one big space. Keeping skin-skin contact between the fingers seems to be the key.

Keeping Feet Warm

I personally have never had a problem with cold feet on runs. My feet might be chilled for the first 5 minutes or so after leaving the house, but once I’m a half mile to a mile into the run they warm right up. It’s all about blood flow I think – once I start moving and blood starts circulating faster, my feet are fine. I actually don’t tend to wear thick socks on runs in the winter for this reason. I find that thick socks make for a tighter fit inside my shoes, and I think this impedes blood flow to my feet. My tactic instead is to wear thin socks and to make sure my shoes are not laced too tight. Let the blood flow as easily down through the skin of my feet as possible. This approach has never failed me.

Target C9 Champion SocksA quick note on socks. I do like to wear thicker socks around the house and with casual shoes. I love the thicker Injinji  trail socks (all Injinji socks really), but they don’t work well for me in extreme cold for the same reason gloves don’t work for my fingers – skin to skin contact is key for warmth. I also like double-layered Wrightsocks for blister protection, and I was recently sent several pairs of DeFeet Merino wool socks that are nice. But, and I’m somewhat ashamed to admit this, the majority of the time when I run (year round) I wear Champion C9 socks from Target. They come in packs of three pairs for just over $9.00, and I have yet to wear a pair out. They’re really thin, but they seem to last forever. Wore them today for seven miles in the cold and had no issues at all.

That about covers my thoughts on keeping hands a feet warm on the run – if you have any additional tips and/or suggestions please leave a comment!

About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. Mittens are great and much warmer, but be careful before you stick your thumb in with your fingers. If you have poor balance and/or the ground is uneven with frozen snow ridges,, you’ll have a hard time breaking your fall and you may break your thumb or wrist.

  2. I’m fairly old school and run in thin cotton socks year round without any problems. Two days ago, I was running after work and forgot to pack socks so I just used my dress socks from work. After 4 mile run in the snow, my toes really hurt which resulted in some frostbite. I won’t make that mistake again.

  3. I love the Injinji socks! Great for warmth and prevents blisters.

  4. I’m pretty similar to what you do, Pete. Here are a few minor differences

    * I wear glove liners and then insulated running mittens (from Craft) when it gets below 0 F. The main reason is so that I don’t have to wash my mittens as often. They need to air dry after I wash them, and sometimes take more than 24 hours to dry through completely. I haven’t noticed my fingers being colder by wearing glove liners, but maybe that’s just me.

    2. I prefer to wear knee-high compression socks when it’s 20F or lower. I find they provide a nice layer of additional insulation beneath my tights, and the extra support seems to help keep my calves from tightening up.

    This may be another topic, or it might be related since we’re talking about keeping hands warm. Wondering how people blow their noses while running. I ask because a lot of gloves/mittens have softer fabric good for wiping without having to remove gloves/mittens. “Farmer’s Blows/Snot Rockets” only work in certain conditions, and tissues are tough to work with when running…

  5. Stephen Boulet says:

    I have two pair of those Saucony mittens, and they keep my cold prone hands very warm. The company seems to do running clothes right. I also like their long running pants (the semi-fitted is perfect) too.

  6. my experience is identical with one minor modification. i’ve found that my feet stay warmest if i wear no socks at all. in mi this seems to be just fine down to about 0f. i insisted on running outside in the vortex monday and tuesday (bc it was the only way i could exert my will in such paralyzing weather conditions), and not having any sense memory of what -40 windchill felt like i decided to wear smartwool dress socks under my 890v4s. worked out great. another key element is making sure not to tie one’s shoes too tightly!!!

  7. Why would you be ashamed by wearing Champion socks? People shouldn’t feel like they need to buy $15 pairs of socks to run. Really who do you need to impress with your choice of socks?

    • I’m not really ashamed, just joking really since I get all this gear to review and my favorite socks come from Target :) I actually buy most of my tech shirts from Target as well. Not as big a fan of their shorts though.

  8. Mike Graber says:

    Cold Feet. My problem is cold and wet feet. I can deal with just cold. I went running yesterday (Friday), just 3 miles. It had rained earlier in the day, but was then clear and 37 deg F. I went out with my Newton Motions, which should stay dry. I remember only one small puddle which I thought that I missed, but maybe not completely. Anyway, my toes were painfully cold and wet at the end of the run.
    I know to stay away from my Brooks PureDrift when it is wet outside, but I didn’t expect to be wet with the Newtons. Maybe it’s my form. I am trying to work on extension-flexion. Maybe my toes are too low on the initial recovery phase. Next time I will see if Montrail FluidFlex keeps me dry. BTW, I use Smartwool PhD socks in the winter. Any thoughts out there on keeping feet dry??

    • Could try a goretex shoe if just puddles that don’t go above ankle height. But once you fill a GTX shoe tough to drain. Or get something that drains really well and doesn’t retain cold water.

    • Gary Forrest says:

      I love my Smartwool socks, for me they help to keep my wet feet warm. A trick I learned from some runners is when it is wet outside the water flicks off of the tip of your shoe and then your foot is pulled into it. They taught me to put a strip of duct tape on the top of my shoe (by the toes), it does an okay job keeping most of the water out.

  9. I have cold hands 9 months out of the year. In winter mittens are a must. Last year I grabbed a pair of EMS 3-in-1 mittens, liner gloves, insulated mitten shells, and both can be worn together. They seem similar to other brands mentioned, and they’re very reasonably priced, especially when EMS has sales on their branded items.
    I discovered the same thing you did when trying to layer up socks for my frozen toes. I’ve found a mid weight wool sock (Darn Tough are my brand of choice) gives me room and extra cushion I need for running on my iced over dirt roads. Last year I found my running shoe in a gortex option and that’s been a winter/early spring godsend for keeping my feet warm. Even with that, it still takes 10-15minutes before my feet feel “warm” when running, even if the rest of me is screaming heat.
    Oh, and thats the last part-if I’m not well dressed for the rest of my body, the heat will never make it to the extrmities.

  10. I use wool socks on my hands. They work splendidly, and also much less expensive than running gloves

  11. I prefer mittens too and have some generic REI ones that are great for really cold. I need something thinner though for when its 20-ish degrees. I end up taking the mittens off…putting them on…taking them off. That’s annoying.

    My favorite socks so far for the cold are the FITS brand ones. I have used my normal running socks too, but don’t have any tall enough to not have cold ankles.

  12. Recently I found myself about to start a trail race in the 20s without anything to cover my right hand. I smeared Alba Un-Petroleum jelly all over it and it really did the trick! It’s also good for pre-coating your feet for 1) warmth in the cold, esp. if you’re going to get your feet wet, and 2) reduced friction in all conditions, but esp. when it’s hot and your feet are getting sweaty.

  13. Mittens work but I found wearing cheap cotton gloves inside the mittens keep my hands warm down to -20F although occasionally my thumbs get cold. Never have had issues with my feet unless I am running in snow.

    Keep the articles coming.

  14. Alexander Harrason says:

    Smartwool running socks and all Smartwool running products really are great for winter running in ICELAND! ;)

    Loved your book btw Peter!

  15. Down to -5 ºC, I normally wear the same kinda shoe I’d wear for any other temperature range (something minimal, grippy if necessary). If it gets real cold, I tend to dig out something with some kind of midsole (typically my trusty Inov-8 Trailroc 235s). If it gets extreme, I wear wool socks and duct tape over the toe box. Keep it simple.

  16. The thought of cold hands and feet kept me indoors for the first half of my first winter as a runner. 53 years of bad diet and bad habits, frostbitten toes as a child and something called Raynauds would make my feet and hands go numb at temperatures below fifty degrees. Now for the good news. Warm feet, simple. Merino wool, my favorite brand is Icebreaker. Never heard of this company until my wife came home with a pair in hopes of getting me out of the house and on the frosty streets. It worked! I have other Merino wool socks, but these never fail to keep the feet toasty where others do, even in wet conditions. Because of years of nursing numb fingers, it was obvious that mittens would be a necessity. The search for mittens that were warm, don’t cook your hands like ski gloves, would stand up to multiple washings and were cost effective (I mean cheap) took me to all corners of the brick and mortar retail world. I finally found a bin of $ 12 fleece mittens at an LL Bean Outlet store. Large didn’t seem large enough so I chose two pair of XL, which were actually too big, but I took them anyway. Although the giant gloves made me look like a child wearing dad’s gloves, I reveled in their soft warmth. As the temps plummeted, I soon discovered that the mittens would not do the job alone and fortunately found that I could wear full fledged running gloves inside. I now have warm hands at any temperature. Also, these mittens do not get very wet with the gloves worn inside and can be hung to dry, rather than be subjected to regular cleaning.

  17. That is a real interesting read. Thanks Peter!

    I think more people should invest in a good pair of gloves and socks. Running in cold weather is really challenging but also really fun when you have the right gear. It is a lot easier to run long distance when you feel comfortable!

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