What to Wear for a Cold 5K

Running a cold 5k can be confusing and challenging. Dressing in moisture-wicking layers and running by effort over pace, plus having more than one goal, can help you run your best on race day.

woman in pink running in snow
Even if it is bitter cold, you can still run a great 5k on race day!

The winter season can be long and challenging. Unexpected weather patterns, false springs, snow and ice: it is all a recipe for hanging up our running shoes until spring finally makes itself known. However, with the right preparation and mindset, braving the cold can be a rewarding and invigorating experience. Whether it be an unexpectedly cold Turkey Trot, a New Year’s Day race, or a spring competition in uncharacteristic weather, running a 5K in the cold can have unexpected benefits.

Whitney Heins running in a winter hat outside
Dressing in moisture-wicking running clothes like merino wool is key for staying warm and dry!

What happens to your body when you run in the cold

Before stepping outside for a cold weather race, it’s crucial to first understand the impact of cold temperatures on the body. Colder temperatures can increase the risk of injury since muscles take longer to warm up and joints may become stiffer. 

Additionally, the body expends more energy on cold runs  to stay warm, which can lead to quicker fatigue. It is important to focus on not only warming up your muscles properly before your 5K, but also dressing appropriately to keep your core body temperature regulated.

cold 5k pin
Rock your cold 5k with these expert tips for success on race day!

Tips for Running a Cold 5k

Warm-Up Effectively.

For winter runs, warming up before a run becomes even more crucial. Spend extra time on dynamic stretches to increase blood flow to your muscles and joints. Focus on warming up the major muscle groups, paying particular attention to areas prone to stiffness in the cold, such as the hips and knees. In a 5K, you do not have time built in (like the first few miles of a half marathon) to warm up, so also consider jogging for a mile or two before hitting the start line.

Related: How to Warm Up for a Run in 5 minutes

Stay Hydrated.

It’s also easy to underestimate the importance of staying hydrated in cold weather. The dry air can lead to increased respiratory water loss, and the body may not signal thirst as effectively as in warmer conditions. Ensure you drink an adequate amount of water before, during, and after your run to maintain optimal performance and support recovery.

Related: Do You Need Electrolytes for Running in Cold Weather?

Dress in Layers.

In addition to warming up and fueling properly, the best way to ensure your health and safety in the cold is dressing smart. Ask anyone who is a winter sports enthusiast what the key to comfort on the coldest days is and they will almost always answer with LAYERS! Managing body temperature effectively is as simple as adding or removing layers as needed. Start with a moisture-wicking base layer to draw sweat away from the skin, preventing the body from becoming wet and cold. Follow this with an insulating layer to retain heat, and finish with a windproof and waterproof outer layer to shield against the elements. 

Related: How Should I Dress for Running in the Cold

  • The Base Layer:

Choose a sweat-wicking base layer made from moisture-wicking fabrics such as merino wool or synthetic materials. These fabrics effectively pull sweat away from the body, keeping you dry and preventing the chilling effect of damp clothing. In addition to help you stay toasty, base layers trap body heat. Avoid cotton, as it tends to trap moisture and can leave you feeling cold and uncomfortable.

Related: 10 Warmest & Best Cold Weather Running Tights for Women

  • The Insulating Layer:

For the mid layer, opt for a long-sleeve shirt made from materials like fleece or down that trap and retain heat close to the body. This layer is crucial in preventing the loss of body heat, especially in extremely cold conditions. Consider the weather forecast and adjust the thickness of your insulating layer accordingly.

Related: My Top Ten Best Cold Weather Running Gear for 2024

  • The Outer Layer:

The outer layer acts as a shield against wind, rain, and snow on cold weather runs. Look for jackets and pants with windproof and waterproof features to protect against the elements. Ventilation options, such as underarm zippers, can help regulate body temperature during the run. Ensure that your outer layer is breathable to prevent overheating.

Related: Best Winter Running Gear for Running in the Cold

  • Accessories Matter:

In extremely cold temperatures, it’s essential to protect vulnerable areas like the head, hands, and feet. A thermal moisture-wicking hat or headband helps retain heat, while insulated warm gloves or warm mittens keep your hands toasty. Invest in quality thermal thicker socks to protect your feet from the cold. Consider wearing a neck gaiter, face mask, or scarf to cover your neck and lower face.

Related: 10 Best Cold Weather Masks for Running

  • Footwear:

Choosing the right running shoe is critical when running in cold weather. Look for running shoes with good traction to prevent slipping on icy surfaces. Consider shoes with added insulation to keep your feet warm. If running in particularly snowy or icy conditions, trail running shoes or traction devices that slip over your shoes can provide extra stability.

Related: 12 Best Running Shoes to Try in 2024

5k dressing guide
Be ready for any cold weather with this cold weather dressing guide!

Dress According to Temperature Range for Your Cold 5k

  • What to wear running in 40-50 degrees: A lightweight top layered over a short sleeve shirt or base layer tank top. Pair of tights (lightweight), capris, or shorts.
  • What to wear running in 30-40 degrees: A light base layer with a vest or a mid-layer top or lightweight jacket, long tights, hat, and lightweight gloves.
  • What to wear running in 20-30 degrees: Thermal or warm running tights (fleece-lined), with a base layer and top layer, plus a warm hat, mittens, and thermal socks.
  • What to wear running in 10-20 degrees: Base layer, mid-layer long sleeve shirt, windbreaker, vest, or running jacket, fleece-lined tights or tights with nylon pants over, plus a buff/scarf or balaclava, wool hat, warm mittens, and longer thermal/wool socks.
  • What to wear running wear in 0-10 degrees: Base layer, mid-layer thick long sleeve shirt, windbreaker, vest, or running jacket, fleece-lined tights or tights with nylon pants over, plus a buff/scarf or balaclava or ski mask, wool hat, warm mittens, and longer thermal/wool socks.
  • What to wear running wear in subzero temperatures: Base layer, mid-layer thick long sleeve shirt, windbreaker, vest, or running jacket, fleece-lined tights or tights with nylon pants over, plus a buff/scarf or balaclava, wool hat, heated mittens, and long thermal socks.
cold 5k post
Pin these tips on how to dress for your cold 5k for later!

Be Aware of Potential Challenging Conditions.

When running in cold temperatures, it’s essential to adjust your preparation and expectations based upon the reality of race day conditions. For extreme cold and wind dress in extra layers, protecting your hands, face, and head. Snowy/icy conditions, it’s important to  have proper footwear that guarantees stability on slippery surfaces. Bad or unexpected weather, no matter the condition, remember the following will help you not only nail your race but also keep a good attitude in the midst of it all:

Control what you can control.

Winning at running and life is about knowing what you can control and what you can’t. Don’t waste energy stressing over what you don’t have any power over, like the weather. Instead, relinquish that grip and adapt. Remind yourself that all your sacrifices weren’t just for this one morning. It was for everything that came along with it—the betterment of yourself, the friendships, healthy life choices, and—for mother runners—teaching your kids valuable lessons.

Related: 9 Mental Training Tips from Sports Psychs

Adjust your effort.

Being the best runner means giving it all you got on THAT day in THOSE specific conditions and adjusting your effort—not focusing on specific paces—for racing in bad weather. If you’re running against a 50 mph headwind, it’s just nuts to think you can hold your goal marathon pace. If this pace is a 6 out of 10 effort, then run at a 6 out of 10 effort regardless of what your Garmin tells you.

Do regular body scans to see how you’re feeling. If your lungs are screaming at you one mile in from breathing in such cold air, then you need to back off. You can absolutely perform well in poor conditions, cold included, but it can only happen if you pay attention to your own body’s needs and run your own race within yourself. 

Related: What is RPE in Running?

Have more than one goal.

For every race, set multiple goals ranging from conservative to aggressive: an A goal, B goal, and C goal. This helps you adjust your race plans to meet the conditions of the day including illness, injury, and running in bad weather. It’s always a good idea to start a race conservatively and then speed up if you feel good, but instead of tossing out aggressive goals entirely in bad weather, focus on process goals (like fueling, hydration, holding back, etc.) to run a smart race.


Compartmentalizing is a simple way to not let adversity derail us. If something bad happens, you deal with it and move on. Or you shift your focus to what is going right. For example, if you’re running into a strong wind, don’t focus on how slow your mile split was. Put your head down, keep moving, and then move on. If you’re soaked and cold from running in wet snow, focus on how the rest of you is feeling or flip the script and be glad you’re not overheating.

Related: 13 Smart Race Days Tips to Nail Your PR

Listen to Your Body.

With all of this in mind, your own knowledge of your body’s needs is the best thermometer for success. Pay close attention to how your body responds to the cold. If you experience numbness, tingling, or excessive shivering, it’s crucial to prioritize safety over pushing through. Know the signs of cold-related illnesses, such as hypothermia and frostbite, and be prepared to abandon your run and seek shelter if conditions worsen.

Running a 5K in cold temperatures requires thoughtful preparation and attention to detail. By warming up properly, layering effectively, choosing the right gear, and staying attuned to your body’s signals, you can not only conquer the chill but also enjoy the unique experience of winter running. Embrace the challenge, stay safe, and let the crisp winter air invigorate your running journey.

If you want guidance with your running goals including a cold 5k (!), check out my run coaching services. Also, be sure to check out my free training plans:

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