Running in the cold: tights or not?

Some runners pull the long pants out of the closet as soon as the leaves start to fall. Another group of runners even runs bare-legged when the district heads are called together in Friesland. What is Wisdom?

Part of the running population knows for sure: if it is colder than 10 degrees Celsius, you should not run in shorts. Another part only changes the shorts for tights when it is below zero and the wind blows strongly from the northeast. The choice of tights in colder weather is partly determined by comfort (nice and warm) and partly by the belief that running in the cold with bare legs can cause injuries. Is that true and how risky is running bare-legged in the winter months?

Enter for discussion

We live here in the Low Countries in a climate that keeps the above discussion alive. Even the most inveterate shorts wearer will pull the tights out of the closet at -7 and a biting easterly wind. Anyway, we don’t experience temperatures below zero degrees too often now and it looks like this will only get less in the future. In winter it is rather somewhere between 5 and 10 degrees and that is exactly a zone over which we runners do not seem to agree on the right choice of clothing.

Vulnerable to cold

In this article we expressly limit ourselves to our base: long or short trousers. The reason some runners believe that long is better in the cold is because it helps prevent injury. Why? Cold muscles and tendons have less blood flow and are therefore more likely to be overloaded and more vulnerable. Long pants, or tights as most runners wear, offer a protective layer against the cold from the outside. So yes, the long pants have a point.

Watery sun

But! Suppose the temperature is just above, or even just below, freezing point and there is hardly any wind. And there may be such a beautiful watery, winter sun shining, then you can walk in shorts. You read that correctly. The heat that you generate with running and that warms your muscles like a heater, then really offers sufficient protection against the cold outside. If you don’t run your first kilometers too fast, so let your body warm up slowly, it really isn’t ‘dangerous’ to run in shorts under such circumstances. If those muscles are constantly being cooled down considerably because a strong breeze of cold is blown against them, then that is a different story.

Wind chill is more important in this story than the temperature indicated by the thermometer or your weather app. In terms of comfort, but certainly also for the state of your muscles, it makes a lot of difference whether it is 6 degrees Celsius and no wind or whether it is 8 degrees Celsius with an easterly wind and rain. In the latter case, it is a lot harder to keep things at the right temperature and cooling down and stiffening of your muscles is lurking.

If there really is no other way

Personally, I prefer to walk in shorts as much as possible, even when it is ‘cold’. For me, the gloves and even the hat come out of the closet before the tights. But the latter certainly comes on when the temperature drops below zero and certainly also when we are in the winter months and wind and precipitation give cause for this.

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