For years I had trouble running into the winter. I eventually figured out that I’d simply had the wrong idea about how to do it. I’d imagined that if I just continued running through the fall, I’d gradually ease myself into winter running. That never worked—because there are plenty of warm days (or at least warm hours) through early fall, and then in middle or late fall there is (identifiable only in retrospect) a last warm day, and then it’s cold nearly every day until late March or early April. So even if I ran through fall, if I chose to get in my runs during the warm hours, I wouldn’t actually develop tolerance for the cold, the wardrobe for handling it, or the skill at picking the right garments.

A couple of years ago I failed to run through the fall, and then decided to develop a winter running habit anyway. I bought a few pieces of cold-weather gear—plenty, because I was generally only running once or twice a week.

I started with the sweats I wear to teach taiji, and then I added two pairs of tights—one sort of classic running tights, and then another pair of fleece tights, that ought to be good down to colder than I’m every likely to try to run in.

For tops I generally wore a regular sweatshirt over a regular cotton t-shirt. Then I got some short- and long- sleeved merino t-shirts, which are vastly better as a base layer. I also dug out a capilene half-zip top that my dad gave me a few years ago, which was just the thing when it got a little colder.

I also got a washable merino knit hat in high-viz yellow, and two different pairs of gloves in high-viz yellow—first a pair from the dollar store, which were not nearly warm enough, then a pair from Amazon that I think was marketed to people directing traffic, that were dramatically more high-viz, but still not quite warm enough.

Me in winter running gear
Me in my tights, capilene top, high-viz hat, vest, and gloves

Now that I’m in my third year of winter running—and now that I’m running more times per week—I’ve added a few more pieces of winter running garb.

I bought a third pair of high-viz gloves, these from Illinois Glove company, which are finally warm enough, and almost as high-viz as the previous pair.

Last winter I picked up a pair of Janji Mercury Track Pants, which are wonderful. Size medium fits me perfectly, they’re warm enough down to well below freezing (and I rarely run when it’s below freezing, because of slipping hazards). I liked them so much I picked up a second pair last year, and just now got a third pair (because a couple of weeks ago I wanted to go for a run and both of the first two were already in the laundry).

Last year I added another quarter-zip pullover in some high-tech fabric that I picked up cheap at Amazon, and just now today another fancy Patagonia capilene base-layer top that I can wear either by itself, over one of my merino T-shirts, or under a wind-proof or water-proof layer.

I’ve gone running five or six times in the last couple of weeks, at temperatures ranging from right at freezing up to maybe 50℉, and so far I’ve managed to nail it each time as far as matching the warmth of the clothing to the conditions outside.

I have one more piece of running gear that I’ve ordered, but that hasn’t arrived: a headlight. Normally I just don’t run when it’s dark. (Since I don’t work a regular job, I have the freedom to choose to run only during daylight.) But a couple of times in the last few weeks, I wanted to go for a run that would start in the daylight, but might not finish until after dark. I figured that a headlight might be very useful as a just-in-case piece of safety equipment, even if I didn’t plan on doing much nighttime running. I ordered this Spriak Wide-Beam headlight, which seems like it would serve my purpose as emergency safety gear. If I end up running in the dark on purpose, rather than by accident, I’ll be tempted to step up to this Petzl Headlamp that offers 3x to 15x the battery life, and what looks like a rather better system for fitting the whole thing on your head, but costs 10 times as much ($200 vs. $20).

(FYI: Those Amazon links are affiliate links. The non-Amazon links are not.)

If circumstances develop in any sort of interesting direction—if it turns out that the gear I’ve got doesn’t cut it for this or that sort of conditions, or if I decide that I need some other bit of fancy running kit, or if one of the things I’ve got turns out to be even more suitable than I’ve already described, I’ll go ahead to write another post.

If you’ve got great winter running gear, I’d be very interested to hear about it! Comment below or reach out on social media or by email (see my contact page for ways to connect to me).

Last year I used my consumerist impulses to motivate myself to get out for runs—I’d buy running gear, and then feel like I had to go for runs to justify the purchase. 🏃🏻‍♂️ This year I’m running anyway. But that doesn’t mean I can’t buy new running gear. This handsome top is perfect for runs when it’s just about freezing.

Selfie in my new running top

Objectively speaking, autumn is probably the best season. Not cold like winter, stormy like spring, or hot like summer, autumn has great weather—totally aside from the pretty colors and Halloween (arguably the best holiday, albeit in a near tie with Groundhog’s Day).

For pretty much my entire adult life I’ve dreaded the cold dark days of winter, and among the many ways that Seasonal Affect Disorder affected my life in a negative way was that it ruined autumn. I could usually get past the summer solstice okay (although in the back of my head, I knew that the best day of the year had come and gone), and I could keep it together through July and August. But by the beginning of September I knew that winter was coming, and I’d spend the last months of nice weather steeling myself against the dark days to come.

It was the dark that bothered me, more than the cold. It’s easy to armor yourself against the cold—flannel, moleskin, fleece, wool, down—there are many ways to deal with cold. But even a Verilux light therapy lamp (which does help) does not solve the problem of the dark days of winter.

All of which is merely an introduction to saying: Last winter I did not suffer from SAD!

I had meant to write something at the time, but I didn’t want to speak too soon, and then once it was spring, it didn’t seem like the most important thing.

I don’t want to jinx anything, and I’m sure the right combination of stressors on top of the cold and dark could once again put me in a bad place, but something more important has changed than just a good year: I’m no longer afraid of the dark days. Maybe I’ll suffer from SAD again, and maybe I won’t, but at least the mere knowledge that the cold and dark is coming is not ruining my fall! In the back of my head I seem to have turned a corner and developed some confidence that I’ll be okay despite the season.

So what has helped?

First, not having to work a regular job. I’m sorry that I can’t recommend something more generally available, but that was the biggest thing that made a difference. Because I don’t have to be productive on a day-to-day basis, I avoid the depression-spiral that used to result from realizing that I wasn’t getting anything done, which made me anxious about losing my job and being unable to support my family, having the anxiety make me more depressed, and the depression making me even less productive. That used to be a killer. On top of that, because I don’t have to be in the office during any particular hours, I’m able to spend a few of the few non-dark hours of the day outdoors, taking advantage of what daylight there is (and making some outdoorphins).

Second, exercise. I always knew it was important, but I took things up a notch each of the last few years, and each new tick up turned out to provide an enormous improvement in my mood. In my experience, all kinds of exercise are good. Endurance exercise is good. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is good. Skill-based training—ballet, parkour, animal moves, taiji—is good. Resistance exercise (lifting) is perhaps best of all. Letting the dark days of winter compress you down into a lump that seeks (but never finds) cozy because you’re unable to move? That’s the worst.

Third, community. Granted this is not so easy during a pandemic, but even people that you only see on-line are still people you can have a connection with, and having connections is good.

Fourth, something to look forward to. It can be almost anything. Last year I was looking forward to having my family visit. Other years I’ve looked forward to taking a vacation somewhere warm. Even little things help me—ordering some fountain pen ink or cold-weather workout clothes and then looking forward to the package being delivered, and then looking forward to using the newly acquired item.

Fifth, a project that you can make progress on. Ideally something without a deadline—at least, no deadline during the dark days of winter—but a project that you care about. Something that you can spend a few minutes on every day and see some headway that brings you closer to completing it. Creative projects are good, but creativity isn’t as important as just having a thing that you’re working on, and making steady headway.

Not suffering from SAD, even if just for one year, has been wonderful. Having some confidence that things will be okay-enough this winter that I’m not spending all fall dreading it is even more wonderful-er.

I’ve been slow to come to this realization. I rejected it in 2015, terrified that just accepting my winter depression would lead to a dangerous downward spiral. In 2016 I decided that I should experiment with acceptance. I still find it terrifying, but I am more and more convinced it’s the right thing to do.

I told myself that I just wasn’t going to feel like I felt in the summer and that’s ok — winter is a time for different feelings. —The Secret to Enjoying a Long Winter via @randalleclayton