How to Layer Properly When Running

runner in different layers

 You know what they say about Michigan weather: If you don’t like it, just wait a few minutes! It’s true, the weather around here can be pretty darn unpredictable, so running in it definitely takes some layering savvy. Not to worry, though. Just use this guide – complete with questions we hear a lot and answers to each (thanks to one of our assistant store managers, Forrest!) – and you’ll find choosing the right clothes for the conditions will be as easy as 1-2-3!

The 3-Layer System

Believe it or not, you can dress for success running in all types of conditions with just three layers of clothing to stay warm and dry:

  1. Base Layer

    Closest to your body, this layer’s job is to draw sweat away from your skin to keep you dry. It should be lightweight, breathable, and moisture-wicking.

  2. Mid-Layer

    Worn over the base layer, this is what keeps you warm. The mid-layer insulates by trapping your body heat and holding it in, but it also needs to continue your sweat's journey outward and away from your skin. This layer is typically long sleeve and often has thumb loops to keep sleeves in place.  

  3. Outer Layer

    The last layer adds warmth and protects you from the elements. Because this layer serves as a barrier between you and whatever Mother Nature is dishing out, it should be a water resistant or waterproof jacket or vest that protects against wind, rain, snow – you know, all that the mitten state has to offer! 

Q: What is the benefit of running with layers?

A: Layers allow us to change our body temperature as conditions change, which is essential since, as any Michigander knows, the temperature/weather can change on a dime! The ability to shed a layer if necessary is priceless!

Of course, you don’t necessarily need to wear all three layers all the time. Before you head out for a run, you should consider conditions, then consider the layers you’ll need. Hot? You’ll really only want a lightweight base layer that breathes and removes perspiration. Cool but not cold? Stick with just a base and mid-layer. Wet but warm? Throw a water resistant, breathable jacket over a base layer. Yes, that’s right, you can mix and match – the 3-layer system provides you with the ultimate versatile wardrobe!


Q: What should I look for when choosing layers?

A: Your base layer should be snug to your body. Its main function is to wick moisture(sweat) away from your skin and allow some breathability/temperature fluctuation to occur. With that in mind, we highly recommend a polyester, wool, or blend of the two for this layer as these fabrics are the best for wicking.

Your mid-layer, also referred to as thermal layer, is just that – its main function is warmth! 

This can be a looser fit, not baggy, but not snug to the body. Having some space between this layer and your base will allow a warm pocket of air to form between the layers and again help with temperature regulation. How warm you want this layer to be varies, so it’s good to have some options. For instance, a full zip mid instead of a pullover will allow you to quickly zip this piece up or down, adjusting your temperature on the fly if the weather is being fickle or it’s not super cold. For fabrics, again we recommend a poly, wool, or blend. Although the main function of this piece is warmth, it is still important that it’s moisture-wicking so it doesn’t absorb the sweat your base is wicking away, which can cause chafing and irritation. 

The main function of your outer layer is to keep warmth in and weather out! Within the outer layer category, there are a few subcategories: 1. Shell 2. Insulated Shell 3. Insulated Jacket. Shells and insulated shells have a thin poly/nylon outer that is generally DWR treated. This will keep you protected from the wind and light rain or snow. When you step up to the insulated jacket, you increase the warmth significantly. Again, it’s good to have different options for different conditions. 

Forrest Fun Fact: “Personally I rely heavily on my shell and trust that in combo with my base and mid-layer, it will regulate my temperature.”

Once you have all your layers, it’ll likely take some trial and error before you get things just right. Even layering veterans can sometimes get out there and have to shed a layer, or feel the need for a little extra warmth. If that happens, here’s a tip: tuck your base layer in to eliminate that dreaded draft! You can always untuck it later in your run, once your body warms up. Speaking of that…


Q: What mistakes do runners make when layering?

A: The biggest mistake runners make is putting on too many or too warm of layers! If it seems super cold outside, you might think you really need to layer up, but that’s not the case. If you’re warm before you even begin running, you are overdressed and will become hot and sweaty, which will ultimately make you more cold. It’s better to feel a little chilly when you start since, as you run, your body will naturally warm up. The general rule of thumb is to dress as if it is 15-20 degrees warmer than what the thermometer is telling you. 

Of course, as we mentioned above, you can always shed a layer if conditions change or you become too hot – that’s the beauty of layering!


Q: What about layering for your bottom half?

A: A good pair of fleece or polyester tights can typically get you through a Michigan fall and winter, but for those really frigid days, you can add extra warmth and protection by layering your tights with running pants or a skirt. 

Don’t Forget to Layer on the Accessories!

Taking care of your core is key to staying warm, but your extremities need protection, too! Accessories like gloves or mittens, a headband or hat, and warm, wicking socks are essential to running comfortably in cold or wet conditions. 

A Fourth Layer?

Though the 3-layer system works wonders, there is one other layer to consider: The safety layer! As the year goes on, early or late running often takes place in the dark. When this is the case, make sure your outer layer has plenty of reflective elements or add a reflective vest as a fourth layer. Accessorize with a headlamp and blinking armband, and you should be good to go!

Ready to start layering? Gazelle Sports has got you covered – literally! Shop online or visit your local store. Like Forrest, our staff is happy to answer your questions and help you find the perfect layers for you and what you do.