Fellow athletes: how many of you have had this scenario play out:
You wake up early, and begin the day by throwing your coffee together. After it's poured, you get your breakfast going. You sit down, ready to enjoy your healthy creation, and turn on the TV to the local news. You conveniently have turned it on in time for the weather. You stare, horrified, discovering a weather map featuring 3 to 5 inches of snow in the forecast, just in time for your long run. You glance at your watch, rubbing your eyes again to focus as to be sure that yes, in fact, you do see the date correctly.
This may, or may not, accurately describe my morning. But I'm prepared for winter running and cycling, through the use of many products. Now, before we delve into specific products, we need to first review the basics: how to properly layer for winter running.
The TriLayer System
Generally speaking, in the winter you'll want to wear three layers on your top: a base layer, an insulating layer, and a shelter layer.
A base layer is what you'll initially put on as you're getting dressed. Typically, this layer will not be very heavy at all; we are not looking for this garment to provide much warmth. Instead, we want the base layer to be your thermal regulator. This layer is going to fit tightly against the skin, to help move moisture from your skin into the next layer of your system. It will also help make sure that whatever cold wind got through your first two layers does not come in contact with your skin. An example of this would be the Craft ZeroExtreme top reviewed here last winter.
The next layer up is where the warmth will come from. Your insulating piece will be the weighty garment. It won't be nearly as heavy as wearing, say, a cotton sweatshirt. This also tends to be where you'll be spending the most money. Different weights in these garments will give you the most versatility. Also, some of these layers themselves will feature some type of wind and weather protection, allowing you to mix and match more pieces depending upon the conditions outside. Just to give an idea, I only have two baselayers from Craft, but six different insulating pieces. We'll be reviewing one of these insulating pieces in a bit.
The final layer is your shelter layer. This is where your wind and water resistance will come from. Note that I said water resistance and not water proof. Waterproof does not allow for breathability unless you are talking GORE-TEX. And well, most people aren't willing to pay the price for GORE-TEX (on average, talk an extra $40-$50 per jacket at retail price). With that in mind, these jackets will keep water off you for about an hour. Beyond that, and the coat will become saturated. You won't get soaked; instead, you'll be slightly damp. And if you were running or riding correctly, you would have been damp anyways. You are looking for this to also be relatively thin, allowing you greater versatility throughout the fall, winter, and spring. Unless, of course, you freeze to death, at which point there are some heavier winter running jackets from SportHill and New Balance available.
So with this all in mind, there are two shelter layers to review, and one insulating layer.
New Balance NBx Windblocker Half-Zip
Layer: Insulating (2nd)
To quote my New Balance sales rep, Colin, "this is 6th Circle of Hell warm."
The first thing to notice when picking this piece up is to feel how thin it is. Immediately, you'll be thinking, "there's no way this is as warm as this guy is saying it is." And you'd be very, very wrong.
Going back to my Reach the Beach experience, this is the top that I opted for my 3:30 AM, 9 mile slog. It was a balmy 33 degrees that night, with some of the valleys dipping into the 20s. I had put on a very light base-layer, and had paired it with the CW-X Stabilyx tights from last winter.
I was melting in this thing by the time I got to the van stop around mile 6. Absolutely bathed in sweat. It is warm as all get out. The windblock front and microfleece rear panel is extremely effective at keeping the cold out. This isn't to say that it traps heat, though; the top does offer good ventilation. The length of the zipper allows the top to really open up and expose your chest, to help get fresh air to you when needed. The pockets open up and are ventilated as well. The problem, though, is that the pocket is a kangaroo-style, rather than two individual pockets. If there are zippers, I want individual pockets; if there are no zippers, I go kangaroo.
New Balance also included some other thoughtful touches. There are thumbholes that are in a fluorescent yellow (and they actually fit men's thumbs. Thank God. Too many times, people cut this WAY too small.) The In Case of Emergency tag on the inside is a great gesture, so if you don't own a Road ID, you can have quick contacts and medical allergies listed right on the inside. And there are plenty of reflective call outs on the front, sleeves, and back to make sure you don't have to experience the pleasure of being hit by a car.
The fit of this is also within range of the "new" New Balance that we had talked previously about in the 1190 review. This means it is athletically shaped: long torso, relatively narrow. This also makes this a great option for winter cycling: tight fit, long in the back, super warm, cuts out on the wind.
Buy If: You train outdoors for running and cycling throughout the winter; you run relatively cold; you ski; or you need something that can double as your mild winter jacket.
Skip If: You run relatively warm to begin with; you have a more stocky body type; you have too many insulating layers already.
Brooks Nightlife II Jacket
Layer: Shelter (3rd)
The Nightlife Jacket II is an update from the Essential Run Jacket available from last year. Brooks made a couple of updates to try and improve the fit of the piece.
Brooks apparel, in general, has typically been cut in a more "American" style, meaning that the torso typically is a little shorter, and the jacket cut wider to accommodate more body styles and layering. This year's is cut slightly more athletic. It is still wider than the Windblocker top, but not as large as a gap as compared to last year. This is an improvement for me, but may not appeal to everybody.
There is now a zipper-garage at the top, to make sure you don't have the zipper rubbing you raw in the face when you have the jacket fully zipped. The material of the jacket, although still water resistant and wind proof, now has a different texture, that allows for a quieter run. No more swoosh-swooshing your way around.
This is one of the lighter-weight jackets on the market, and so it does give you a lot of versatility, ranging from mid-September all the way through April. (And even May, if you have a spring like last year here in Maine.) The only drawback that I foresee here is the relative dramatic increase in price: last year's Essential Run Jacket went for $70. There's a lot of competition here, including the Saucony Epic Run Jacket in Vizipro, that is $10 less. But that does have a different fit (even more narrow), so for the majority of folks out there, this is the go-to.
Buy If: You want to not just be reflective, but light up like a Christmas tree at night; you crave versatility out of your shelter layer; you are shorter and stouter than a beanpole.
Skip If: You're built like a rail; you run extremely cold; you have the desire to experience being hit by a vehicle.
Saucony Epic Run Vest
Layer: Shelter (3rd)
And now for the other company that wants to make sure that you look like a construction worker on your run. Now, don't get me wrong: this is a good thing. It's just funny to be driving at night and see all of the Vizipro Orange and Nightlife Yellow scattered about.
The Saucony Vizipro line is cut a fair bit more athletic as compared to the Brooks line. This means that if you are tall, or lean, or both, this is the product line for you. The weight of the vest is very similar to the weight of the Brooks jacket as well.
So, why a vest? There are some days where it is a little warmer, but the wind is still cold, and you simply need to protect your core rather than your arms. If you keep your core warm, the rest of you will stay warm. This is where you'd turn.
Once cool option that Saucony includes in their Vizipro line is a small LED light. It charges on the USB drive of the computer. 20 minutes worth of charge will give you an hour of light; a longer charge will give you a much longer light experience.
Buy It: You run relatively warm throughout the winter and have the New Balance top reviewed above; you need a 2nd shelter layer because you crave versatility.
Skip It: You run cold in the winter; you fit better in the Brooks line; you are looking to have one shelter layer to get you through the cold months.