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Layering systems explained.


Chris Hough (pictured) works for Accelerate Run Store and is supported by Team Accelerate.  He writes for Accelerate and blogs on the Buzz.  He contributes to and is a keen year round runner, favouring long trail runs and endurance events.






Did you ever sit in the bath for too long and suddenly feel freezing cold?  The water probably wasn't even that cold either.  It's just that water is such a good conductor, that it will help you lose body heat like crazy.  Better in fact, than if you were exposed to air of the same temperature.

So clothing ought to spare us from remaining wet if at all possible.  Simple.  Or is it.....?

Well no.  Of course it isn't. 

That's what's frustraing about clothing yourself for exercise - it's complicated.  There are so many variables.  You need to be able to regulate your temperature for an extended period while the conditions you're working under keep changing.  Constantly.  Factors such as weather, exposure, workload and pace - all changing.  And so is the terrain.

To some degree, we can predict the likely demands and then dress accordingly.  But what's the system for making sure we can maintain a safe, comfortable body temperature throughout prolongued periods of outdoor exercise?

Well - it's called the 'Layering System' and it doesn't take a genius to work out that it often involves wearing more than one item at the same time.

One giant layer would definitely increase the chances of staying warm.  But when working hard it proves way too hot and too heavy, restrictive, bulky when carried, etc.  We generate a lot of heat by ourselves, so the awkward part is - before long we're going to sweat.  Then we're going to become wet.  Our clothes are going to get soaked and become the opposite of insulation.  It'll be like wrapping that cold bath tub full of water around you and taking it with you everywhere you go.  And your body will lose valuable heat until becoming far colder than is safe or efficient.

So we need ligthweight, low volume layers of clothing that are effective at reducing the build up of heat.  Clothes that will draw moisture away from the skin as soon as it's produced, keeping the skin dryer for longer.  They ought to be lightweight even when wet if possible.  Then it's just a matter of getting rid of the moisture once and for all.

So which items of clothing or 'Layers' will do all this for us?

Layer 1) The 'Base-Layer'.

Above: Salomon Exo Motion Base Layer.

Tight, but not restrictive.  A next-to-skin layer that hugs every surface like it was sprayed on, literally soaking sweat straight from every square inch and holding it away from the skin.  Base-Layers are generally very thin.  They get soaked pretty quickly, with little or no windproofing.  Rain will soak straight through and make you cold.  Wind and rain will cause hypothermia in no time.  Base Layers like Salomon's Exo Motion Base Layer feature body mapped sections, structured in different ways according to the parts of the body that need higher wicking, or greater breathability and so on.  Extremely technical.  They'll be good for use on their own as long as the weather's no lower than 5°C, but as soon as it turns frosty, windy or both, you'll be needing more.  That's where you apply layer 2.

Layer 2) The 'Mid-Layer'.

Above: Saucony (Drylete) Run Strong Sportop.

A second, slightly looser, often slightly thicker top, that will continue to wick the moisture, but may very well be even more technical.  Some have the ability to disperse the moisture and allow it to evaporate more easily, therefore more quickly.

This combination of Base and Mid-Layer allows for retention of warmth, but remains breathable.  After running, you should be able to see steam rising from the two layers on a cold day.

The fact is, for most outdoor running - it's this combination of Base and Mid-Layers that should prove most effective.  While moving well, with good quality materials hard at work while you run, the sweat never gets unmanageable and cold never penetrates the layer upon layer of fabric keeping you comfy.  The thing to get your head around is that a lot of the time, you'll be 'warm when wet', rather than ever truly waterproof. 

Remember that a wetsuit - designed to keep people warm while completely submerged - is basically just a layer of clothing which remains warm when wet.  Your running kit should be doing the same.

And that should suit for the majority of the time.  Unless things take a sudden turn for the nasty.

Layer 3) 'The Shell' or 'Emergency Layer'.

Above: Patagonia Storm Racer Jacket.

A  fully taped - fully waterproof jacket that sits around the Mid-Layer and blocks the conditions that threatened to undermine the first two layers, even while running hard and generating plenty of warmth.  But you'd be surprised how rarely this is really necessary when your first two layers are performing effectively.  That said, having it with you is vital if you're going to be able to react accordingly.

You'd maybe think that to throw on an all powerful, fully waterproof laminate would be the end of all your troubles, but that isn't always the better option.  When continuing to work hard while wrapped up in waterproof layers we sweat too much, so we get wet anyway.  And with that heavy duty layer on, we can't so easily get rid of the humidity.  We get hotter than we should, sweating at a harder rate, which taxes our bodies and leads to dehydration and/or fatigue.  Our clothes become soaking wet (wicking out) and the cold against the outside of our jacket is then transferred to the moisture inside, meaning we've a permanent cold water layer around our bodies.

- Sometimes a windproof layer will suffice, but as the name suggests, they're in no way designed to cope against rain.  Even drizzle for 30 minutes and my windproof will have leaked completely through.  Unless you've an exit strategy that allows you to bail from your run and into nearby shelter, you're going to get very cold very quickly in this type of jacket.  Best avoided in open country, on your own, or where the conditions are set to be wet for the foreseeable future.  That said, a windproof might solve the issue of ventilation and allow slightly more moisture to escape, or more cooling and therefore reduce perspiration, but you'd have to be very sure of your plans to avoid a disaster.  My normal run home from work lasts only 30mins, which means I can afford to gamble on conditions, safe in the knowledge that if I end up soaked - it'll be just in time to dive into the shower.  I wouldn't risk it otherwise.

Situations where heavy cold rainfall, or cold winds occur suddenly (usually from the east, or the north) will cause you to lose heat in an instant regardless of how hot and bothered you were just prior.  The forceful nature of these events means that the once warm layer of fabric about your body is suddenly flooded with much colder water in a constant barrage.  Or the freezing gusts cool the warm moisture and rapidly turn it into a cold layer.  It's during these extreme turns in the weather that you might resort to wearing the Shell.  When the alternative is to get cold and stay cold, you'd be better getting warm and staying warm.

Here's the most important thing to bear in mind when considering the correct reason to pack that Shell/Emergency Layer - it isn't always running that's important.  Stopping is what often demands that extra layer goes on. 

When you're stood or sat still, no longer generating heat, you need to cover up and preserve what warmth you have.  If you or someone else is injured - when forced to wait a period of time in hostile conditions, these layers are life savers.  Seriously.  Not having them on you at this stage could be potentially fatal.  It may not even be all that hostile. 

- Lick the back of your hand.  Now gently blow on it.  Feel how cold it gets as the air rushes over your wet skin.  Now imagine yourself soaked in sweat, rain or both and having to stop for some reason.  We've probably all removed a hot sweaty backpack, only to put it back on a short while later and it feel ice cold.  With nothing to block that airflow from stripping the heat away, your body can turn hypothermic in mere moments.  Don't assume that you'll never have an accident.  And don't think that you won't stumble onto another individual who's in a pickle, because it happens a lot.

- I've lost count, the times a family have requested directions from the Kinder Scout Plateau (highest place in Derbyshire), or a group have suggested their location on a map, only to find they're wrong by a good 5 miles.  In fading light, I've witnessed people ascending Ben Nevis wearing jeans and carrying belongings in Tesco bags!  Even experienced runners find themselves going through a 'reality check' from time to time.  All it takes is a painful sprain and you may be forced to walk slowly, then you can't generate the heat to stay warm.  That's when the thermal and the shell go on.  Then you hope it's enough as you plod/limp/hobble toward safety/rescue.

So -

Self sufficience is the key.  Possession of the tools, along with the skill to use them correctly.  Maturity enough to carry them even on sunny starts, while macho idiots are darting about in just their shorts, bare chested.

And a word about gloves:

Too many times, a glove that just keeps the chill off, will outstay its welcome once we're hot and bothered. 

But that same glove will fail, as soon as it's tested against continual rain and constant cold water being introduced to those narrow boney fingers.

- The value of a glove layer system is obvious.  Carry a shell glove to ensure - wherever that single pair may let you down, you can seal them in and feel protected against the rain, but more importantly - that wind which will quickly remove heat from a warm wet glove. 

Consider the value of tailoring your gloves for all occasions so that you're confident wherever you go.  Modern shell gloves pack down into even the smallest of gel pockets and weigh next to nothing, so they won't feel like a burden if it turns out they weren't required.  But when the going gets wild, warm hands that can still operate emergency equipment or a telephone are a no brainer.  Not to mention how much more you'll enjoy your run.

In conclusion:

Base Layers - essential first line of defence in removing moisture/shielding you from the cold air. 

While still dry, the hollow fibres and technically woven fabrics will also trap warm air, so will usually be sufficient on its own between 10°C and 5°C for the majority of people. 

Colder than 5°C - (preferred maximum legal temperature for a commercial refridgerator), then I'd consider my destination and potential for nasty weather.  Mid-Layer at the ready, or worn from the get-go and you might just remain comfy while slowly wicking out that Mid-Layer - with relatively cool dry skin underneath. 

- I've personally run into minus 10°C of wind chill on the Kinder Scout edge path overlooking Edale Valley in the Peak District and not had to reach for my Shell.  Good gloves and a head scarf kept the stabbing sleet from attacking my hands and face, while my torso felt sufficiently shielded, venting humidity at a comfortable temperature.


- If you feel that conditions look like they'll remain the same for some time and that you can cope with a thin layer for most of your run (if you get hot quite easily and like me, can sweat a ton), then to stay in the Base-Layer, but have a shell to throw on if it suddenly gets grim, well that can work.  You'll have a thin layer on, which will almost constantly fill with moisture, but will also be evaporating freely and cool you down thanks to the cool air against the wet material.

- I'd still pack a Mid-Layer or thermal pullover if you can for insurance, as comfort on your run is one thing, but common sense still wins for me.  The modern thermals are so easy to pack down, they'll barely half fill a low volume vest pack, which will also allow storage of emergency food, phone or whatever else.

Common mistakes:

Using the shell layer when it looks or feels like it *might* get very cold very soon - Turns your breathable outfit into a 'boil in the bag'so you're already suffering by the time it does get cold.

Many make the mistake of assuming that their jacket is leaking, while it is in fact failing to vent.  A good wash at a low temperature (without detergent which clings to the fibres and stop them from working properly), will remove the dirt that has been deposited over repeated uses and revives the breathability. 

When running in a jacket that is covered in surface water, the pores designed to let the humidity out remain blocked and still make us hotter than we prefer.  That's just the reality of running in hard rain. 

Choosing a jacket with vents and/or zips for quick release of built up humidity would do you more good than one that keeps everything sealed in permanently.  Worth looking for a good jacket with such features if you intend to run in all weathers on a regular basis.

Throwing all your layers on at once and getting too hot, too quickly and soaking all of your clothes before having to peel them off and stash them back into your pack - if you have a pack.  Now heavy, the clothes are a burden, while your wet skin is almost constantly cold whatever you do for the remainder of the run.  Even if you find it a bit brisk to begin with, remove all the layers you can afford to just prior to setting off and re-apply them as required, once you've been moving for a good 10 minutes at least.

Try not to change too often.  Stopping for every minor shift in the conditions means losing your rhythm and never generating the heat that would otherwise keep you happy.  Having gloves on and not suffering cold fingers might improve things enough that you don't so much mind the rest of you feeling a cool breeze through your layers.  It's all relative.  Some of us like to be cool at all times, others enjoy feeling toasty and warm, but nobody should be losing too much fluid in the form of sweat.  Without water, our bodies fall apart.  So it's a careful blend of experience, skill and equipment used correctly that will make the Layering System work for everyone in its own way.

Finally, remember - it's better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.


Chris Hough.

Chris is supported by Team Accelerate

He blogs as Houghboy

He tweets as @HoughboyRunner


Further reading:

Guide to running in snow and winter conditions.

Guide to running in hot weather.


Disclaimer:  When contemplating a successful, safe run in the open country - it's down to the individual's ability to interpret the signs and anticipate changes in terrain and/or weather (where possible) while realistically judging their ability to keep moving well (therefore warmly) for the duration of their run.  Layers won't make you run better, or keep you from having an accident.  This article is designed as a guide, with recommendations for a minimum measure of safeguarding against the negative effects of exposure or over-heating.  No responsibility is taken for poor judgement or circumstances not mentioned in the following text.  Please take resposibility for the safety of yourself and others where you can.





Tuesday 10th of November 2015

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