The Basics: Preparing for the weather at a race

Posted by Dave on November 8, 2011 | 2 Comments


It’s a week before the big race, you’ve started tapering and you can’t work out your anxiety with a nice, long run, so instead you begin to obsess over every detail. What if you get sick? What if you miss your flight or get caught in a traffic jam? What if it rains, or it’s too hot or cold?

Many of these things are out of your control, but you can prepare for the weather. Of course you’ll want to bring clothes for the range of possible weather conditions you’ll meet on the race course, but in most fall races in the U.S., conditions are actually fairly predictable: It will likely be quite chilly at the start of the race, and warm up as the race goes on.

If you’re running a marathon — especially a marquee race like New York or Boston, you may have to be at the starting area several hours before the race starts, when it will almost certainly be cold and dark. In addition to deciding what to wear at the race, you’ll need to bring clothes that will keep you warm while you wait around for the start.

Depending on the amenities at your race, there are several options. You could plan on wearing extra layers that you will drop of at the bag-check. If there is no bag check, then you could wear old clothes that you’re planning on getting rid of. Many runners wear a large plastic garbage bag before the race; this is especially useful if it’s raining. If you run lots of races, you could save the mylar blanket they give you at the end and use it to keep warm at the start of your next race. Just remember: At this point it’s best to overdress. For a marathon, you don’t want to waste too much energy walking around trying to stay warm. You’ll need to wear enough that you can sit down and still be warm.

I have generally found that I can remove my extra layers 20 to 30 minutes before the start of the race and strip down to whatever I’m planning to start the race in without getting too cold. Between the adrenaline of getting ready for a race and the warm bodies in the starting area, I stay warm enough.

But what about the race itself? It might be 40 degrees or cooler when you start, but by the finish the temperature could have risen to 60 degrees or warmer. When you are warmed up and running at race pace, you won’t need to wear as much as you start with.

Some runners will start the race wearing a light jacket they plan on tying around their waist as it warms up. I prefer not to do this, but if you are someone who gets very cold, that’s certainly an option. A lightweight option would be to wear arm warmers. You can get high-tech compression sleeves for $40 or more, but you probably won’t be willing to discard them if you warm up, so unless you’re certain you’ll wear them for the whole race, I’d recommend looking for inexpensive warmers. Do a search and you can probably find a pair for less than $10. If you do wear a jacket, make sure your bib is visible as you cross the start and finish lines. Many races now use disposable bib tags for electronically recording your time, and if the tag is covered with clothing, your time may not be recorded.

Another runner’s staple is the $1 disposable pair of gloves. You can usually find these at expos before large races, or just go to your local hardware store and buy cheap cloth gardening gloves.

It’s more difficult to find disposable legwear, but I have generally found that a pair of calf sleeves or compression socks works fine for temperatures ranging from below freezing up to 70 degrees. If you tend to run cold, consider running in compression tights instead. Just remember you’ll be wearing them for the entire race, so make sure you’ve tried them beforehand in the temperatures you expect at the finish.

This photo shows what I wore to the start of the Steamboat Marathon last June, where it was in the 30s at the starting line:

From the outside in, I’m wearing a cap, a full set of rain gear, an $8 set of sweats I bought at Goodwill, and shorts and a singlet. I checked the rain gear (which I had brought for warmth; there was no rain in the forecast) and wore the sweats (and a pair of $1 gloves) to the start. I discarded the sweats before I started running, and tossed the gloves at an aid station a few miles in to the race. By the race finish, the temperature was in the 60s, and I was perfectly comfortable for the entire race.

One other tool I’ve just discovered makes planning for race weather quite convenient. While the major weather web sites will give you an hourly forecast for a couple days, they often won’t tell you what you most need to know: The expected conditions at the start and finish of the race, several days from now. Fortunately, the National Weather Service does offer that service. Just go to their website at and type in the city and state or zip code you’re interested in. That gets you a 7-day forecast. Now scroll down and click on “hourly weather graph” to get a fantastic hourly summary of weather over the next two days. Unlike commercial sites, you can set the set the starting point of these graphs as far as 5 days ahead, giving you hourly weather forecasts up to 7 days out.

Obviously, the farther ahead the forecast, the less reliable it is, but this allows you to get a good sense of the potential weather conditions well ahead of the race. What else are you going to do while you’re carefully not running as you wait for race day to arrive?


2 Responses to “The Basics: Preparing for the weather at a race”

  1. Travis
    November 15th, 2011 @ 5:53 pm

    Buying cheap clothes at the Salvation Army was one of the best pieces of advice we got before doing Boston. I’m not sure about other big races, but at Boston they actually collect all the discarded clothes, which I presume that they then give to goodwill. I’m a big believer in erring on the side of being too cold rather than too warm, but buying cheap gear that you don’t mind throwing away at the start line is a great compromise.

  2. zoon politikon
    November 23rd, 2011 @ 4:56 pm


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