Posted by: Joe English | October 3, 2007

Racing: What if the weather is really bad on marathon day?

If you’re preparing for a marathon and the weather forecast is looking bleak, you might be concerned about how to prepare for cold or wet weather – and you should be. In this article, you’ll find some tips and advice for dealing with a tempest on race day.

I should start by saying that I’d actually prefer cold and rainy weather over extreme heat. Heat is simply debilitating and there isn’t much you can do to overcome it, other than to manage your hydration and slow down. Cold, on the other hand, can be managed by dressing for it.

If the weather is going to be extremely cold or raining, the first thing you need to do is think about yourself and how much clothing you need when you train in the cold and rain. I see people here in Portland all winter long running in shorts and t-shirts. I would never do that myself. Personally, I just need a lot more clothing than that. But for some people, they are comfortable in less clothing.

The reason I bring this up, is that so many people show up to a rainy-weather marathon with their “marathon outfit”: perhaps a new singlet or something that they’ve been dying to wear in a race. They may actually put on some additional layers at the starting-line, but they shed down to that pre-selected “marathon outfit” and freeze for the rest of the outing. As I pointed out to start, if YOU need more clothing to run in the cold weather, make sure that you don’t feel some pressure to strip down to a t-shirt and shorts on race day, because you’ll be miserable.

Now that you have this in mind, let’s go over some tips for dealing with the cold weather:
1. Dress in layers – The key is to stay warm at the start and to remove layers as you warm up. It’s better to use more individual layers than fewer thicker ones, so that you have more flexibility to get the temperature right.

2. Cover your skin – When the temperature falls below about 45 degrees, you need to have as much of your skin covered as possible. Wearing a light pair of running tights and long-sleeves will help keep you warm. You can even wear a pair of arm-warmers, which are normally used for cycling, so that you can remove the sleeves if you need to.

3. Wear mittens or gloves – Get yourself an inexpensive pair of cotton gloves to keep your hands warm. This one small step makes a huge difference.

4. Wear a hat – Keep your head covered to retain as much heat as possible. Keep in mind that most running hats are made primarily to keep the sun off of your face and sweat out of your eyes, so a hat made for running in cold weather will be better here.

5. Wear breathable materials – If you’re not accustomed to running the rain, you may not have invested in a rain jacket made for running. Here in Portland we all know that the first rule of picking a running jacket is to make sure that it breathes. If you pick a nylon jacket that has been sealed on the inside (sprayed with a sealant that is), you’ll be soaked with sweat within minutes of starting your run. The jacket you choose is critical to make sure that you don’t inadvertently soak all of your under-layers in the first few minutes of running. Pick a jacket made of Goretex. I find that cycling jackets work best, but make sure to let the sales person know that you plan on running in it, because you’ll be generating even more heat than the typical cycling commuter.

6. Make sure to eat and drink as normal – Don’t forget to eat and drink. You’ll still be sweating (although at a lower rate) and you’ll be burning calories just trying to stay warm.

7. Don’t wear cotton socks – You shouldn’t be wearing cotton socks anyway when you run, but in the rain cotton absorbs water and turns into a very abrasive material against the skin. Wet cotton socks can lead to bad blisters. (Cotton underwear can do the same thing, so avoid that too.)

As I said at the outset of this article, make sure that you start by thinking about how warm that you need to be. When the weather drops, for example, I’m the first to have on tights to keep my legs covered. They don’t bother me at all, and in fact, I’ve run some very fast races in them. But that’s me. You may need less to keep you warm. Or, on the other hand, you may need to covered head-to-foot in clothing just to go outside. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you need to “look” a certain way on race day. Dress in a way that makes sense for you.

We’ve had some nasty weather this year in races, including the torrential rain and wind that made Boston so memorable. While running in bad weather is less comfortable than we’d probably like, it can be manageable – and it make for great stories. If you’d like to read one of my very wet adventure stories, click here.

Stay warm and dry and you’ll be fine!

Related article:
Racing in heat and hot weather

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon USA
Running Advice and News


  1. Joe,
    Excellent suggestions. They should also think about those layers as being expendable also… throw them away once things warm up.

    I think one more thing has to be considered. Now, what I’m suggesting here is more for anyone who is really intent on a specific performance (e.g. time) but might apply to everyone. In your goal setting you should have aback-up race lined up. The better runners do this all the time. Why? Because they don’t want to waste a “race” effort! You only have so many hard marathon efforts in you for a year. If weather is just so foul that you will not perform at your best and achieve what you want to achieve – then bail out. Ideally, of course, is to bail before you ever show up. The best runners will do so even half way into the race. If it is not “your day” why suffer through a race which will require weeks of recovery when you could just use your back-up race and optimize your chances of that great performance?

    One of the things I now work with most of my marathoners on (regardless of ability) is to have just such a back-up plan. Marathons are tough enough as it is. Unless you want a story to tell or prove how tough you are or it’s a once in a lifetime effort (perhaps a Boston?) I strongly recommend to go to Plan B.

    Good luck to all @ Portland!

  2. Great point Coach Dean!

    Runners should always weigh their goals and figure in the conditions on race day before laying it all out on the line. There are days that just won’t produce the best results, whether that be from bad weather, a recent cold, or something else that happens in the days leading to the race.

    Thanks for the point.

    Coach Joe

  3. […] Running Wild with Coach Joe Good luck Portland Marathon Runners!Racing: Radcliffe to run New York Marathon; Jones to plead guiltyRaces: Chicago Marathon Television, Internet and Radio CoverageRaces: another big marathon weekend on tap (Portland, Chicago, St. George)Racing: What if the weather is really bad on marathon day? […]

  4. […] conditions. For a seven point list of things to consider when getting ready to run in bad weather, click here. Although the article is couched in terms of running a race in bad weather, the list of steps for […]

  5. […] weather holds to predictions, you will want to check out my article on racing in cold weather, by clicking here. It contains a check-list of items to keep in mind when racing in bad […]

  6. Thanks for the great article. It and another one I read ( have really helped me a lot.

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