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The best winter running gear

Everything from a fitness tracker to a reflective ankle band for working out after dark.

The Sweethome
01.29.16
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By The Sweethome Staff

This post was done in partnership with The Sweethome, a buyer's guide to the best things for your home. Read the full article here.

Running is one of the most accessible forms of aerobic exercise: You can do it almost anywhere without needing a gym membership or expensive equipment. However, although you can run while wearing just about anything, that doesn't mean you'll have a good time doing it, especially in cold weather. We spent more than 90 hours researching and testing running gear and enlisted the help of a current collegiate track coach (and former podiatrist), a former Runner's World editor, and several of the most passionate runners on our staff to help us find the best gear to get you up and running this winter.

Running socks

The women's version (left) and the men's version (right) feature the same comfy and durable design throughout the sock. Photo: Jim McDannald

After asking eight university distance runners to help test four of the top running socks, we recommend the Darn Tough Tab No Show Light Cushion (for men and women). These socks were comfortable right out of the bag, with no seams to irritate testers' feet. They have an unparalleled reputation for durability that makes them a favorite among Pacific Crest Trail backpackers. Made from a blend of merino wool and nylon, which is an ideal running-clothing material, these sweat-wicking socks keep feet warm in the winter and cool in the summer. They also keep feet dry, which is crucial for blister prevention. Merino blends cost a bit more than other fabrics but wick better than cotton and resist odor better than synthetic—both of which are highly desirable traits in a running sock.

Running gloves

The tips of the Smartwool gloves have integrated capacitive material for superior touchscreen compatibility. Photo: Jim McDannald

Liner gloves make great stand-alone running gloves because they're cozy enough to take the bite off a chilly morning while you warm up but not so thick that they get hot as your heart gets pumping. If temps get really cold, you can always add a shell or a mitten. We like merino liners because all of the natural sweat-wicking, odor-resisting characteristics that make the material great for socks apply to gloves as well. After having 10 collegiate track runners, both men and women, test five pairs of merino liner gloves, we recommend Smartwool Liner Gloves, which offer the best combination of durability, touchscreen sensitivity on the thumb and index finger, and warmth. In our tests, Outdoor Research Biosensor Liners also worked great with touchscreens but lacked the durability of the Smartwool gloves.

Headphones

The Plantronics BackBeat Fit.

After considering 145 sport-specific headphones and testing the 82 best-reviewed and newest options, we think the Plantronics BackBeat Fit is the best set of wireless headphones for running. While unsealed headphones tend to sound worse than their sealed counterparts due to a lack of bass, they allow you to hear your surroundings so that you can remain safe while running on busy streets. Among the unsealed in-ear Bluetooth headphones we tested, the BackBeat Fit sounded the absolute best. Yes, you lose some of the low-end frequencies and the richness that comes with a good deep bassline, but overall the BackBeat Fit doesn't sound in any way objectionable. The headphones also fit well on a wide variety of ears, have a sturdy feel, and come with a neoprene pouch that doubles as a smartphone armband. No other unsealed Bluetooth headphones even come close.

Fitness tracker

The Garmin vívosmart HR. Photo: Amy Roberts

After 60 hours of research, reader surveys, expert interviews, user-experience analysis, sleep, and exercise, we've determined that the Garmin vívosmart HR is the best fitness tracker for most people. It tracks steps taken, floors climbed, distance traveled, calories burned, and active minutes. It monitors heart rate continuously, keeping a record of both resting pulse and workout intensity; many rivals do one or the other, but not both. Its display is easy to read, and you can customize it more than its peers to show whatever metrics you desire. The display also manages to show smartphone notifications and the current weather along with music-player and camera remote controls, something its closest competitor, the Fitbit Charge HR, can't touch. Its distance-measuring accuracy is particularly impressive, even when compared with that of trackers sporting built-in GPS receivers. And it packs all of this functionality into a slim, waterproof package.

ID tag

The Road ID Wrist ID Sport safety ID band.

After 10 hours of research, including interviews with first responders and ER doctors, we recommend the Road ID Wrist ID Sport safety ID band. This adjustable identification band displays personal and health information on a replaceable stainless-steel tag that you wear right where first responders are most likely to notice it. Unlike competitors that require the use of a QR code or tuck handwritten information away behind Velcro, the Road ID Wrist ID Sport makes your information immediately available, engraved on the band in legible text, no fuss required. In our tests, runners also liked the comfort, fit, and low-profile design. When our testers wore the Wrist ID Sport in conjunction with some other running gear for this guide, a couple of them completely forgot that they had it on.

Reflective wear

Road ID's High Visibility Reflective Ankle Band.

After extensive testing by a crew of three runners and an automobile driver on two dark stretches of pavement, we found that the single most useful piece of reflective running gear is Road ID's High Visibility Reflective Ankle Band. In our tests, this band was extremely reflective from all angles, well constructed, and comfortable to wear. You can wear ankle bands every day, regardless of the weather conditions, and they don't require frequent washing. In our experience, these bands also proved to be more useful and versatile in a variety of conditions compared with many of the other reflective-gear options we tested. Most important, nothing caught our test driver's attention faster than a reflective ankle band—even vests with larger amounts of reflective material weren't as eye-catching, because they didn't move around as much.

Water bottle

The Nathan SpeedDraw Plus fits comfortably in your hand and has room for an iPhone 6 with a case. Photo: Amadou Diallo

After more than 100 miles of testing with 14 different bottles (seven of each type), we think the best handheld water bottle is the Nathan SpeedDraw Plus Insulated Flask. It was easier to hold and drink from while running than the other bottles we tried. Designed to hold 18 ounces of water, it's fully insulated to keep liquids cool on hot days. In contrast to the competition, the Nathan bottle's pouch can hold keys and multiple energy gels or an iPhone 6, and its spout requires you to merely squeeze the bottle instead of opening it. In our tests, it adjusted easily to fit the hands of people between 5 foot 1 and 6 foot 3, whereas other bottles were harder to adjust in size.

If you prefer a waist-mounted bottle, we have a recommendation in our full guide.

Energy gel

GU Original Sports Nutrition Energy Gel.

After considering all the brands and flavors of gels available, we concluded that we can't name a best one for you without knowing your specific preferences, but we are confident in recommending GU Original Sports Nutrition Energy Gels as a good starting point. GU offers the best overall nutrition, variety of flavors, availability, and affordability (around $1 per packet). That means you're likely to find a flavor you don't abhor (none are particularly delicious), and it's likely to remain easy to find so you can train with it—an important factor for preventing gastrointestinal surprises on race day.

Massage roller

A position for rolling the front of your quadriceps. Photo: Dan Koeppel/Courtesy In & Up Pilates

After 12 hours of research and interviews with five sports-medicine professionals, we recommend trying the OPTP PRO-ROLLER Soft if your muscles feel tight after running. The physical therapists we interviewed agreed that it's superior to less expensive, less comfortable basic rollers, as well as to oddly textured, often pricier "advanced" rollers. OPTP's closed-cell design makes its rollers more durable and easier to clean than anything else available. That's why these rollers are the overwhelming choice of professionals, including Jonathan E. Gallas, a physical therapist at Rockford Orthopedic Associates in Rockford, Illinois, who told us in an interview that the OPTP is his "go-to, all-around rolling tool." I've never seen another brand in a physical therapist's office.

What about shoes?

You won't find a single shoe that's the best shoe for every foot. Photo: Amadou Diallo

Because feet come in a variety of sizes and shapes—and because the people attached to those feet run in endless ways—picking a single best running shoe out of thousands of available designs is impossible. You're better off with solid, basic information that can help you make your own choice. And you'll find that information in our full guide.

This guide may have been updated by The Sweethome. To see the current recommendation, please go here.

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