Running Fashion Police, Weather Edition: Pants, Tights or Shorts?

Hmmm… Are these gals having trouble choosing what bottoms to cover their rumps with? Or are they showing off their butt temporary tattoos?

You may have read that I ran my first race of 2012 last weekend. The Universe must have known I was busy, because it just kept plopping writing material in my lap. I was standing in the bathroom line after warming up in shorts and a long sleeve tech-shirt on a sunny 45 degree morning. I was comfortable. Sweaty, even. One of my fellow runners looked at my apparel and said, “Aren’t your legs going to be cold?” I bit my tongue and smiled a little inside. What a great way to introduce the second major piece of running apparel we will all be choosing on a daily basis this fall and winter: bottoms!


Bottoms are the most straightforward and the first item I choose when dressing for a run. There are three basic types: shorts, tights and pants.

From L to R: loose-fitting pants (Nike), long tights (Mizuno), capri tights (Adidas), and shorts (Nike).

Pants: When purchasing running pants try to find a pair that is loose or semi-fitted and made of a tech fabric. I also like zippers at the ankles so I can get them off over my shoes. If pants are your thing you may wish to have more, but most people I know don’t need more than one good pair.

Tights: Running tights can be ankle-length (tights or long tights) calf-length (capri or 3/4 length) or even knee-length. I like tights for cooler weather because rain and snow can weigh down loose pants and tights make me feel fast even when the cold winter temps make me feel slow. How many pairs you need will vary based on how often you think you will run in them.

Shorts: As you will see below, I think shorts are the most versatile bottoms, which is why I have an overflowing drawer devoted to running shorts. I tend to wear both bun-huggers (tight-fitting shorts) and split shorts (looser fitting shorts) interchangeably, but if it is very humid or raining, I choose boy shorts without exception, as split shorts tend to get weighed down.

When to wear what: bottoms.

Another alternative for bottoms during in-between temperatures are calf sleeves (especially if you’re a dude and aren’t comfortable rocking capri-tights). Since my husband discovered calf-sleeves, his bottom wear decisions are much easier in spring and fall!

So you’re covered from neck to ankles. But, that’s not the saying… we need to get you covered from head to toe! Let’s take a look at some accessories for you hands, head, and feet.


Don’t discount hats, gloves, and socks. These small accessories can make a big difference.

Hats and gloves: If it is <45 degrees I usually wear a headband and gloves. You can experiment with different weights/materials to find what works for you at various temperatures. If it is raining, I throw on a baseball-style hat, since the bill keeps the rain out of my face.

Socks: Want to revolutionize your winter running? I have two tips for you. First, get some thermal socks. Balega, Smartwool and surely other companies make running socks from wool to keep your feet toasty. It makes a huge difference. Second, above the ankle socks may not be stylish, but they cover the space between your tights/pants and shoes. Open skin= cold. Try some higher socks and avoid a frosty rim around your ankle.

These Arm Warmers from Oiselle are a great example.

Arm-warmers: Arm warmers are like sleeves without the shirt, and they’re great when it’s chilly out, but you know you’re going to warm up enough to lose the sleeves early in your run. Or when you start early and know the temperature will increase during your run. They’re also helpful when you don’t want to carry another shirt or tie it around your waist. The selling point for me: it is a lot easier to strip a pair of these guys than a long-sleeved shirt with my bib pinned to it! After all, most races start in the morning and it’s only going to get warmer as the sun comes out! Sun + running = heat!

What criteria do you use to choose your running bottoms? How do you respond when someone comments on your choice of cool -weather running attire?

I'm a pediatric physical therapist by day. Running mostly early am miles as I balance life as the mom of a toddler. With PR days in the past, my primary running goal is to be a lifelong runner. With 20+ years behind me, I still love the sport and I am truly grateful for every day I get to run.

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  1. I used to be a pants-only wearer (and sometimes leggins with shorts! yikes! ) in the winter until last year. My first run in tights was amazing! I couldn’t believe I waited so long!

  2. Capri tights 90% of the time for me! I have a couple pairs of shorts, but I feel most comfortable in capri tights– they make me feel fast! I have one pair of full-length tights, but I’m hoping to run more in the winter and may have to add another pair. I’m on the fence about pants… I have long legs so they’re often not long enough (weird flood length) or way too long (dragging over my shoes). If I get to the point that I think I need them, I’ll definitely be doing some research! I’m intrigued by arm warmers, too… want to give those a shot.

  3. I gotta say capri tights are my savior at almost 8 months pregnant and I’m SO glad the weather is making them reasonable to wear. My shorts fit funny between having to wear them at a slant and late pregnancy ass-spread (yay!) Bunz are out for obvious reasons other than on the comfort of my own basement treadmill. I have a few longer spandex shorts that are decent, but really capri tights are wear it’s at. They also look best with my husband’s gigantic running shirts that I have resorted to wearing. Writing this makes me realize with need a Running Fashion Police Pregnancy Edition!

  4. love it! i need that temp chart now that seasons are changing and i’ve forgotten how to dress myself since last march. how about just undies + sportsbra on the home treadmill – fashion do or fashion don’t? 😉

    1. Why stop there? It’s your house. Don’t you just hate doing laundry, anyway 🙂 haha! But I totally feel like that running in a bra and boy shorts right now. It’s just SCANDALOUS!

      1. Haha – I’ve considered it, just out of curiosity after hearing about naked races. Undies instead of shorts definitely does cut down on the laundry!

  5. I support treadmill undies running any time. Minimal clothing necessary- can that be a salty running mantra? Or maybe rule #6? Is that what number we are up to? 😉

    1. Oh, Rosemary… “if it’s winter, I’m on the treadmill, in my undies, watching TV…” I am laughing out loud right now as I type this remembering talking about this before I left. Ahhh…what memories, and the picture showing our buffness made my smile!

      On a serious note, I am weird and get really warm when I run. As long as the wind is light, and there is no precip, I’m in shorts down to 30 degrees and have dabbled in the 20s. This morning, it was 35, but sunny and warming up, so I was in tight-fitted huggers. Plus, they make me feel like I need to go harder. LOL!

  6. Your chart mostly matches my temperature range, except that I go straight from shorts to tights (no capris). I tend to think of shorts as > 40 for training runs, and > 35 for racing (unless it is very windy and/or raining). I go with an earband for 15-30 degrees, and earband + hat for under 15. Gloves go on < 40, but usually get ditched mid-run if it's above 30. I switch to convertible glove/mittens around 15 degrees, and gloves + mittens around 0 degrees. Since moving to Minnesota, my personal temperature chart has changed to wear I get by with a lot less clothing than I used to.

  7. I love armwarmers! I was a little intimidated about wearing them at first (RW had some comment about how you shouldn’t wear them unless you can win your AG at the local 5K), but they are so great for in-between temps, especially long runs and races. They can easily (well, kinda) be tucked in a pocket or stuffed in a waistband.

  8. I love the flow chart! What a good idea to cut down on decision making! One addendum– when wearing shorts at any temp below 55, thorough application of glide is a required accessory.