Four completely unrelated friends of mine told me they took up running for the first time, or for the first time in a long time this year. With the prospects of no gyms, no vacations, no offices, and no haircuts, running was what the pandemic offered: grow out our Steve Prefontaine and Flo Jo hairdos and find that road to nowhere.
As a certified Road Runners Club of America running coach (certifiable know-it-all), I felt compelled to pepper these unsuspecting friends with tips— even before they asked.
I was out for a walk with one of them recently and she asked me what to do now— specifically how to dress as the weather turns chilly here in the Northeast. She had no idea the pandora’s box of advice she had just opened. This time, since it was solicited, I was free to inundate her with my full and complete, never before published theory. After about 30 minutes, she jokingly asked for a chart to remember it all.
My friends, there are no jokes when it comes to dressing for the cold. So here, revealed for the first time anywhere in writing, is the definitive guide to dressing for (and learning to love) the fall and winter weather, aka The Cinquino Progression.
Origins of The Cinquino Progression
I am a lifelong runner who came of age in the lake effect snows of Lake Erie and near the winds and waves of Lake Ontario— and have spent every winter of my life in cold weather. As such, I have developed and refined this strategic sequence of increasingly warmer clothing adjustments meticulously, incorporating new fabrics and discoveries over the years.
Running Boom Trivia Question: What was the first great invention of the modern era of cool weather clothing, as recognized by inclusion in the original 1970s version of the Cinquino Progression?
If you are thinking “hat” you are not exactly wrong, but you are also not correct. People knew to put on a hat long before Frank Shorter won the 1972 Olympic Marathon.
Hint: This first true cold weather running innovation was invented for athletics by the Nelson Knitting Company of Rockford, Illinois in 1967, when it was used exclusively for another purpose.
Answer: Tube socks. Specifically, tube socks worn to keep the wind off your arms and your hands warm (but not too warm). Readily available and easily removed as you warmed up, tube socks on the arms were the Eureka moment of this runner’s cold weather life. I can only thank God that I survived their use, since they were made of 100% cotton. More on that later.
Pay Off #1: Run Longer, More Comfortably
The goal of The Cinquino Progression is to keep you comfortable and keep you running right up until the bitter end known as The 3-Layer Maximum. (This is the cold weather threshold when you stay inside and watch Margaux Hemingway’s Personal Best again.)
The guiding principle of the Cinquino Progression is to prepare the runner way for winter by being be a little cold in the fall. The idea is that, by easing into the cool weather with minutely gradated additions to your winter clothing, your body will acclimate to the cooler temps and give you some natural tolerance and comfort when it becomes even colder. This is apparently the way chickens are cared for also— I’ve heard that if you give them too much warmth in their coop as the winter comes on, they are vulnerable to freezing if something happens to the heat supply during a cold snap. But when you let them acclimate, they can survive that same weather without difficulty. So think of The Cinquino Progression as the way you, too, can grow feathers to inoculate you against the colder temps that are on the way.
This orderly progression can also deliver a very specific payoff— your best run of the year. More on that later, too.
Let us start with the inviolable rule that could save your life.
Yes, for a moment forget about Covid-19, heart disease, smoking, medical errors, rabid dogs, lawn darts, a thousand cuts. America’s greatest killer may be cotton. I don’t need facts to back up this claim, because I choose to believe that it is true. Follow along. Cotton holds moisture, moisture traps cold, cold traps you. Then you die, frozen and alone like a Jack London Marathon. Stick with wicking fabrics in every season, but especially in the winter.
The other safety rule is less controversial: you may find yourself running in dawn or twilight hours as the days shorten, so wear a reflective strip or vest, headlamp, or strobe. Be seen, be safe. (ie. Cars kill, too.)
There is no specific timeline for applying The Cinquino Progression. Your personal cold tolerance will dictate what is the acceptable chill at each stage, as the days shrink toward winter.
The critical thing is that you go through each phase in sequence as temps drop. Of course, if winter hits all at once and the temps drop 30 degrees in one day, you may need to skip a stage or two for that day. But treat that like an emergency. When more moderate temps return, go back and pick up the progression where you left off. Same thing if the weather turns unseasonably warm, peel back as many stages as possible before resuming.
The rule of thumb at every stage is the same: you should be a little cold when you start out. Kind of like arriving at a nude beach for the first time: if you feel comfortable right away, you have overdressed.
One last edict about the weather at this time of year: there is nothing you can do with freezing rain. I cannot help you. No one can help you. Just don’t. Put on hot water for tea and dig out that pair of shorts with the drawstring that got stuck inside over the summer. That will be more fun than running in freezing rain. For extra fun, do a google translate of curse words in exotic languages to use while you stick yourself with the safety pin during extraction. Start with Alajaina!
With these ground rules understood and sworn to upon your Farmer’s Almanac, we can proceed.
The Cinquino Progression:
10 Stages To Comfort in the Cold
Start with a base of shorts and a short-sleeved technical t-shirt, then add clothing as you progress through each numbered stage. This clothing stepladder is cumulative unless noted.
Stage 1: The Second T-Shirt The first adjustment to make is to add a second technical t-shirt. This keeps your torso from the damp winds of fall yet allows your arms to start their adaptation to the cold.
Stage 2: Gloves Fingers always get cold earlier in the fall than I expect. A pair of light, wicking gloves will make for much more pleasant runs in the fall on cooler days and throughout winter. Polyester, acrylic, and polypropylene won’t kill you.
Stage 3: Knit hat This not only gives you warmth but it’s the single best way to adjust your heat during a run. Put it on when you get started, take it off as you warm up, then put it back on again as you slow down at the end of your run. Make sure it’s not too heavy. Don’t use wool. Just a nice polyester or acrylic blend that isn’t holding onto moisture as you go. (Some do, and I can’t really explain why— so you may need to experiment with a few). For full effect, choose a Minnesota Vikings hat, then throw it off like Mary Tyler Moore when you are done.
Stage 4: Long-sleeved shirt as primary shirt Now that your arms have acclimated to the cold, we can ensconce them in some warmth. Switch to long sleeves in place of your short-sleeved base layer (rather than layering it quite yet).
Stage 5: Vest Nothing in my cold weather running life has vexed me more than the use of the vest. It’s incredibly versatile (perhaps second only to the knit hat.) I’ve answered koans more easily than questions related to proper use of the vest. (eg. “What is the color of wind? Answer: Tube socks!) I’ve come down to this. The vest basically serves the same role as the long-sleeved shirt. It’s paradoxical, I know, since by definition it has no arms. I have learned to live with that inconsistency. So that means you can add it here, or skip it and move right onto the next stage. Or substitute one for the other in any of this, up until the jacket comes into play. Don’t ever wear a vest with a jacket, no matter how good it looks on Chris Hemsworth. You are not Chris Hemsworth. It’s too much wind resistance and not enough warmth and wicking. My ideal vest is light, wind breaker type material that is bright colored with reflective strips for visibility. And a little big. That way, you can wear it here, primarily for its warming qualities, or over other layers as safety precaution in the twilight hours.
Stage 6: Long-sleeved shirt as second shirt Now you are back to layering. You can either ditch the vest, or ditch the t-shirt and use the vest on top of the long-sleeved shirt. Feel free to curse at that troublesome vest. Belegug siah!!
Stage 7: Tights or (non-lethal, see COTTON KILLS above) sweatpants One caveat. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to feel the cold in my knees more and more after I run. Summer, they don’t bother me. But as the weather turns, they can. I think it’s probably both the legs being less warm and ground being harder as the temps come down. What’s more, the reality that you may need to now run more often on cement sidewalks (rather than softer asphalt in the roads) if you are out in the dark after work puts you on the hardest possible surface. So if that’s an experience you notice, move the tights up on the progression to wherever you start to feel sore knees after a run in the cold.
Stage 8 Light jacket as second shirt (t-shirt or long-sleeved shirt as primary). Getting serious now. This is mostly about keeping the increasingly cold winds and moist air off of you. Warning: The worst decision of the winter is to overdress under this jacket— wicking won’t happen very easily when you have on a wind layer, so you are prone to catching a chill as you go. Stick with one layer underneath whenever you can. A full front zipper on the jacket is ideal, so you can lower it and ventilate as you warm up.
Stage 9 Mittens Gloves are fine on most cold days— but they are not as warm as mittens. I thought the gloves with the mitten covers would be a great idea, but have been disappointed. Once your fingers are cold in the gloves, adding the mitten cover doesn’t do kecy (that’s Czech). When it’s coold, only mittens will do.
Stage 10: The 3-Layer Maximum And when it’s coooooold, you go to 3 layers— one t-shirt, one long-sleeve shirt, and the light jacket with hat, mittens, tights. There is no fourth layer. EVER. If it’s too cold for three layers (and it can be), then go watch Elf. Notice that Buddy is happy in just tights, a jacket and hat. However, you are not an elf— and I know, (spoiler alert) neither is he, but don’t be a klár rass— today is not a running day.
Temperatures, Your Chart, and Real Feel
While there is no set timeline of how long to dress according to the different stages, you may be able to use temperature as a general guide.
Start with the temperature where you put on the second T-shirt. That first inkling that ok, fall is arriving. You probably have already noticed that is happening now on some days. For me, personally, it’s around 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Now, jump to the end of the Cinquino Progression at Stage 10, The 3-Layer Maximum. This is where you draw the line. Where if it’s below that, you stay in. I’d encourage you to not fix this arbitrarily right now. But maybe just come up with a number that sounds reasonable, then pay attention this winter and see if you can push that a little— or if you are uncomfortable and need to dial it back. With me, being a winter wonder boy, it’s around 10 degrees. So in my case, I plan to pass through the entire Cinquino Progression in 45 degrees, or 4 – 5 degrees per stage.
Now use the Cinquino Progression chart to connect these two points by gradually filling in temperatures, until you have kind of a rule of thumb about what to wear in a specific temperature. PLEASE NOTE: That kind of enormously oversimplified chart (of what to wear for any specific temperature) should ONLY be consulted after you’ve made it through a large chunk of the progression, and the temperature changes abruptly. Then, it can help you get a quick answer on what you might want to wear that specific day. Specific results will vary.
So be judicious with the chart. The whole idea here is to move through each and every stage of the progression. That’s why it works.
Final note on temperature. I’ve come around on the use of Real Feel as a more accurate measure than temperature, after I examined Accu Weather’s patent filing, which you can find here. (https://patents.google.com/patent/US6768945B2/en). Spoiler alert #2: sunshine matters.
Payoff #2: The Best Run of the Year
By now, you realize, the winter is not something I want to escape from, it’s what I want to be in the middle of. I’m not a big skier or ice fisher. My favorite way to be one with the season is to run through it. To fly the coop. Strut my tail feather.
This yellow brick road of progression leads us to running’s Oz: the annual run that revives me, well, like the snow in The Wizard of Oz poppy field. (Maybe not the best simile since the reason our heroes were so doped up was because heroin comes from poppies and the filmmakers actually used industrial grade asbestos to make it snow. Sometimes, a know-it-all knows too much.)
Smack and mesothelioma aside, that day of the first snow is the best of the best. When I’ve properly worked my way through The Cinquino Progression, on this day, I can often ditch a few layers and be out in the snow and really be present with it. I am not hidden away, addled under too many layers. I am not trying to push the cold away to pretend it’s not there. Most years, I can do this run back at stage 4, without tights or maybe with tights but just a t-shirt or two. Or yes, a vest.
When you immerse yourself in that magic moment, when the first fluffy (real) snow is falling, and the winter is no longer coming, but actually upon us, like a gentle knock on the door, you arrive as a true winter runner. That is the day that the cold weather kid in me lives for— the silence, the calm, the old friend of a thousand winters come again to welcome me into its home. There’s no place like home.