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Choosing the Right Running Jacket

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Recently, a few coached runners have asked me to recommend a waterproof jacket. My response is never to recommend a particular jacket but rather to talk through the various factors that they need to consider when narrowing down their choices. I thought it may be helpful to summarise those factors here. So let’s dive in, first by considering why we are buying this piece of kit in the first place.

  1. Is it actually a waterproof that you need?

This might seem like a daft question, and obviously if you haven’t got a waterproof then you’re going to need one, but sometimes runners default to wearing a waterproof when it’s not actually raining but they are trying to stay warm. You may think that this makes sense – 2 birds with 1 stone and all that, but there are significant differences between a windproof and waterproof. Waterproofs, whilst they may claim to be breathable, generally have very limited breathability, especially the ones with high water-proofing properties. The fabric treatment process for windproofs (e.g. pertex) is different, and means they are usually more breathable. So whilst the rain may not get under your waterproof, if it’s not raining then you’re more likely to get damp and cold in it due to sweat build up. Windproofs also often do a better job of actually blocking wind and therefore keeping you snug on a dry day. Not only that but a good waterproof will likely set you back significantly more than a good windproof, so why use the expensive bit of kit when it’s not needed? So if what you need is a good jacket to keep you warm on a cold winter’s day on the fells, then look at investing in a good windproof before you add to your collection of waterproofs.

2. What do you need it for?

Having established that it really is a waterproof that you’re looking for, consider its use:

-Are you buying something to use to keep you dry on short road runs, do you want something to protect you on a winter ultra in the mountains, or is it something in between?

-A versatile piece of kit may be preferable, reducing both upfront cost and environmental impact

-On the other hand, having more than 1 waterproof designed for different purposes may mean less compromise on features and extend the lifespan of each item (particularly important for high-end waterproofs necessary for extreme/ prolonged conditions):


Now you’ve narrowed down your needs, let’s have a look at some of the features you need to consider:

  1. Fabric

-Look at the hydrostatic head count. This is a measure used by most brands to designate just how waterproof they are (it relates to the depth of a column of water that the jacket could resist before letting water through – look online if you want more info!). If you want a jacket that is going to give you a good level of waterproofing on your average rainy day and pass kit check for most ultras and fell races then 10,000mm may be adequate. However, the waterproof quality of a jacket will be compromised if you wear a vest/pack over your jacket and so you need to account for this and generally should be looking for at least a 20,000 count if you run regularly with a pack. You may want to go to 30,000 if you are looking at a winter ultra for example;

-Remember that a jacket must have fully taped seams to be considered waterproof and to pass kit check;

-Generally speaking, heavier jackets will offer better insulation as they will keep away from underlying fabric and create air pockets (dry air is the best insulator). But they may be less breathable, so may be suitable for a long winter ultra where you will be moving slowly but not for a wet spring race;

-You may want to consider MVR, which is a measure of how breathable the garment is, but isn’t widely viewed as reliable. I personally think it’s better just to get the usage and layering right rather than worry too much about this figure;

-Goretex: This is generally regarded as the creme de la creme as far as waterproofing is concerned. It is usually associated with higher end jackets and the prefered fabric for long races in extreme conditions. However, this needs to be balanced with breathability and cost.

2. Style

What size do you need? This isn’t as simple as replicating the size of your normal clothing, you need to consider: How many layers might you want/ need underneath? Do you want it snug, or loose fitting for improved movement? Do you want to wear it under your pack (for easy pack access) or over (for ease of getting your jacket on and off and less compromise of the waterproofing)? Consider the placement and style of pockets and zips. Are these are in the right place to accommodate your preferences. Do they provide the right ease of access without compromising waterproofing? Do they provide adequate storage for the things you’ll need (particularly important if you’re wearing your jacket over your pack/ vest)? How much protection is there in key areas such as the hood and cuffs? Are they adjustable, is the hood stiff or close-fitting enough to stay up in a storm? Colour: If you are thinking of setting of into the hills, or indeed if you’re running on roads at night, opt for the most gareish, bright clour you can find. Yes it might make you look unco-ordinated in the race photos, but it might just keep you alive. Visability can be the difference between the mountain rescue team spotting you in the failing light on a foggy fell or a car driver spotting you as you cross the road. Our sport can be a risky one so it’s a good plan to do what you can to make it less so.

Found your perfect jacket?

Great, but don’t forget that you also need to use it properly for it to be effective. More on this on another post to follow, but a couple of keys points to keep you going:

-If it’s not raining, don’t wear it. Wear a windproof or other breathable layers instead;

-If it is raining, put it on straight away and make sure it is zipped up and completely covering any layers underneath. Remember that the wicking fabric that most of your running clothes are made from are designed to move moisture – and this movement can take place in all directions. So a wet cuff sticking out from under your jacket will soon become a wet sleeve;

-Remember that a waterproof will only protect you from water coming in. You need to wear a long sleeve base layer underneath to wick sweat away from the body. This should be close-fitting and have technical wicking properties (usually a knitted fabric);

-Your waterproof jacket is potentially a life-saving piece of kit. So don’t forget to look after it. Don’t store it screwed up at the bottom of your bag. Ensure you keep it loose, dry it out after use and get rid of mud or grit which could affect the integrity of the fabric. Don’t forget that it will need washing and potentially re-proofing according to the manufacturer’s instructions to retain its waterproof properties and prolong it’s life. If it gets torn or damaged, you can self-repair, or many manufacturers or small businesses now offer a repair service to ensure that your jacket really can have a long life.