Col's Blog: Waterproof running jackets - don't get me started!!!

Dearly beloved runners,

In this sermon I would like to talk about waterproof running jackets at a risk of repeating myself, over and over!

For those of a weak stomach for being told the truth, scroll past, although it's more than likely that you are in the category that needs to read this.

Now, I don’t like to use the term ‘expert’ as it has no substance or qualification requirement. Indeed, breaking the word ‘expert’ down: an ex is a has been and a spurt is a drip under pressure!

Instead, in the field of running, I would prefer to call myself a learned and experienced user of running attire. For those that don’t know my running resume, let’s just say I was running distances longer than a standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles in the mountains and fells before the term ultra was even used to describe such a run. And yet, I am still not an authority by any means, so take this as you see fit. Some folk can’t and won’t, however, be told!

To set the tone of this blog, and at the risk of sounding like a condescending father, in my day we didn’t have the plethora of choice of shoes, packs and technical fabrics. We just got on with it and raced hard against each other and the elements. Yes, accidents and deaths occurred but I would argue the introduction of more technical fabrics and equipment has not made taking part in this sort of event/ pastime any safer. In fact, with the increasing popularity of such events, the number of accidents and actual deaths has increased.

In the last 50 years in the sport of fell running in the UK, there have been five fatalities. One of these such tragedies happened in 1994, when Judith Taylor, 45, of Blackburn, died after getting into trouble during the Kentmere Horseshoe Race, which also took place in poor weather. An inquest found she died of hypothermia. Her husband, Phil Taylor, of Ambleside, said it was up to runners to take responsibility for their actions on the fells.

“In the end everyone has to be self-reliant.”

(Source: Westmorland Gazette 3rd May 2012)

In comparison, more recently, 51 runners died running and racing mountains in Western Europe alone between 2008 and 2019 according to a study in the journal, Wilderness, and Environmental Medicine. The most common causes of death were cardiac issues, injury from falls and hypothermia.

Moreover, last year the sport was reeling from the news that 21 people died in an ultra-marathon in China. The weather worsened leaving ill-prepared runners in t-shirts and shorts facing strong winds and hail.

So, what is my point you ask?

The point is that despite all the new gear available, it is the user that is at fault and not the garments. In essence, people are not wearing or using the clothing available to them correctly. At this point, I might go so far as to say that many an entrant at such races don’t have the personal skills, knowledge and ability to prevent themselves from getting into difficulties, let alone getting themselves out of trouble. The supposed safety net of frequent checkpoints, reliance on GPX files and gadgets, and the fact that there is always mountain rescue on hand, does nothing to help matters.

Checkpoints? On my last UK mountain trail race in Cumbria, a 20-mile self-navigation race through mountainous terrain, with competitors setting off at 4-minute intervals, there were no manned aid stations; no supporters cheering the way; no crew teams following us around giving us a stroke; just remote orange and white flags to navigate to and from.

So, I am here to enlighten you if you are willing to take advice on board, and, judging by what I see running around the parks, roads and trails of the south west, you have failed to heed these instructions from either the staff in stores or the online world. When buying online the advice is sparse if even available so you have probably never been told when and how to wear said pieces of kit.

You could just go on a random forum on social media and ask a question of course as everyone is an expert on those groups.

In any case, here, for what it’s worth, is my advice from extensive years of experience as a fell/ mountain/ trail/ road runner over distances from 800m to 105 miles, and as a former Royal Marine Commando serving in mountainous regions and the Artic circle...

The waterproof jackets are not waterproof. The material is but the very fact that they have a hole for the head/ face, two for the hands and one for the body means water will get in. If the zip is not fully done up, water will get in.

By water, I mean rain, or precipitation.

If you are out running in the rain, there is a very high probability you will get wet. Don’t like getting wet? Run on a dread mill or take up snooker.

So why bother buying or even wearing one you ask? For the majority of runners, you don’t need to, although I’m happy to take over £100 off you for one in store.

The truth is that waterproof running jackets are there for four reasons only:

  1. For safety on long events in remote locations such as the coastal paths, mountains and moorlands of the national parks, for example. If the unfortunate should happen and the runner becomes lost or injured, then the jacket should be pulled out and put on so as to protect you from the elements, if required. I have known runners get injured and had to spend an hour or more before being rescued while sheltering behind a random rock, using old gel wrappers as insulation.

  2. On an event where the weather is foul, ie raining heavily with no sign of let up, and the runner is not moving fast enough to generate enough body heat to keep them warm, even when wet, and has a considerable time/ distance left to run.

  3. Because it is part of mandatory kit on an events kit list for the reasons explained above. Note: In my experience, although there is a mandatory kit list for many races, including fell and trail events, as a requirement for a race license and insurance purposes, I have witnessed many paying lip service to this. However, I have also experienced some race companies enforcing this and preventing runners from participating which has created unnecessary heated exchanges at registration. All power to them I say, and if you turn up having not read the instructions and without the kit, then don’t expect to run. If it was my event, I wouldn’t let you run, no matter how much you paid, or had travelled. You have been warned.

  4. As a running coach, where you are stood around for long periods in the rain, with only the occasional break into a run.

To explain this point more, we have all seen the top marathon runners running in torrential rain, and I guarantee that none of them were wearing waterproof jackets:

A) Because they were moving fast enough to stay warm

B) They were never that far away from civilisation so that if they got into difficulty, they could get help almost immediately

C) They are conditioned and experienced enough to know what their capabilities are.

For every other occasion, there is no reason to be wearing one. Waterproof jackets are similar in price to a pair of quality running shoes, if not more in some instances, so to help you extend the life of the jacket, it makes sense to wear only when you need it.

For every other occasion there are windproofs which are generally much cheaper, lighter and more breathable.

A windproof will cover most eventualities for us runners. It's light, cheaper than a waterproof and you can wash it far more often, daily in most cases, without fear of ruining it and constantly re-proofing it.

If I was out on a long run in a remote area for an hour or more, I would dress for the conditions which may involve wearing a windproof, but I would also carry a waterproof in a bum bag or similar for the reasons stated earlier.

Alternatively, if I was out for a tempo session around the park, and it was raining cats and dogs, I might wear a waterproof jacket for the warm up, but not for the session itself. Mainly because I would overheat and get sweaty, but also because I would be degrading an expensive piece of running attire when I actually didn’t need to wear it.

The reason for this outburst of emotional ranting is that on too many occasions I have seen runners out in dry conditions, conducting sprint interval sessions in the local park, wearing a waterproof. I have also witnessed folk running out on Dartmoor, wearing their waterproof when there hasn’t been a cloud in the sky!

Okay, so it might have been January, and yes, the temperature was in single figures, but the purpose of a waterproof is to keep you dry, not warm. There are long sleeve base layers for that; and for keeping the wind chill off, there are windproof jackets; the clue is in the name!

In store, we have also received a few waterproof jackets returned, for reasons claimed that they are not actually waterproof or they have delaminated (the inside coating has come off). These then get sent off for testing with the manufacturer and all but one was found to be still waterproof, and the ones that delaminated were found to have evidence of washing in detergent not suitable for waterproof jackets.

Again, from experience, if you are running hard while wearing a waterproof, your body is going to sweat and your clothing will get wet, despite how breathable the jackets claim to be. If the incorrect clothing is worn underneath a jacket, ie not of a technical breathable material, then you might as well wear a rubber suit.

When it comes to washing and care of the jacket, if it is only worn on the occasions stated above, then you won’t have to wash it very often! I would go so far as to say that if your jacket is sweaty and stinking after a run, then you probably didn’t need to wear it!

Every waterproof jacket has a certain set of washing instructions to both clean and maintain its waterproofness, and these must be followed to ensure the garment continues to perform for its lifespan. These instructions are on the brands' websites and we in store are happy to help advise on this also.

While writing this, I am trying to keep a balanced view, and I know having a waterproof and a windproof means more money spent. However, I guarantee that you will get far more wear out of your waterproof if you use it only as and when really needed, and that will save you money in the long run.

I know this has seemed like a bit of a lecture, but I believe in educating folk, and prevention is better than cure.

Mind how you run.