Unless you’re lucky enough to live in a tropical climate, you’ll most likely find yourself faced with the prospect of exercising in the cold at some point. Maybe you don’t have access to an indoor gym, or you prefer getting your fitness on in the fresh (albeit frosty) air. Either way, there’s no reason to let frigid temperatures freeze your progress toward your goals. Whether your activity of choice is running, walking, biking or hiking, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy the great outdoors all year round—with some modifications, of course.
Dr. Tim Miller, director of the endurance medicine program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, works with Olympians and other elite athletes who train and compete in sub-zero weather. Using his smart strategy recommendations, you’ll learn how to properly warm up and stay safe no matter how low the temperatures dip outside.
The Importance of the Warmup
Whether it’s 90 or nine degrees, never underestimate the importance of the warmup. Taking a few moments to prep your body for activity helps to increase the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, giving them the energy they need for the demands you’re about to place upon them. A proper warmup prepares the heart for exertion, allowing the blood pressure to rise gradually instead of spiking. It also helps to prevent injury to the tissues and joints, among other bodily benefits.
Add cold weather to the mix and Dr. Miller says the warmup becomes even more essential. “Cold temperatures lead to tight muscles and stiff joints, which put soft tissues, particularly the tendons, at higher risk for strains and tears,” he says. He adds that it’s especially important for athletes with exercise-induced bronchospasm (EIB), also known as exercise-induced asthma, to do a slow and comprehensive warmup. “Cold temperatures put athletes with reactive airway disease at an increased risk for triggering coughing from bronchospasm.”
When warming up, try to engage in a few minutes of the same type of activity you’ll be doing during the main event, but at a lower and slower intensity. For example, if your goal is to jog five miles, start out at a brisk walk or easy jog before going all out. It’s also a good idea to perform a few stretches to loosen up cold muscles.
Tips and Tricks for Exercising in the Cold
- Layer up. There’s a reason this age-old advice to layer up keeps popping up: It works. dressing in thin, breathable layers is key to any successful cold-weather workout. “It is important to have all skin and appendages covered when going out to train in the cold, but the layers should not have you feeling overly warm or hot when you leave your house,” he says. “If you are going out for a run, your body will heat up and likely be sweating within just a few minutes, even if the temperature is below freezing.” As your body temperature rises, you can peel off external layers. Consider wearing a small sports backpack or cinch sack so you can stow articles of clothing as you shed them.
- Use the wind to your advantage. If you’re headed outside for a chilly run, running into the wind at the beginning and then with the wind at your back on the way home. This allows you to minimize the amount of moisture (sweat) against your body, which helps to keep your body temperature from dropping. As a bonus, having the wind behind you provides a boost during the last portion of your run or workout, when your energy may be dwindling.
- Be patient. Your first frigid fitness sessions may have you dreaming of a warm blanket and roaring fire, but they’ll likely become more bearable as you get used to the frosty temps.
- Stay hydrated. Water is probably the last thing on your mind when you’re shivering your way through a snowy 5K, but experts agree that it’s still important to drink up in cold temperatures. Even if you don’t feel hot and sweaty, you’re still losing fluids that need to be replenished.
Is it Ever Too Cold to Exercise Outside?
Even with all of the proper precautions and preparations, is there ever a time when it’s ill-advised—or downright dangerous—to head outdoors for a wintry workout? As long as the body is allowed time to acclimate to cold weather and proper clothing is worn to cover all skin and appendages, there is no specific temperature that is too cold for training.
That said, as temperatures drop closer to zero, the risk of frostbite goes up significantly when the skin is exposed for more than just a few minutes.
Additionally, there is an increased risk of falls and ankle injuries, such as sprains and fractures, when ice is on the ground. Caution with your footing is a must, and depending on the terrain in which you are training, devices like crampons can make a big difference in getting traction in snow and ice.
After your cold-weather workout, get inside to warmer temperatures as quickly as possible. Ideally, you should change into warm, dry clothes right away to prevent hypothermia and to decrease the risk of skin chafing.