(Article originally published in 2012)
On a chilly morning last week, the workout of the day at the gym was a circuit including running outside. It was a small crew that morning at 5:30 a.m. and 2/3 voted to alter the workout so they wouldn’t have to brave the cold air. I could have gone either way; it was in the low 30s but certainly not so uncomfortable that I wouldn’t or couldn’t run short distances outside. I wondered, had the group been larger, would the vote have been swayed in the direction of “suck it up, buttercup”? Today is January 12th, and tonight the temperature is expected to drop into the mid-20s and stay below the mid-30s for a couple of days. Is that too cold to exercise outdoors? For me, road biking might be off the table but running or hiking certainly wouldn’t be. Several magazine articles, online fitness journals, and blogs address the issue of staying motivated and winter workout safety each year around this time. Of course, a lot of the articles are written about sports that involve being out in true winter weather such as snowboarding, skiing, or outdoor ice skating; but down here in the South, we know that each day of our winter season could bring the choice of fleece-lined tights and hoodies or shorts and t-shirts. So on those days when the mercury drops well below what our warm Southern blood thinks of as comfortable, how do we get out there, stay motivated, and burn calories without hurting ourselves?
While there is an excess of encouragement to snowboard, ski, and ice skate because of the great calorie burn those sports provide, in warmer regions of the country, indoor ice skating will give you the same workout, as long as you don’t spend too much time over by the fire or eating nachos at the snack bar. If we happen to get a little snow, sledding can be a great calorie burner. If you haul kids (or spouse) back up the hill on the toboggan you earn extra points. Other suggestions for winter workout idea woes typically involve bringing the workout inside via the gym or home workouts. Those are great alternatives for those outdoor enthusiasts when the temperature/wind chill or road conditions are unsafe and those workouts can prove to be beneficial, especially if you tend to lack cross-training in your regular routine.
When you decide to go outside to get that burn on, there are things you have to keep in mind to do it safely. An article on WebMD has this to say about hypothermia:
“Most deaths from hypothermia occur between 30 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit,” says William Forgey, MD, former president of the Wilderness Medical Society in Colorado Springs. “If you get below 55 degrees and you have wet cotton on you, you cannot keep up with the heat loss. If you’re wearing almost anything else, you’ll be okay.”
This is certainly within the typical afternoon temperature range during winter here in Arkansas. One of the most important things you can do to stay safe while exercising outdoors is to dress appropriately. A thin wicking base layer under warmer outer layers that can be removed as you get warm and put back on as you cool down is imperative. Cotton or cotton blend shirts that hold moisture next to your skin are not a good idea. Many of us have problems with cold extremities. Try thicker wool socks and running gloves. Be sure to have a hat or ear warmers even if you think you’ll want to take it off after 2 or 3 miles. We keep a few Buffs around that are worn year-round. A less severe but sometimes painful result of lengthy exposure is windburn. I’ve struggled with this quite a bit and found that a thin layer of moisturizer with sunscreen reduces this problem and sunscreen is a must, even in winter. It’s an easy solution but also easy to forget or ignore. Another safety suggestion is to start your warm-up well before you hit the cold air. Cold muscles and tendons are more prone to injury; if you begin your warm-up inside you can lessen the chance of injury. Save that stretch for when your muscles are warm.
Burning to stay warm
Most of us have heard the adage that our bodies burn more energy trying to stay warm than trying to cool off so it stands to reason that a lengthy outdoor workout in frigid temperatures might require a few extra calories. Our bodies begin to metabolize meals and churn out heat energy within 30-60 minutes so remember to time your meals so you have enough energy for your workout without having it sit in your stomach like a rock. If you plan a long workout or one that might take you away from civilization like a distance trail run, Beginner Triathlete magazine has a suggestion:
“For safety sake, you should always carry some source of emergency food (such as an energy bar) with you in case you slip on the ice or experience some incident that leaves you static in a frigid environment.”
Hydration is no less important during winter than it is in the heat of summer. It may even mean you have to plan and think about it more because you may not feel like you’re sweating and you might not get as thirsty but guaranteed, you need to drink. And for those of us who really wish we could sit by the fire and drink Hot Toddies or mulled wine all evening, don’t. Alcohol actually makes the body lose heat faster so don’t imbibe too much before you head outside and be sure to replenish with water if you do have a sip or two.
Speaking of drinks by the fire, and moving on to warm cozy beds; how do we stay motivated to leave those comforts behind to fit in an outdoor workout? I’ve seen some great suggestions from fitness blogs, a multitude of fitness magazines, and even fitness/adventure Facebook pages. Here are a few:
- Add new tunes to your playlist
- Try a new class at a gym
- Get a workout buddy who holds you accountable
- Join a team in training
- Walk or run with your four-legged friend, it’s good for both of you
- Sign up for an event so you need to keep to a training schedule
- Take active vacations
My favorite comes from Nikki Fitness at military.com fitness center
“If these don’t work, give a friend 50 dollars and have them hold it for a week. You only get the money back, in 10 dollar increments, when you go to the gym. Sometimes you just need the cold hard cash for cold dark days.”
Let’s all go outside and play, safely!