When the mercury drops and daylight starts to seem like a mirage, you may be tempted to take your workout inside. But resist the urge: Research shows that outdoor exercise can boost your mood, your performance, and your calorie burn. (Discover the easiest, healthiest way to lose weight for good, with Run Your Butt Off!) But to reap the rewards, you need to be smart. Here are nine potential pitfalls and how to avoid them.
No one likes to start a workout shivering, but being too hot is just as bad as being too cold--especially in the winter. "Most exercisers dress so they are comfortable at the start of their workout when their body has not warmed up yet," says Cassie Dimmick, RD, CSSD, a certified sports dietitian, running coach, and health and fitness instructor in Springfield, Missouri. "Then, near the middle and the end of the workout, they are hot and uncomfortable, often causing them to cut their exercise short." But sticking with your workout may not be in your best interest either. "When you sweat, you're going to risk getting chilled as the sweat evaporates," says Janet Hamilton, CSCS, a registered clinical exercise physiologist, and a certified strength, conditioning, and running coach in Stockbridge, GA.
The fix: Everyone has different cold tolerance, so keep track of what you feel comfortable in at different temperatures, suggests Dimmick. When you check the weather, don't forget to take wind chill and humidity into consideration, since these can affect the way the temperature feels. In terms of actual clothing, layers are key because they're easy to adjust on the go. Just keep in mind that you want to start out slightly cold, says Dimmick, so that you're comfortable after your body warms up.
Most walking and running shoes are well ventilated and composed of mesh. This is great in the summer when your sneakers can start feeling like greenhouses, but in the winter, that perforation can let in as much air and moisture as it lets out. "Dampness is more of a problem in cold weather," says Karen A. Langone, DPM, a board certified podiatrist, past president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine and current treasurer of the American Association of Women Podiatrists. "It's not going dissipate as much, so you're going to retain coldness more than you would otherwise," which can put you at risk for thermal injuries such as hypothermia or frostbite. Standard sneakers may not have inadequate traction for slippery conditions.
The fix: Don't exercise until your feet get cold and then go home. "If you wait to feel discomfort, you may find that it's too late," says Langone. Instead, take preventative measure. For some, that means donning wool socks. Others may need to switch to a waterproof shoe. (Search: Best waterproof running shoes) Whatever you do, don't buy oversized shoes and then wear multiple pairs of socks. "Extra-large shoes can cause injuries," says Langone. "Better to buy a better shoe at the right size." If you still need extra warmth, consider heated insoles. To amp up your traction, you can strap stainless steel coils, like these from Yaktrax, around your shoes, but if you're that worried about keeping your footing, you should ask yourself if you're running the right route, says Hamilton. "It's really not worth it to take a fall and break something. Even if you slip and strain something, that can set your training back a few weeks."
Research suggests that distance runners may be at an increased risk for skin cancer, possibly because of the inordinate amount of time they spend in the sun with their skin exposed. Sun damage is a serious problem for any outdoor exerciser at any time of the year. "There is good evidence that sweat enhances ultraviolet (UV) effects," says Brian B. Adams, MPH, MD, interim chairman of the department of dermatology at the University of Cincinnati. "An athlete who is sweating burns almost 40 percent more quickly than when they are not sweating." Furthermore, snow can reflect as much as 90 percent of UV rays back to the athlete. "Even an athlete who is savvy enough to wear a wide brimmed hat while running in the snow will have a false sense of security as they also have to deal with almost as many rays from the ground as their hat is blocking from the sky," says Adams.
The fix: Athletes (and non-athletes) often use sunscreen based on the temperature outside, says Adams, which means many don't touch the stuff come winter. But it's just as easy to get sunburned in the colder months, especially if you're exercising in the snow (for the reason above) or at high altitudes where the ozone is thinner. To stay safe, 30 minutes before you head outside, apply a broad spectrum, water/sweat-resistant sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 and carry a one-use wipe sunscreen (or small bottle) if you plan on being out longer than two hours. "People who are outside in the snow can also activate their cold sores," says Adams. So prepare your pucker with a sunscreen-infused lip balm before you hit the slopes or attack a trail.
Your skin isn't the only thing the sun can still harm in the winter. It can also affect your vision, says Terrence P. O'Brien, MD, professor of ophthalmology at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. That's because your eyes are at risk for sunburn, much like your skin. The condition is called photokeratitis, or snow blindness and can cause anything from watering and redness to a decrease of vision. If your winter exercise just consists of short runs or rides around town, you probably don't need to worry. But people who spend more time outdoors at high altitudes, such as skiers and snowshoers, should take precautions. That's because in addition to the thinner ozone and bright reflection off snow, people at high altitudes also experience stronger UV rays. "With every 1,000 feet above sea level, the intensity of UV rays goes up four percent," says O'Brien.
The fix: Wear wraparound eye protection that transmits five to 10 percent of visible light and absorbs all UV rays, says O'Brien--the larger and darker the lenses the better--and keep them on even in overcast conditions. "Ultraviolet rays can burn through thin clouds." Even in you're not at high altitude, you may want to wear glasses or goggles; they also protect your peepers from cold and wind, which exacerbates dry eye.
Although you may not be sweating as much as during summer months, you still lose fluids in the winter. "You can get dehydrated even when it is cold outside, and being overly dehydrated decreases your speed and performance," says Dimmick. "So, planning for drinking during workouts in the winter is very important."
The fix: Most people need less fluid when it's colder, so adjust your intake accordingly, says Dimmick. "I still recommend drinking at regular intervals (every 15-20 minutes) to assist gastric emptying. If you are not sure how much to drink, start with 4 ounces every 20 minutes and get your weight before and after your workout. If you lose weight during your run, drink a little more and check again, and if you gain weight, drink less." To prevent your drink of choice from turning into a slushy--or worse, a chunk of ice--nestle your bottle under your top layer.
Along with the cold, winter also brings darker days. The combination of the two usually forces exercisers to head outside in low visibility wearing warm clothes that are often as drab as the weather. "With more dark hours and darker clothes, runners need to be sure they have reflective outer layers, gloves, or lights on so cars can see them and avoid causing injury," says Dimmick.
The fix: If your cold-weather gear doesn't come with reflective details, pick up high-visibility accessories, such as a vest or ankle cuff. And keep in mind what part of your body is sparkling. "I wear reflectors all the way around my body because I figure if I'm crossing the street drivers need to see my side, if they're behind me they need to see my back, and in front of me they need to see my front," says Hamilton. Using a light increases your visibility even more and can help illuminate your path, alerting you to fallen branches or patches of ice.
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Running, biking, or walking along a familiar path is not always the best option. "Routes that are safe in the warm months can be treacherous when it is freezing out," says Dimmick. They may also take you far from home, which can spell trouble in the event of an emergency, or leave you battling the wind on the way back when you're most likely to be sweaty and chilled.
The fix: Have an arsenal of routes ready so you can choose the one that's safest, suggests Dimmick. "Check bridges and curves for possible ice and adjust your route to cut out overpasses and bridges if necessary." If it's an especially cold, windy day, start your run with the wind in your face and consider running short loops instead of out and back. "It gives you bail out points," says Hamilton.
Although it's hard to hold yourself back when you're cold and eager to get your blood flowing, an adequate warm-up is critical. "In the cold months, your body can take longer to warm up," says Dimmick. If you push your muscles before they're ready, you risk injury.
The fix: Do at least a 10-minute warm-up by running slowly or walking before you hit your target pace. Take extra care if you're nursing aches and pains. "If you're battling an injury, use a heating pad prior to doing an outdoor run," says Hamilton. "And then start your run at your warm up pace ... something that feels really easy or laidback."
In the winter, just as your body warms up slower, it cools down faster. Stay outside too long and you're bound to catch a chill.
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The fix: If you start to get cold, head inside. Once there you can remove extra layers, walk around and get in a good stretch. For runners, "my general guidance is to do a cooldown for somewhere around 30sec to one minute for every mile you ran," says Hamilton.