7 Cold Weather Workout Tips That'll Keep You Safe (and Warm!)

Don't want to be confined to the gym until March? We've got expert warming tips and clothing picks for training in lower temps.

October 30, 2014
woman running in winter
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'Tis soon to be the season of the shortest days, the plushest parkas, and the ooiest and gooeiest of comfort foods. Yep, winter is upon us, which means (statistically speaking) that our nation's collective number of workout excuses is about to spike a gajillion percent. After all, morning runs were exhilarating in the crisp, bright morning hours of early fall. But in the pitch-black, holy-crap-it's-cold hours of late fall and winter? Not so much.

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But before you decide to stay cooped up in the gym for the next four months -- or worse, start skipping your workouts all together -- know that, with the proper preparation, you can comfortably work out outdoors in the cold.

Take it from Margaret Webb, distance runner and author of the new book Older, Faster, Stronger: What Women Runners Can Teach Us About Living Younger, Longer. Webb doesn't let below-zero weather or snowstorms stop her from running. In fact, she prefers winter running and, as a Canadian, she's blasted through some pretty hairy weather. "It's exhilarating being out in intense weather," she says. "And really, what's the difference between running and skiing? And we certainly don't let cold weather or snow stop us from skiing." 

More: Why Some Runs Just Suck

Good point, but if you want to stay fit outdoors from November through March, you do need to be prepared. Here, we've got 7 expert tips for successful cold weather workouts:

Cold-Weather Workout Tip #1: Cover up!
What’s the most important body part(s) to keep warm in the cold? Your extremities! You, of course, will also want some pants and a top. Our top picks have you covered, literally, from head to toe:

Head: A fleece beanie or, in extreme cold, a balaclava that leaves nothing exposed! 
 
Body: Warm winter running tights and a long-sleeved winter-weight shirt with a shell jacket .
 
Hands: A light moisture-wicking glove works if you have warm hands, but you may need heavier fleece mittens to protect in extreme wind or cold.
 
Feet: Don't forget about those toes! Most running shoes are made with lots of breathe-ability, which may work against you in the frigid temps. A thicker and higher sock (that pulls up over the ankle) will keep feet toasty.
 
Cold-Weather Workout Tip #2: Plan ahead.
“I never end a run where I can’t go indoors to warm-up afterward,” says avid runner and sports medicine physician Dr. Jordan Metzl, author of The Exercise Cure. Plan you outdoor workouts so you can head indoors as soon as you’re done. Once your sweaty body stops moving, you will cool down fast and you’ll be wet -- not a good combo for cold temps!

 

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Cold-Weather Workout Tip #3: Start inside.
Dr. Metzl also suggests doing a dynamic warm-up inside so that your muscles are warm before they hit the cold air. Try these moves, for one minute each, before heading outdoors:
 
1. Jumping jacks
2. Jogging in place
3. Walking high knees
4. Alternating arm swings 
5. Body weight squats
 
Cold-Weather Workout Tip #4: Buddy up.
“Winter can be a challenging time to stick to an exercise routine,” says Jennifer Van Allen, special projects editor at Runner’s World magazine and co-author of The Runner’s World Big Book of Marathon and Half-Marathon Training, so she suggests the buddy system to keep you honest during the dark days of winter, “Exercising with a friend even once a week can help you get out the door, as it’s harder to blow off a workout if you know someone is waiting for you.” So true. Plus, there's safety in numbers -- an important factor if you work out in the early-morning hours when there are fewer people around.
 
Cold-Weather Workout Tip #5: Find your footing.
You may need to put a little extra thought into your outdoor workouts to stay safe in the colder months. If there's snow on the ground, Van Allen suggests looking for white stuff that’s been packed down (it will provide better traction!) or running on the street if it’s been plowed. Find a well-lit route (important for avoiding crime, as well!), slow your pace and make sure you’re familiar with areas of rough road like broken concrete or potholes. “Winter is not the time to be rigid about when, where, and how far you go,” says Van Allen. “If you’re a morning exerciser, you may need to switch to lunchtime workouts, when the air is the warmest and the sun is out; if you usually hit the trails, you may need to stick to well-lit roads or even the treadmill.”

 

More: 8 Ways to Work Out Without Working Out

Cold-Weather Workout Tip #6: Proceed with Caution!
As long as you’re dressed and prepared for the cold weather, you can avoid the following two conditions. However, it’s important to know the warning signs so, if you find yourself in trouble, you will know what to do:
 
Hypothermia: Hypothermia strikes when your body loses more heat than it can produce, and your core temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius). Symptoms can vary widely but typically start with shivering and numbness, which progresses to confusion and lack of coordination. You’re most at risk when it’s rainy or snowy and your skin is damp. If you sense hypothermia setting in, get indoors quickly, strip off your wet clothes and get into a warm bath or shower. Afterward replenish your nutrients with warm winter soups or cereal.
 
Frostbite: Frostbite happens when the skin temperature falls below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius) and most commonly strikes the nose, ears, cheeks, fingers, and toes. It can start with tingling, burning, aching, and redness, then progress to numbness. Windy and wet days are the riskiest times for frostbite. When the wind chill falls below –18 degrees Fahrenheit (–27 degrees Celsius), you can develop frostbite on exposed skin in 30 minutes or less. Get out of the elements as quickly as possible and seek immediate medical attention.