How to Crush Your Cold Weather Outdoor Workouts Safely
When wintry weather hits, even the most hardcore outdoor exercisers typically take their training indoors. But this season, with many gyms still closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, more people than ever have stayed outside and kept up their open air workouts even as the temperature drops and the snow falls. Two years after cold gym concepts debuted as a boutique experiment, training in the frigid winter air has become a necessity.
I’m one of those people. After nearly a year of lockdown bodyweight and resistance band workouts, I caved and bought a nice barbell, weights, and heavy duty squat rack for myself. Since I live in a cramped New York City apartment, the only place I have room to put the rig is my small backyard. Now, the only time I skip an outdoor strength training workout is when there’s active precipitation in the air. When the temperature falls below freezing, I bundle up and head outside.
For others without a full backyard gym setup, their new cold weather habit might be simply because they have nowhere else to go. Or maybe their workout of choice, like trail running or, in extreme cases, sports like surfing, includes the elements as an integral part of the activity.
But just because we feel the need to exercise outside, that doesn’t mean it’s always comfortable, or even responsible, to train in the elements. You have to be more cautious when there's snow and ice on the ground, especially if you're working with weights. Conditions like chilblains and frost nip can set in quickly, even above freezing temperatures. Once it gets really cold and snowy, frostbite and even trench foot are a risk if you're not well-prepared.
I decided to check in with a few experts to find out exactly what I should know to stay safe during cold weather workouts. Thanks to their help, I've compiled some best practices and tips to follow. Let's call them the Cold Weather Workout Commandments.
Before you head outside and put these tips into practice, just keep in mind that the conditions are more than just an annoyance—they can make it harder to perform at the highest level. Whether you're running, lifting weights, or surfing outside in the cold, you shouldn't expect to set PRs. That's fine. You're still training, and when the weather warms up, you'll thank yourself for working through the elements.
The Cold Weather Workout Commandments
Make Sure You Have the Right Cold Weather Gear
The most important thing to consider before going out into the the cold, no matter your activity, is to have the proper gear for the weather.
According to Dr. Italo M. Brown, an emergency physician at Stanford, that starts with layering. He suggests wearing multiple layers of clothes outdoors, each with a different purpose: some type of base layer, then a layer that involves some sort of warming material, like fleece, wool, or a synthetic material. Lastly, a layer that "has something that's somewhat waterproof or has a breathable portion of the shell.”
Of course, exactly what you wear might be dictated by the particular activity or weather conditions. For outdoor pursuits that don't pause for snow, like endurance or trail running, the last layer is crucial. "If it’s actively snowing outside, my outer layer is the most important layer," says Jes Woods, Nike Running Coach, Chaski Endurance Coach, and Brooklyn Trail Club founder. "You want something that’s either weather resistant or weatherproof (Gore-Tex). Winter running and snow running is like a game of staying dry."
But if the sport depends on getting wet in cold weather, having the proper gear is even more essential. I was able to give winter surfing a try through an opportunity provided by the excellent Rockaway Hotel, which partners with the Locals Surf School in Rockaway, New York to offer stay and surf packages year-round. Before I took the frigid plunge, I had to suit up in a wetsuit, hood, boots, and gloves, all of which were 5 to 7 millimeters thick to help to keep water out and body heat in.
"I often tell people is that you wouldn't go snowboarding in your bikini or your board shorts, so you wouldn't go surfing in the winter in your bathing suit" says Mike Reinhardt, co-founder of Locals and NSSIA Certified Surf Instructor with over 10 years of teaching experience. That logic applies to sports where you're steeped in snow—so make sure you have proper snow pants, boots, jackets, and more before ever hitting the slopes, too.
Don't Lose Layers When You Sweat
So, you have your layers on, but then you get moving and start to sweat even quicker than you might expect. Hit pause before you start stripping off your top. "The body is probably trying to auto regulate," Brown says.
By layering up, you're basically lowering the body's threshold to start to sweat. "So we end up sweating faster—you also can be dehydrated because of this, because the core body temperature can be a little bit higher, due to all the efforts that you're doing before exercise to keep from being cold."
By removing your outer layer of clothing and exposing the sweaty layer underneath, you can potentially expose yourself to hypothermia more quickly, Brown warns.
To avoid this problem entirely, use one of Woods' most reliable tricks. "There’s a general rule of thumb to dress as if it’s 10 degrees warmer outside [than it is]," she says.
Hands and Feet Are Important
Gloves are probably part of your normal cold weather attire, but if you're ditching hand protection to help you grip equipment outdoors, think again. Your hands aren't just feeling cold—your body might be limiting blood flow to them and making your blood vessels constrict, which can make your hands weaker and more prone to soft tissue injury.
"[The body] diverts all the blood flow to the core of the body specifically to keep the heart and core warm, to continue to provide profusion to the brain. The body's smart like that," Brown says. That transfer means that your extremities—the nose, ears, fingers, and toes—can be compromised.
That doesn't change just because your hands are working. "You would think that you're using your hands more, so all of a sudden blood flow is going to go there faster" Brown says. "And that's counterintuitive to what the body would do... you have to protect those areas to keep them functional and warm and lower the risk of being injured."
Brown also warns that this blood vessel constriction can make it more likely that you could pull muscles—and, with ground conditions unstable due to snow and ice, you might be more likely to fall and hurt yourself, too. Help yourself out by wearing the proper shoes and being mindful of your feet, too—Woods recommends specialized trail running shoes with extra traction and a weatherized upper, for instance. When I lift weights in the cold, I make sure to move much more cautiously, and even drop down in weight if I don't feel great about the footing.
Protect Yourself and Prepare Properly
There's more to being prepared for cold conditions than just layering and covering your hands and feet. Brown stresses that the head is important to cover, too since that's one of the top places your body loses heat. "You can't necessarily protect your nose, but now we're all wearing masks anyway," he adds.
Brown also recommends using using basic sealant, like a lip balm, to protect your face and, especially when the sun is bright and there's snow on the ground, sunglasses as protection for the eyes.
While this might sound obvious at first blush, remembering that the time you go outside is more important than you think. The sun does more than just provide light to see (duh), it also helps you to feel warmer when it's bright and shining, even when it's cold. “Think about the parts of the days that are the warmest, that will be an ideal time to go out and do your activity,” says Brown.
One way you can prepare is to be extra-deliberate when you know the conditions might not be ideal. Reinhardt, for example, has a whole routine that starts the night before his cold weather surf days. "I make sure that the heat's on so I wake up warm, and as soon as I wake up I put on a ton of layers so that I get my body temperature up," he says. "I make sure that I'm well fed and so that I'm not hungry and have energy to burn."
Hydrate Before You Train Outside
You might not feel the need to guzzle water before venturing out into the cold, but staying hydrated can be a key factor to being on top of your game.
“Anytime you change the conditions outside, you're going to need more water," says Brown. "Whether it's hotter or colder, you're going to need a lot more water than if it was near temperate, or the ideal temperature.”
Where and when you hydrate can be important, too. If you're far from home on a run, you might not have an immediate source of water. "Make sure you’re hydrated before the run because 99 percent of the water fountains are turned off in the winter," says Woods.
She recommends carrying cash or a credit card—you should have plenty of pocket space in your layers—in case you need to make an emergency stop for a drink.
Know the Warning Signs for Serious Problems
Even if you take the utmost precautions, you might find yourself in a bad spot. Especially in extreme conditions—like winter surf—it's essential to understand the warning signs of conditions like hypothermia.
Brown specifically mentions shivering and confusion as two markers that something's not right. "Some of the same things that you will see on the spectrum of if you were working in extreme heat," he says. Other signs include exhaustion, memory loss, slurred speech, and fumbling hands, according to the CDC.
Before my surf adventure, I was specifically warned about shaking hands, slurred speech, and confusion. Having those markers in mind really helped me to keep my head when I felt really cold—but once I felt myself coming to the edge, I had no doubt in my mind that it was time to get out of the water and warm up.