Working Out in the Cold

Jeffrey Heit Health Guide
  • Winter is here!! It's time to talk about how to deal with working out in cold climate conditions. Mostly, this applies to those of you who run, walk, or do other forms of exercise outdoors. For you strict gym rats, go grab a cup of coffee and skip this one.


    Firstly, you have to be a little smart about this. There is cold, and then there is COLD. One time I ran a five mile race in February aptly titled the "Frostbite 5 Miler". On race day, it was damp, a little snowy, and 19° F. Surprisingly, a lot of people showed up to that one. Luckily there was minimal wind. That's the first point. Wind is a killer. They don't call it the wind chill factor for nothing. If given a choice about whether I'd want it to be 20°F with no wind, or whether I'd want it to be 30° F but with a wind chill of 20°F, I'd choose the former. Sometimes it's so cold, it's downright dangerous. You folks who live in the upper Mid-West or Northern Plains know what I'm talking about. As I write this blog, the high in Bismarck North Dakota today will be -2° F without the wind chill. Do yourself a favor- stay indoors. At that temperature, you are running the risk of frostbite, hypothermia and real injury. Wait until the mercury climbs back into, the teens, at least.

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    In terms of exercising in the cold, remember these helpful hints. First, you still have to stay hydrated. Just because you wont' be sweltering doesn't mean you won't lose fluids. Have some water or sports drink before venturing out. Second, wear layers. Instead of putting on one or two heavy articles of clothing, you'll be a lot warmer and be able to adjust how you feel by peeling off multiple layers of thinner clothing. I usually like to wear a modern sweat- absorbing type material as my undershirt. Any running store will have a variety of types to choose from. These materials will whisk away sweat from your body and keep it away from your skin. Then, I put a medium gauge sweatshirt on over the first layer. This is the layer that will keep me warm and I will likely keep it on throughout my workout. Depending on the temperature, I might wear another sweatshirt on top of the first one. The key here is that I have the ability to remove one of these layers if I start feeling warm mid way through the workout. I do the old, tie of the sweatshirt sleeves around my waist to hang on to the sweatshirt once I remove it.  Importantly, don't forget to wear a hat. Thirty percent of body heat is lost through the head.  There are really nice lightweight thermal ski hats that are sold in running stores now. They are comfortable, light, and don't give you that heavy itchy "wool hat feeling".


    In the winter, the sun rises and sets early. There is a good chance you'll be running in darkness. Get some reflective material to put on your clothes and sneakers if they're not already equipped, so cars can see you. Lastly, be careful about running on ice. I don't care how good your footing is, if there are patches of snow and ice around, you can easily fall and injure yourself. Stay alert, use common sense, and avoid running in icy conditions.


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    Remember what I said about whisking away sweat? Another key to running in the cold is trying to stay as dry as possible. If you sweat, and the sweat stays on your body, especially your feet, you are going to feel very cold. One way around this is to put a little baby powder or corn starch on your feet and body before putting on your first layer of clothing. Powder will keep you dryer. You may also want to put some lip balm and/or Vaseline on your lips and exposed facial areas to avoid excessive drying or wind burn.

    After all this, you are ready to face the elements. Good Luck, and use common sense. If you're not sure, skip it for that day and wait until it warms up a little.


Published On: December 31, 2008