As I write this article a few days after the “Polar Vortex” swept through Iowa, the question often pops up “how do you keep exercising in this weather?” My coworkers laugh about the crazy runners as they jog by the office window in single digit weather. As someone who has found exercising and marathon training much more palatable in the Winter-Spring running season than Summer-Fall, it is completely possible to shake your head at the Polar Vortex and keep active outside–as long as it doesn’t involve swimming.
To repeat an old joke, “In Iowa, we have 40 different names for winter precipitation… None of them can be repeated in mixed company.” Winter weather can involve everything from extreme cold temperatures, to sheets of ice with treacherous footing, puddles of slush to soak and chill your feet, and of course snow that could be several feet deep. Being active outdoors involves having a plan to handle those potential hazards.
The first step to exercising outside in the cold is acclimating to it. Summer training requires you to adjust to heat and humidity; so too you must acclimate to the cold temperatures and the changing winter weather conditions as well. The first few times you exercise in the severe cold might feel like you’re moving in quicksand. It would be easy to become disappointed in the drop off in performance, but you must account for the difference in temperature. Just as one might need adjust an expected pace due to heat (20 seconds for every 10 additional degrees of temperature Fahrenheit), the opposite is true for cold. The body takes longer to warm up in the cool temps, so sprint times will be especially affected.
If you are going to be outside in the winter, you need a winter dress plan. John Honerkamp, chief coach of the New York Road Runners organization, describes running in frigid temperatures as a “badge of courage” for runners, but suggests “if you’re going to be tough, make sure you’re smart about it and that you’re dressed appropriately.” It is important to develop a dressing plan for each level of temps you might face.
Specifically, I add additional layers as the weather drops below 40-45 degrees. Each additional layer will trap the heat and provide an air pocket to insulate from frigid outside temps. A wind and moisture resistant outer shell with vents is also critical for thermal management. Cotton next to the skin should be avoided as it will trap the moisture and keep the body colder.
Don’t forget about your head, hands, and feet. You may need to wear additional layers for those extremities as well. The combination of thin gloves and mittens is often used, or wearing two pairs of socks. Wearing slip-on items like Yak Trax or other winter cleats, can significantly improve traction. Wearing a face mask will help by pre-warming the air before it enters your lungs. One final caution: avoid the tendency to overdress. Being able to remove a layer mid-run might prevent sweating too much.
After completing your activity, immediately remove wet garments and put on warm, dry clothing. When you stop exercising, you generate less heat, but the cold air is still pulling warmth away from your body.
Find a Buddy
It is always easier to work out if you have an exercise partner, but it is especially important in the wintertime to have one. Having a partner waiting will often motivate you to run, ski, and be outdoors when the natural tendency might be to huddle around a heater and hibernate. The reason it is especially important though is that a buddy can often spot safety issues that could be particular dangerous in outdoors.
Hypothermia is a serious condition that occurs when the body’s internal temperature falls below 95° F. The initial symptoms of hypothermia include drowsiness, weakness, loss of coordination, pale skin, and confusion. Often it is your buddy that will notice the initial symptoms first and can seek medical attention and begin the re-warming process. A buddy might also be able to spot a change in skin color as frost burn or frost bite develops.
Being hydrated is as important in winter as summer. You still need to replace lost fluids in freezing conditions just as in sweltering conditions. Due to the extremely low humidity, you might not necessarily recognize the amount of lost fluids due to sweat and evaporation as well. Note: in some cases, warm fluids like chicken broth may be more palatable than cold fluids for prolonged activities.
Finally, it is also important to know where your limit is personally. I like to think of myself as a tough individual and have gone out running in -10° F to -25° F wind chill weather, but I called it an indoor treadmill day this Monday as the temps were in the -45° F range. Having alternative activities or flexibility in your workout schedule is critical to avoid the worst of the weather–roads unplowed, wind chill too low, freezing rain leading to unsafe drivers even if you have traction slip-ons. Being prepared and knowing when it is or is not advisable to be active outside will give you a way to use that low carb energy all year round.