By Laura McMullen for U.S. News
Nose dripping. Eyes watering. Cold air freezing your throat, filling your lungs and drifting from your mouth in the form of an exhausted little cloud. Exercise outside in the wintertime, and you’ll enjoy these sensations. Consider them points of pride for braving the cold as most others pack into stuffy gyms.
Suspicious of anyone who’d voluntarily go outside — let alone exercise! — in 30-degree weather? You’ll probably warm up to the idea if you go about cold-weather exercise the right way and let your body adjust to the low temperatures. Follow these tips from John Honerkamp, chief coach of the New York Road Runners organization, and the Mayo Clinic, for safely (and even enjoyably) working out in the winter.
Acclimate. That first workout in the winter air might have seemed like a cruel joke — with your legs feeling stuck in the mud and the cold air icing your lungs and throat. But chin up: Although it may be hard to believe now, your body will get used to the cold weather. In order for your body to adjust, however, you’ll have to continue braving the outdoors for your workouts.
When you first start exercising in frigid temperatures, curb your expectations. You probably won’t reach your personal records because your body isn’t as naturally warmed up as it was in June, and because it’s yet to acclimate. Throw in wind or snow, and your results are even more likely to be affected. “It’s key to focus on effort versus actual pace,” Honerkamp says.
It may take longer for your body to reach your typical speed, so leave more time to warm up. And tweak your workouts to be a little lighter at first, to help your body adjust. “Baby step it, and let your body get used to running in the cold just like it needs to acclimate to heat,” Honerkamp says. After a few weeks of consistent outdoor workouts, your body will likely adapt. And in a few months, these 35-degree workouts will seem like dream as you lace up for a 10-degree run.
Find a buddy. Now that you know you must resign to a few uncomfortable outdoor workouts before your body adjusts, you may want to find someone to hold you accountable for getting out there. “The toughest part is sometimes just lacing up the shoes and getting out the door,” Honerkamp says. “And that’s even tougher if it’s snowing or 10 degrees versus a nicer day.” Find a running group, coach or friend who will count on you to brave the elements with them.
Hydrate. Even if it’s not as obvious as in the summer, you’re still sweating during cold-weather workouts and pushing yourself, so stay hydrated.
Dress the part. Honerkamp describes running in frigid temperatures as a “badge of courage” for tough athletes who aren’t scared of the elements. But, he says, “if you’re going to be tough, make sure you’re smart about it and that you’re dressed appropriately.”
Honerkamp suggests wearing layers, which help manage the combination of cold air, body heat and sweat. Remove a layer when you start to perspire; put it back on when you’re cold again. Mayo Clinic specifies what materials your layers should (and shouldn’t) be, and in which order to wear them on its website. The clinic also stresses the importance of covering your hands, feet and ears, as these parts are particularly vulnerable to frostbite.
Be sure to sport your sunscreen, because, yes, the sun still shines in the winter. Honerkamp points out that the rays can be intense as they reflect off fresh snow. And if you’re running in the dark, wear bright, reflective outer layers so drivers, bikers and other runners can see you.
Change after your run. Whatever you wear, change out of your clothes soon after you complete your workout. You’re more likely to get sick if you’re sitting around in cold clothes, especially if they’re wet from sweat, rain or snow, Honerkamp says. Even if you don’t take a shower, changing into dry clothes will help.
Know when to take it inside. There is a point when layers and acclimation only go so far — when uncomfortable weather becomes unsafe. Check the weather conditions before your run. If the wind chill is extreme or the temperature is well below zero, Mayo Clinic suggests skipping your workout or taking it inside. Even if you’re not interested in the gym, there are plenty of exercises you can do anywhere, including indoors. Honerkamp also suggests runners be conscious of footing conditions, like ice.
"I’ll run in 10 degrees," he says, "but I usually go to the treadmill when it’s icy."