Whether you’re jumping on your snowboard this winter or going for a run through icy terrain, cold weather can wreak havoc on your body while you’re exercising if you are unprepared. When the temperature drops and the wind picks up, your body struggles to keep its core internal body temperature regulated even though you’re giving as much physical exertion as possible. If you start to lose more heat than your body is generating, you run the risk of developing hypothermia. Muscle and Fitness explains that shivering, confusion, and tiredness are all beginning symptoms of hypothermia, and if you aren’t careful to raise your body temperature once these symptoms come into play, you may be at risk for developing abnormal heart rhythms that can lead to cardiac arrest.
When the temperature drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius), you should be prepared to combat the cold, and if you have exercise-induced asthma or any type of respiratory issue that may be exasperated by chilly weather, you should take this into account as well. Even the best athletes should consider the risks of winter weather when engaging in physical fitness, as being overly fatigued or hungry can also reduce your ability to maintain a proper internal temperature. In order to workout safely in the winter, be sure to dress in layers, wear the right materials, warm up your muscles before you begin to really work them, and bring plenty of water and a high-protein snack along with you.
First thing’s first — it’s quite important to dress in layers of the proper material that are perfect for keeping your core and extremities warm without restricting your movement. The Boston Globe says that while dressing in layers really is key, the layer that is directly touching your skin should be a lightweight synthetic material or polyester. These materials will keep you dry no matter the climate or how much you’re sweating — the moisture won’t soak into this layer, so you’ll stay dry and warm through your entire workout. Your next layer should be a polyester fleece material or wool, as wool will provide insulation even when wet. Your outermost layer should also be lightweight and fully water-resistant to keep you dry. You can look for a shell that has ventilation pockets in the underarm and mid-back as your outermost layer for a breathable and lightweight layer that will still protect you from the elements. And remember, the best part about layers is that you can take them off if you get too warm, and staying dry is the most effective way to stay warmer longer.
Layering jackets will keep your core warm, but your extremities also need to be protected. Runner’s World says to cover your ears, your nose, and your fingers, as these are the areas on your body that are most likely to freeze first. Wool hats and gloves are ideal here, and mittens will keep you even warmer than gloves. Glove liners are great for keeping any dampness away from your fingers, so get a pair of these for added protection from frostbite. You should also consider what type of boxers or briefs you’re wearing, as underwear with a nylon wind barrier can be useful in keeping the cold and wind out.
For your mouth and nose area, balaclavas are knit masks that cover your entire head and just leave holes for your nose and mouth, so they are perfect for freezing temperatures. If you want something that doesn’t cover your entire face, a knit hat paired with a scarf pulled high to cover the lower half of your face will also work fine. Stay away from cotton, though — cotton will quickly saturate with sweat and any outdoor wetness.
Clothing aside, warming up before you hit the cold is also vital in ensuring you have a fulfilling workout with no injuries. The cold weather makes your muscles tighter, making you less mobile and agile than you might be in a warmer climate. So, to avoid putting an extra strain on your muscles during your workout, you need to stretch slower and for a longer amount of time to ensure that your muscles are fully prepared to perform well despite the weather. Your goal for warming up your muscles should literally be to “warm” them — that is, to bring heat back into them so they loosen and become more flexible. This will allow you to have a full range of motion in your muscles before you even begin your workout, so you can practice proper form and reduce your risk of injury. You can even start your stretches indoors before you hit the cold — this will help your muscles retain some of that warmth going into your outdoor exercise.
During your workout, you need to carry a few essentials even if you don’t think you’ll need them — sunscreen, water, and a high-protein snack should be handy. Though it may be a cloudy day and you may think your layers are enough to protect you from the sun’s harmful rays, the Food and Drug Administration recommends you wear a sunscreen of at least 30 SPF, even in the winter. In terms of being protected from the sun’s rays, sunglasses are also not a bad idea, as they can protect your eyes from bright sunshine or the bright light that reflects off of the snow. Your lips also need protection — look for a lip balm with an SPF.
Staying hydrated is also important, even if you don’t think you’re sweating enough to need a bottle of water on hand. Live Science explains how you can become just as dehydrated in the winter as you can in the summer, and drinking plenty of fluids before you begin your workout will help fuel your body for the exercise to come. You don’t need ice-cold water, however; try putting lukewarm water in your water bottle instead to make it easier to drink in the colder temperatures.
Additionally, you should remember to eat before your workout and bring along a high-protein snack during your journey to keep you fueled and alert. Sports Medicine says to eat a light, warm meal full of complex carbohydrates two hours before you begin exercising. Soup, chili, wholegrain breads, and lean meats and seafood are all great meal choices before your workout, and you should continue to take small breaks and eat a snack every 30 to 45 minutes during a long workout outdoors to replenish the carbohydrates you’ve lost. If you fail to replace your lost carbs, you’ll feel more fatigued, which can lead to you feeling colder. Energy bars with carbs and protein or a trail mix full of nuts and dried fruits can give you the boost you need.
While taking the necessary precautions to avoid frostbite and hypothermia are important, it’s equally vital to know the signs before they occur so you can get out of the cold quickly. The warning signs for frostbite according to Mayo Clinic include a numbing sensation, stinging, or complete loss of feeling in the exposed area. Once again, the warning signs for hypothermia include shivering, slurred speech, loss of coordination, and tiredness. You should seek emergency help if any of these symptoms for hypothermia occur and if your skin remains numb from potential frostbite after you’ve had a chance to warm up.