Fitness Fridays – A Safe Approach to Cold Weather Exercise

by | Nov 18, 2011 | winter injuries

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Winter is a time when people often struggle to maintain their exercise routines. Falling temperatures should not be an excuse to avoid exercise, however. In addition to helping improve cardiovascular conditioning, burn calories, and lose weight, exercise during this period can improve overall health.

Regular exercise can decrease the rate of common illnesses, such as colds, and some medical professionals suggest that exercise may improve mental health, boost energy, and prevent or reduce depression. Spending hours in the gym lifting weights or repeatedly using treadmills and elliptical machines can become tiresome. However, with appropriate planning and adherence to some basic clothing and exercise principles, almost anyone can get a great outdoor workout in cold weather.


The main point to remember about clothing for outdoor, cold-weather exercise is to wear layers. Layers allow the athlete to remove a garment or put it back on to adjust to changes in temperature and the body’s heat production. A combination of three layers is optimal to prevent heat loss. The innermost layer should consist of polyester fabric that wicks away moisture from the body. Avoid cotton as it absorbs sweat and could keep the body wet. The second layer can be thin or heavy depending on the climate and exercise. Usually fleece, down, wool, or synthetic fabrics make good second layers that can be put on or removed as needed. Finally, the outermost layer should be a windproof and waterproof shell. Nylon fabrics such as Gore-Tex and similar materials are sufficiently breathable but repel wind and water. The goal with all layered clothing is to stay warm and prevent heat loss without causing overheating and excessive sweating.

Below are some basic additional tips to prepare for outdoor exercise in the cold:

Avoid Overdressing

Wearing too many layers or clothing that is too thick and warm can make the athlete feel as if it 20-30 degrees warmer. This can lead to too much sweating, causing the body to become wet and cold. In general, if dressed with appropriately, one should feel slightly cold when starting to exercise.

Protect the Head and Extremities

It is important to protect the head, hands, and feet. To minimize the amount of heat lost, the body decreases blood flow to the hands and feet. Wearing gloves or mittens on the hands and a pair of warm, moisture-wicking socks on the feet will usually protect the extremities. Wearing a hat can decrease the large percentage of body heat that is normally lost from the head in cold weather.

Sunglasses and Sunscreen

Snow and ice can reflect a tremendous amount of sunlight. One should wear sunglasses to protect eyes against the light and glare. Wearing sunscreen on the face and using lip balm with sunscreen to block ultraviolet rays and prevent sunburn is important in the winter, just as it is in the summer.


To decrease the chance of slipping and suffering an injury, wearing appropriate shoes in these conditions is critical. Shoes with studs or prominent tread can help on trails or slick roads and sidewalks. Check shoes for excessive wear and change to newer ones if the current pair is worn.


Athletes often forget to hydrate enough in the winter. Body fluids are lost through sweating and breathing in cold months just as they are in the heat of the summer months. Drinking enough water or sports drinks before and during exercise and replacing fluids after exercise is important. Adding slightly warm fluids to water bottles before going outside will help keep the fluids from getting too cold to drink.

Run into the Wind

Running experts recommend athletes run into the wind at the beginning of a run, while sweat levels are still low. Sweat production increases as exercise continues. If the second half of a run is directed into a strong wind, the air flowing past a runner with sweat-dampened clothes can feel extremely cold and cause a drop in body temperature.

Recognize and Avoid Hypothermia and Frostbite

Athletes must recognize the signs of serious cold-temperature injuries, such as hypothermia and frostbite, and prevent them. Loss of feeling, tingling, or loss or color in the face, hands, fingers, and toes are signs that frostbite could be developing. Mental status changes such as confusion or disorientation, slurred speech, and uncontrolled shivering can be signs of impending hypothermia. If the athlete is concerned about these types of changes, he or she needs to get into a warmer environment immediately and slowly warm the body and the parts that are affected.

By Dana Clark

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