smiling woman taking photo near trees and brown grass during sunrise
With the right gear and right attitude, you can still be active in cooler weather. Photo by Alex Vans-Colina

The DAO of Cool Weather Workouts

Whether you still want to avoid gyms during the pandemic or are just sick of working out at home, working out outside has a lot of benefits. It’s a natural antidepressant. Outdoor exercise can help ward off seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which we talked about in my other post this week. Even just being outside for any reason,, whether it be walking the dog or raking the leaves can alleviate depression and anxiety because the Vitamin D in the sunshine naturally increases serotonin, a hormone that affects your mood. Working out outside also keeping your muscles guessing about the varying terrain ahead. 

Also, when you work out outside, you will probably see and interact with people, which cuts down on the isolation factor. 

There are definite advantages to power walking, running, or biking In colder temperatures. You sweat less and are less likely to feel wiped out than if you were working out in hot or humid weather. 

You may also consider doing an outdoor workout or spin class, which many gyms and studios are still offering. In DC, for example, we have a lot of bootcamps at the National Mall, and in many cities, these types of classes take place in parks. Or plan a ski vacation – for most skiers, downhill skiiing burns 300 to 600 calories per hour.

Most articles on this jump into what you have to do when you are actually outside, but I want to start with what’s the hardest part for me – getting out of my warm, cozy bed. It’s going to take some extra effort now that this means dealing with the cold floor, darker mornings, and winter blahs. 

person holding white ceramic mug
A hot cuppa and warm gloves can keep you warm outside for a while. Photo by Alex Padurariu

Tips for making your winter workouts a success 

  • Set the alarm away from your bed. This will keep you from snoozing it and force you to actually get up out of bed. Also consider an alarm clock that projects sunrise. 
  • Auto-program your coffee machine. The smell of fresh java will motivate you!
  • Change into workout clothes asap, instead of putting on your robe. I’ve talked about the fireman routine in my article on making time to work out. Try keeping your shoes untied from the previous night;  little things make all of the difference.
  • Plan ahead and check the weather the night before. If it’s freezing rain, that may not be the best environment for an outdoor workout. Check the sunrise time so you can plan a workout while you see the beautiful colors of the sky. 
  • For your clothing, wear layers, but make them strategic. For the closest layer to your skin, choose a moisture-wicking material. The second layer should be for insulation, like wool. The third layer is the weather-resistant one – for snow, rain or wind. A great combo for in-between weather is a long-sleeved shirt and an insulated vest combo. 
  • Protect your head, hands, and feet. You lose the most heat from these areas. Try these gloves from Under Armour. For hats, I think it depends on your hair situation, but covering ears is essential. I prefer fleece instead of wool since it’s less itchy. Or, you can try one of these wool headbands.Take some time to discover what may work for you ahead so you can really streamline the process and becomes habit. 
  • For places – consider running routes, rooftops, parks, school bleachers for sprints, even your own backyard! 
  • Tips for running in cold weather will be covered in a separate upcoming post, because that’s a whole other thing! But for a brief intro, just like all of the previously stated factors, running in cold weather just requires some basic preparation ahead of time. The number one factor to be mindful of ahead of time is the forecast ahead, as technically there is no “too low a temperature” as there definitely is too hot to run (which can be fatal). However, one must use their best judgement to prepare properly, if one is feeling sick- rest!What I mean by this is that if roads or trails are too icey, too much hail, sleet, snow, or black, freezing ice (perhaps the most dangerous to be precautious about)- use your judgement wisely; there are always alternative indoors for those days. In the coming month, I will share some good alternatives for those days, as well as some deep dives for winter running. The biggest thing is safety first! 
  • Turn your dog-walk into a workout – you have to go out with your dog anyway, so make it a workout for both you and the pooch by increasing the outing beyond just a bathroom break. You can do this either on one long walk, or just add about 5 minutes to each walk throughout the day. Your dog needs fresh air, even in chilly weather. Turn a coffee run into a run. Having a warm drink in your hands makes a huge difference. You can either make the coffee stop a reward or just a way to heat up as you warm up. 
  • Apply sunscreen. The sun can still age you and give you skin cancer in the winter. It doesn’t care what the temps are. Always wear a product that blocks both types of ultraviolet rays — UVA and UVB — with at least 30 SPF, and a lip balm with sunscreen. I really like the Supergoop skin care line. I also found this one great makeup setting spray from Coola. But don’t forget the rest of your body – it’s not just your face. 
  • Stay hydrated. Dehydration is dangerous in the winter, because the coldness decreases the sense of thirst. That’s why you get chapped lips – that’s a huge sign of dehydration. Drink water at room temp, and keep a water bottle with you during your workout. 
  • Be safe- Wear reflective clothing and travel well-populated routes. Try to avoid going to work out in the pitch blackness at 5am, or that’s the only time possible, then go with a friend. Make sure your music is not at full volume, and be aware of your surroundings. 

Speaking of safety first, as the days are much shorter and the sun coming up a bit later, it may be dark out when you start your run or walk, or when you end your workday and have time for a workout. It is a good idea to get your wool or fleecy insulated hat, as well as your technical fabric fits, and if they do not already have 3M reflective stickers, I highly suggest that you get some. You may be able to see quite well but potentially others may not. You could also consider joinng a local running club – there’s always safety in numbers, and I find that makes the run always go faster.

Ideally, especially with more flex working hours, you could postpone your outdoor workout until the mid-afternoon or to at least when the sun rises. Even if you are going to the office, it can be easy to sneak in a run or power walk at lunch if you are strategic with taking your clothing and finding a place to shower, like your gym office locker room. Or, make your commute your workout – walk to the office or ride your bike, if you are in a city.

Running in the snow is a great core workout.

Lastly, and equally as important is your gear! Investing in the right gear is essential and what actually helps protect you and compound the runner’s high as the sun comes up! Head gear is key, and so are gloves (there a lot of ‘etip’ gloves on the market for those who need to change the beat to their tunes), and socks. There are many winter socks that are made of thin ‘smartwool’ that you can run with without the itch. You will be surprised as to how quickly your body warms up and if it is too much, you can simply tie your jacket around your waist. A jacket should really have “Windstopper” or gore-tex nylon capabilities to fight the cold bluster. By the way, nylon is an incredible textile with an incredible history and amazing insulation properties for something so prevalent. Once you get back to your pad, hop in the shower immediately as you will start to feel very, very cold otherwise. I l look forward to sharing more ahead. 

More resources:

The Wonders of Winter Workouts (Harvard Medical Press)

Winter Fitness: Safety Tips for Exercising Outdoors (Mayo Clinic)

7 Health Benefits for Exercising Outdoors (Piedmont Organization)

How To Stay Active When the Weather Gets Colder (Cleveland Clinic) 

Winter Outdoor Workouts to Try (Stack) 

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