December 03, 2009

Cold Comfort: Working Out In A Winter Wonderland

"Does this snowsuit make me look fat?"

Photo: Abi Skipp

It's that time of year again when the sun becomes a mere smudge of color in a seemingly endless sky of gray and provides less warmth than Bill and Hillary at bedtime. Those of us who have the good sense that God gave us will have enough brain power to move our workouts indoors for the next few months by exercising at the gym, walking at the mall or bending, groveling and whimpering along to Frauline Jillian's 30 Day Shred DVD. And then there are the rest of us.

There are those hardcore athletes who insist on braving the wintery elements because they get stoked on that sort of challenge ("I love the smell of lip balm in the morning!") or, as is the case with me (a softcore slacker), I am a dog lover right up to the point of scarificing my own comfort for the sake of my furry little friend's exercise needs. Dogs need daily exercise...or else. Have you ever had your favorite chair's leg chewed by a dog with cabin fever? Or had him wipe out a hallway table because he couldn't get enough purchase on the hardwood floor to negotiate the corner when he got an attack of the zoomies? ("Zoomies", for the uninitiated - those of you who made a much smarter choice for a winter pet like a cat or goldfish or python - are when a dog hasn't had enough exercise and starts galloping at full speed around the house, demolishing everything in his path. The upside here is that your living room furniture can be completely rearranged without you lifting a finger provided you have an ample sized dog and prevailing westerly winds working in your favor.)

But back to humans and their outdoor winter activities. The athletes among us embrace the great outdoors - come hell or frozen water. The slackers are in it purely out of obligation to their pets and property preservation against the zoomies. I am a creature of comfort and would never willingly engage in anything that might compromise my current 98.6 degrees. I've worked darn hard to keep those degrees in line and hold onto them like grim death. But I am also a dog parent and will be spending more time than a reasonable person should outdoors this winter. I also like alpine and cross country skiing - more so for the cold storage benefits which I'm convinced counteract the ravages of age and gravity than the actual sporting nature of the activity. In any event, it makes sense to be prepared for exercising outdoors in the winter.

Paying attention to the very basics is a good place to start. Listen to the local weather reports to avoid getting caught in a proverbial Gilligan's Island "three hour tour." If temperatures are dangerously low, override that Ironman mentality and go jump rope in your basement - especially if the weather is further complicated by winds and/or some sort of precipitation. And if you're running or skiing, you'll be adding that much more wind to the equation. It's just not worth the risk of hypothermia, frostbite or an injury caused by slipping and falling. I've witnessed firsthand the chaos that can be caused when someone chooses to run or bike in the middle of a snowstorm on already treacherous streets. Dodging snow plows and fish-tailing school buses isn't as fun as maybe someone like Arnold Schwartzenegger could make it appear. Those are called "special effects" - not to be confused with "exercise". Keep yourselves safe and wait until the streets are cleared or find a more natural venue.

How to dress is another important aspect of winter exercise. Not that I consider myself much of a fashion maven, given my penchant for flannel and elastic waistbands, but what you wear in cold weather workouts can make a big difference in your comfort, as noted in this article. Ideally, you want three layers of clothing to protect yourself from the elements. The first layer that's closest to your skin shouldn't be skin tight and should be of a material that wicks moisture away from the skin, like polypropylene. You don't want a fabric that gets wet and stays wet against your skin.

The second layer of clothing should be for insulation, and fabrics such as wool or synthetics are good options. (Funny, I thought this is where the vaseline and plastic wrap came in but apparently I'm mistaken. Oh, sorry - that's "titillation", not "insulation".) The outer layer should be the protective shell for the whole outfit. Look for something that is wind- or water-proof and be sure to cover your hands and head. There are some nifty silver-thread gloves that can be worn under mittens to keep those vulnerable little digits nice and toasty. I use them for skiing and they work great. As to your head, it's a myth that 60% of your body heat escapes through it - it's just generally the last place people choose to cover up. Now let's get real here: You cannot be a serious winter athlete and worry about hat-hair at the same time. You must choose. Looks aren't everything - particularly in winter. Work on that personality your parents always told you was so important for the next few months. Anything that's not covered will cause you to lose heat.

And you're off!! There are a few pointers, too, for once you get started. You should be a little on the chilly side when you start your workout and the activity will gradually work up some heat. Starting off over-dressed will result in your heating up too fast. Weather that's too cold can diminish your performance as the optimal unscientific running temperature seems to be around 51 0r 52 degrees - what we would call "shorts and a tee shirt" weather here in New England.

Another variable that is still unclear is whether working out in the cold may cause more sprains or muscle pulls than more temperate weather. And people with heart problems need to check in with their doctor first before taking up any winter workouts. Body cooling can lower the threshold for the onset of angina. If you're relying on Team Cranky to give you the green light, then maybe fitness isn't your biggest problem.

Once you've finished your workout, get inside as quickly as possible or at least change into some dry clothes as your body will begin cooling once the activity portion of your program is over. You may find that you'll get used to the cold as time goes by (but who would want to? asks this total slacker). I will be straddling both the indoor and outdoor worlds this winter as I exercise the yellow lab who refuses to act his age and am drawn to the more civilized environment of constant climate control at my local YMCA.

Do any of you have plans to exercise outdoors this winter? And if so, what are your suggestions for keeping weather-proofed?


  1. Winter is about the only time you can exercise outdoors in this part of Texas. The rest of the year it's either dangerously hot or there are, you know, tornadoes to dodge.

    The only thing I do is layer with things that can be easily removed as either I or the day heat up. Given that our average winter temps are in the 40's, this means two or maybe three light layers with a hat and maybe gloves.

    I'm trying to imagine running in snow. It's not working. Nope, not working at all.

  2. I'm a dog person, but never heard the word zoomies. Fits it perfectly!
    Running in the snow sounds aweful, but then again I'm not a runner. More of a walker :) Like Jo, I can't do it without layers.

  3. No outside workouts for me. Not ever. No way. I'm lucky if I go outside for anything but work between December and April. Which is why, you see, I'm begging my husband to move to the Caribbean.

  4. Thanks for this post. It reminded me that I used to always take an after dinner power walk outside during the holidays. I love to walk through my neighborhood and see all the Christmas decorations at this time of the year. It kind of takes the old mind off the fact that you are exercising.

    Glad you gave tips on how to dress. I always ended up saturated in sweat when I came home. I'll have to give that some thought.

  5. Thanks for the tips on layering and the silver-stringed gloves...must check those out.

    I was planning on staying indoors until you mentioned the dog..."Oh, yeah...the dog...."

    I adopted a German Shepherd puppy last Spring, and when he gets the zoomies he also gets the slidies across our wooden floor.

    I'll be thinking of you and your yellow lab as my dog walks me this winter.

  6. Zoomies! What a great word for it. (Cats get zoomies too, but because they're so weird psychologically, they seem both compelled to run around and embarrassed by their own hyperactivity).

    Great advice for winter exercise! I actually like cold temperatures when I go running, but not so much the rest of the day. I've never figured out how to order up just a single hour or two of cold weather and have it return to balmy 60's and 70's the rest of the day. Thus the annual migration to California for the winter.

  7. I not to work-out outside during the winter: to much wind and snow! I'm always afraid I'll end up doing more bodily harm than good.

    And FYI: Cat's are also prone to the zoomies, especially if you have more than one. As an added bonus, they typically choose to vent that energy at 2am. So says the girl who had to get up at 2 to remove a few ornaments from her cats nightly game of chase. *sigh*

  8. Anything below 60 is too cold, IMO, and since the humidity is so high, wicking clothes are only slightly better than wearing whatever is in the closet.

    It's hard for me to get motivated to run when it's cold, but when it gets too hard to keep dragging myself out the door only to get cold and wet (sweat, not snow), I substitute spin workouts (I <3 my Spinervals videos) or I go to the gym.

    Luckily, "winter" down here on the Gulf Coast lasts only a couple of months. I have running pals in northern climes and I'm in awe of them.

  9. Love the Zoomies terminology - and yes, my dog Paco gets them. It's funny to watch, but yes, things have been broken. I can handle exercising when it's cold, but not when the wind cuts through you. Then the wimp in me comes out and I stay indoors.

  10. My plan is to avoid the treadmill as much as possible this winter and get my running in outside. I highly recommend getting a pair of YakTrax for the days when it's snowy or icy outside.

    The dogs, however, will just have to do with running up and down our hallway or making do with the fenced-in backyard.

  11. "Those of us who have the good sense that God gave us will have enough brain power to move our workouts indoors for the next few months"

    But ... but ... I like that movie scene in which Rocky Balboa is working out running through deep snow, followed by the Russians.

    I'm just not tempted to watch it while sitting in the snow.

  12. Jo, tornado-dodging seems like a really good workout!
    Back when I lived in a place where it snowed, I enjoyed cross-country skiing. Now I live in California. It gets a little chilly sometimes, but in our neck of the woods, there is no snow. We can workout outdoors pretty much all year. No icy roads. No scraping car windows. THIS is why I live here, lol! There were 18 blizzards in New England in 1994, the year I moved away.
    I don't miss that.

  13. Icy sidewalks and my ass work best when they are separated as far away from each other as possible. So, it's indoors for me. Although...I am tempted to run the fitness trail at Edgewater Park on Lake Erie, which gets BRUTAL in the winter (hard, icy winds, etc.). Shoot, there are people who surf that lake in this crappy weather.

    But really, I'm just talking s**t. Yup. Indoors.

  14. Great advice & so full of important info!!! I live in southern CA so it gets only to about the high 30's here in the early morn when I go outside so than goodness, no super cold temps or snow flurries... for now at least! :-)

  15. Ok so I'm a baby when it comes to cold so there will be no winter outside workouts for me! It's all about my indoor trainer for my bike, my Wii Active Game, and some workout DVDs. More power to the people who do outdoor cold winter workouts!

  16. i don't bike in cold. however, i do snowshoe (when possible) and run. however, given that my latest cold is due to cold lungs in turn wreaking havoc on my sinuses, i might need to rethink that.

    the sad thing is that i dressed warmly that day. that, and i do enjoy running in snow or the time just before a snowstorm.

  17. Here in Utah the winters can get pretty cold. :) I usually bike indoors and swim indoors (thankfully) during winter but I try to get my runs in outside, when there's not snow on the ground.

  18. I wonder if I could get my cat to go on a run with me, b/c he's been housebound lately since we aren't home until after dark and we won't let him out in the dark. And let me tell you - he does the zoomies, complete with redecoration services.

  19. I thought running in the cold & dark was fairly keen, until I hurt my knee and went to the swimming pool instead last night.
    OMG - it was outdoors and although the water itself was OK, the part between there and the changing rooms was brutal!
    I will never complain about winter jogging again :)

  20. Not wanting to exercise outdoors is one of the reasons I will gladly visit with other people's dogs, but won't have one of my own.

    Cold just hurts too much for me to be willing to make that sacrifice, but my hat if off to you for doing it.

  21. Gotta be indoors for me, too. Partly because I work until 5 pm EST and during Michigan winters, it's dark by then! Can't see myself jogging with a flashlight, trying to miss icy patches. I also work indoors, in front of my tv, because at my age, my body tends to make funny noises while I'm exercising (did I really write that??)

  22. I'm going to try snowboarding this winter. I'm a bit apprehensive because I get cold very easily.

    I have been hitting the gym pretty hard for the last month in preparation though so I feel pretty confident overall.

    The information on layers was very informative. I need to hit the thrift store.

  23. DRESSING for it is the big one for me. If I'm bundled up with a bunch of fleeces/toque/gloves/mittens/scarves/boots/long underwear, I'm all set :D

  24. Now I've got the song But baby it's cold out there stuck in my head. Ack!

  25. In about 50 minutes, I will be shoveling the deck and the driveway. This is because I can't go to the gym, and I want the exercise.
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