If you live in a temperate climate, outdoor winter workouts are something you either loathe or love. For some, the chill sets into motion an entire season of indoor-only workouts. For others, the brisk air is a refreshing and welcome change.
If you identify with the latter, there are some specific tips to keep in mind to ensure a safe and productive workout. Here, fitness professionals debunk common myths about outdoor winter workouts and share their best advice for sweating it out in the cold.
Myth 1: You Have Better Endurance In The Cold
Despite some buzz around cold-weather workouts being a plus for your endurance, that’s not exactly the case. “You can regulate your body temperature more easily and sustain activity more comfortably for longer when you’re not overheating and trying to cool the body down,” explains Juliet Root, C.P.T., a trainer with Onyx. However, your glycogen (a.k.a. stored carb) stores deplete at a faster rate when you work out in colder conditions, which isn’t good news for your endurance, says Evan Williams, C.S.C.S., C.P.T., founder of E2G Performance. This is especially true if you’re working at higher intensities, in which case you rely heavily on stored carbs for fuel.
One 2016 study concluded that “physiological responses and endurance exercise capacity are impaired under cool or hot conditions compared with moderate conditions, suggesting that environmental temperature conditions play an important role for exercise performance.”
Bottom line: Don’t choose the coldest day of the year to try and beat your long-distance PR.
Myth 2: Warm Cotton Layers Are Optimal
Having a decent workout in the cold requires the proper apparel, both in terms of material and how you layer up. “Typically, three layers of clothing is optimal for exercise in colder weather,” says Daniel Cooper, M.S., Trainerize coach and exercise physiologist for Move Right EP. “These layers of clothing should draw moisture away from your skin and keep them dry throughout your workout.”
This whole moisture thing is exactly what makes cotton a less than ideal choice this time of year. “Cotton activewear doesn’t pull sweat away from the skin, which can lead to the clothing becoming heavier and uncomfortable as your workout goes on,” Cooper says.
Instead, opt for fabrics like polypropylene, polyester, or wool when heading out for a winter wonderland sweat. “These materials have wicking properties to keep moisture (sweat) away from your skin so you stay dry throughout your workout,” he explains.
Myth 3: You don’t need to Wear SPF
Repeat after us: You should always protect your skin against the sun—even if you’re jogging through the snow and not a sandy beach.
In fact, any snow on the ground actually reflects sunlight, amplifying the impacts of its rays a lot more than you’d expect, notes Chris Edwards, C.P.T, Trainerize coach and owner of Champ City Holistic Fitness. “Many people recommend SPF 30 or higher, but my go-to is always 50,” he says.
He particularly loves a sunscreen that offers some added moisture for the colder, drier weather of wintertime.
Myth 4: You Can Leave Behind the Hat and Gloves
Even if you know you’re going to get hot and sweaty when moving your body out in the cold, you still need to make sure you cover up. “When we exercise in cold weather, our body prioritizes blood flow to our core and organs to keep them warm and functioning,” says trainer Kristie Alicea, C.P.T., co-founder of the ABC Fit Collective. This means your limbs and extremities get less blood flow, putting them on the fast track to getting really cold. “Wear a hat that covers your ears, gloves, warm socks, and waterproof shoes,” Alicea says.
Myth 5: You should lower Your intensity
Don’t worry, fitness junkies, you can still go hard in the chilly temps out there. “If your preparation is appropriate, meaning you’ve fueled up with the right nutrition and hydration, performed an adequate warm-up, and chosen the correct clothing, you can still work out at the same intensity in the cold as you would in other temperatures,” says Cooper.
In fact, outdoor winter workouts give you a great opportunity to challenge yourself in ways that’ll pay off when the seasons change. “Working out in challenging weather pushes you mentally and physically to work harder, which increases your overall work capacity when not faced with the adversity of weather conditions,” says Williams. Basically, get comfortable pushing yourself in tough conditions, and your workouts will feel like an absolute breeze when the weather gets milder.
Myth 6: You Can Afford to Hydrate Less
Sure, you probably associate hot, sunny summer workouts with concerns about dehydration—and never fail to hydrate well for exercise that time of year. However, staying hydrated is equally important when you’re working out in the cold—especially considering that the weather might keep you from noticing just how much you’re still sweating.
The University of Michigan recommends the following hydration game plan:
- Before: Drink 17 to 20 ounces of water at least two hours prior to exercise
- During: Drink seven to 10 ounces of water for every 10 to 20 minutes of exercise
- After: Drink 16 to 24 ounces of water for each pound lost from sweat (weigh yourself before and after your workout)
“Your body needs just as much water for your cold-weather workout as it does for any other,” says Alicea. “You might not feel as thirsty, but if you want optimal performance, drink up!” (You might even consider adding an electrolyte mix to your H2O for an extra boost.)