I’m not a fan of winter. After living in Colorado as a child, and having Raynaud’s Syndrome, I would be happy never living where it snows again. Somewhere where it’s 70 degrees all year round sounds great to me. . . Alas, I live in the central part of the US, and like many other areas of the country, the weather is transitioning to winter. (Of course, this means a lovely mix of 80/70/60/50/40 degree days – you never know how it’s going to be!)
Believe it or not, there are many benefits of exercising outdoors in the winter, including improved mood (thank you, vitamin D!), increased endorphins, increased calorie expenditure, and improved immunity. However, it takes our bodies 10-14 days to adjust to a large variation in temperature or altitude. What do we need to do to facilitate this adjustment and make it as painless as possible?
Drinking enough water is not thought about or stressed enough because you may not feel like you are sweating, however, even if you sweat less in the winter, you are still losing valuable hydration via the vapor that you exhale. In order to maintain core temperature, capillaries on the surface of the skin close, blood is redirected to the center of your body, and your body regulates heat by ventilation in a much larger way than in the summer. Dehydration can cause headaches, muscle cramps, irritability, and even hypothermia. The solution? Make sure to follow your regular hydration plan, including bringing water with you while you work out. In addition to proper hydration, knowing how to dress for your activity will help you to maintain a steady body temperature.
Dress in Layers
It is very easy to heat up once you get going, and dressing in layers serves several purposes. First, the air between each layer acts as insulation to keep heat in. Second, it’s easy to just throw on some heavy clothing, go outside for a WOD and totally overheat. With several thinner layers, you can adjust as you go along.
There are several ways that your body loses heat when exercising, and you need to consider each when you are preparing for the great outdoors.
Evaporation happens when you are sweating. In the heat, the hot air causes the water to turn to vapor, thus cooling the skin. However, in the cold, evaporation does not happen, and sweat can cause clothing to get wet, thereby causing you to get cold (and SUPER uncomfortable!!). Your first layer of clothing should therefore be a synthetic wicking layer. Definitely avoid materials such as cotton, which stays wet.
Heat can also leave the body via radiation – think of how you go out into the sun and feel the heat of the sun. The body can get rid of heat this way also – your skin releases heat into the colder environment. To keep this heat in, your next layer should be an insulating layer of fleece or Merino wool. And put on that hat!! Heat does leave your body through your head, so an active, wicking hat is great (again, no cotton, and wool often causes people’s noggins to get TOO warm. . .).
Conduction happens when your body loses heat by physically touching something colder (like holding an icicle). To prevent conduction heat loss, make sure to wear warm, wicking socks and gloves. Finally, convection occurs when wind or water moves over the skin and removes heat. To prevent convection heat loss, your outer layer should be a breathable wind and water-proof layer (like Gore-Tex).
Start Low, Go Slow
Because it does take up to two weeks for your body to adjust to a new environment, and because your body actually works harder in the winter, don’t attempt – or expect! – to hop outside and immediately do your workouts at their normal intensity and/or duration. It’s easy to overestimate your abilities in cold weather. Just remember that every system in your body needs to adjust (Have you ever gone outside for the first time in cold weather and taken a run or played a sport? Then you end up having the “Fran Cough” for the rest of the day? No fun!). So, advance your workouts slowly to get the most out of them AND feel good during and after the activity.
Working out in the winter weather can be truly exhilarating! It just takes some forethought, planning, and precautions to fully enjoy the many activities this season has to offer. Now, get out and play!
Sabrina is a Ph.D., National Board Certified-HWC and a physiologist with a background in advertising, writing, and editing as well as nutrition and kinesiology.