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How to exercise outdoors in colder weather

11 October 2020 in Health

Contents

Written by: Georgina Newman
Edited by: Meera Senthilingam
Reviewed by the Your.MD medical team

Even if you're committed to outdoor exercise, it's easy to be put off by harsher, colder temperatures that sweep in during the autumn and winter months.

When the weather’s cold, the body works to keep the organs warm and protected. This takes heat away from your toes, fingers and other extremities, reducing blood flow to these areas.

As a result, your extremities are more at risk from frostbite. Your body can also be vulnerable to hypothermia, which can be serious.

But there are things you can do to prepare.

How to prepare to exercise outdoors

If you have certain conditions, such as asthma, heart problems or Raynaud's phenomenon, check with your doctor first to review any special precautions you need.

Otherwise, here's how to prepare for a winter workout outdoors.

Check the outside temperature and the day’s forecast

Try to plan ahead, especially if there’s a spell of bad weather forecast. If snow, severe winds or rain is likely later in the day, you may want to do your workout early or postpone it to the next day.

Woman tying trainers before run, wearing gloves

Find appropriate clothing

If the weather’s windy, rainy, snowy or cold, it’s important to wear layers. You can then remove a few of these layers once your body starts to warm up.

Your first layer of clothing could be a thin synthetic fabric like polyester. This draws sweat away from your body and won’t become damp like cotton or other natural fabrics. This will help you stay warm.

If temperatures are particularly cold, wear a fleece or wool jumper as a second layer to keep your body warm. You can then wear a thin, waterproof outer layer to keep any rain out.

If you’re exercising after dark or early in the morning before it’s light, wear bright colours or a visibility jacket with reflective strips so others can see you. This is especially important if you exercise on a road.

Protect your hands, feet and ears

It’s important to cover your hands, feet and ears with warm clothing when temperatures are cold as these areas are particularly vulnerable to frostbite.

You should wear warm gloves, socks and earmuffs where necessary.

Woman in sportswear putting on gloves during snowy cold winter weather

Don’t forget skincare

You can still catch the sun even when it’s not shining, so apply sunscreen before you head out.

It’s especially important to wear sunscreen if you’re exercising at high altitudes or if you’re doing an activity like skiing or snowboarding. This is because the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays reflect off snow and ice, and touch your body twice. This increases your risk of sunburn and skin cancer.

Protect your eyes from the sun by wearing sunglasses and wear a hat to protect your head from catching the sun. You should apply sunscreen to your face and any other parts of your body not covered by clothing.

Winter weather can also dry out your skin, so apply moisturiser to trap in moisture and use a lip balm to prevent your lips from becoming dry and chapped.

Make sure you’re hydrated

You still lose water through sweat when you’re exercising in colder weather, so it’s still important to stay hydrated.

Remember to have water before you exercise and fill a bottle to take with you.

Running tap, water running into a pink water bottle held over a sink

Warm up and cool down

If you’re exercising outdoors on a cold day it may be worthwhile doing a 10-minute warm-up to prepare your muscles.

The way you warm up should be based on your chosen exercise. For example, if you’re going out for a run, walk slowly at first and then more briskly for 10 minutes before breaking into a run. Do the same if you’re playing a team sport outdoors, like football.

If you’re going cycling, peddle at a slow pace on a flat surface until you feel ready to cycle faster.

When you’re coming to the end of your workout, spend the last 10 minutes cooling down. To do this, simply do a gentler version of the exercise you’ve been doing for 10 minutes.

A cool-down allows your body temperature and heart rate to return to normal more gradually — if this happens too quickly, you may feel ill or faint.

What to take with you when you exercise outdoors

Depending on the specific weather conditions, you may need:

  • a waterproof or woollen hat, if it’s rainy or has snowed
  • sunglasses — wraparound sunglasses are ideal, especially if you’re running
  • ear warmers or earmuffs, especially if there’s a cold wind
  • a scarf
  • gloves
  • thick socks made from wool or synthetic fabrics, not cotton
  • shoe covers if it’s very damp or slushy underfoot
  • a water bottle
  • a visibility jacket
  • a mobile phone, in case you run into difficulties

Man warming up before going jogging

Warning signs to watch out for

If temperatures are especially cold and you spend a longer amount of time outside, this can lead to hypothermia or frostbite, so it’s important to be able to recognise the symptoms.

Hypothermia

Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat too quickly and your temperature drops below 35C. It’s a medical emergency, so always seek help if you notice any of the following symptoms.

  • your skin and lips turn or appear blue
  • your speech is slurred
  • your breathing becomes slower
  • you’re confused
  • you’re shivering

Frostbite

Frostbite occurs when the skin — usually your fingers, ears and toes — becomes damaged due to cold temperatures.

Parts of your skin may feel painful as a result of the cold and you may develop pins and needles (a tingling sensation) along with numbness in parts of your body.

Keep aware of the symptoms of frostbite if you’re exercising in cold weather.

If any part of your body does feel very cold, painful or tingling, it’s important to get somewhere warm and swap any damp clothing for dry ones.

Key points

  • if you exercise outdoors in harsher weather conditions, make sure you dress appropriately
  • check weather conditions before you go
  • remember to warm up before and cool down after exercise
  • take a water bottle with you to help you stay hydrated and a mobile phone in case you need help
  • watch out for signs of hypothermia, including blue skin and lips, shivering, slower breathing and slurred speech
Article Sources

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.

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