A Sports Doctor's Secrets to Warming Up for Cold-Weather Workouts

By , SparkPeople Blogger

Unless you’re lucky enough to live in a tropical climate, you’ll most likely find yourself faced with the prospect of exercising in the cold at some point. Maybe you don’t have access to an indoor gym, or you prefer getting your fitness on in the fresh (albeit frosty) air. Either way, there’s no reason to let frigid temperatures freeze your progress toward your goals. Whether your activity of choice is running, walking, biking or hiking, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy the great outdoors all year round—with some modifications, of course.

Dr. Tim Miller, director of the endurance medicine program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, works with Olympians and other elite athletes who train and compete in sub-zero weather. Using his smart strategy recommendations, you’ll learn how to properly warm up and stay safe no matter how low the temperatures dip outside.

The Importance of the Warmup

Whether it’s 90 or nine degrees, never underestimate the importance of the warmup. As Coach Jen points out, taking a few moments to prep your body for activity helps to increase the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, giving them the energy they need for the demands you’re about to place upon them. A proper warmup prepares the heart for exertion, allowing the blood pressure to rise gradually instead of spiking. It also helps to prevent injury to the tissues and joints, among other bodily benefits.
Add cold weather to the mix and Dr. Miller says the warmup becomes even more essential. “Cold temperatures lead to tight muscles and stiff joints, which put soft tissues, particularly the tendons, at higher risk for strains and tears,” he says. He adds that it’s especially important for athletes with exercise-induced bronchospasm (EIB), also known as exercise-induced asthma, to do a slow and comprehensive warmup. “Cold temperatures put athletes with reactive airway disease at an increased risk for triggering coughing from bronchospasm.”
When warming up, try to engage in a few minutes of the same type of activity you’ll be doing during the main event, but at a lower and slower intensity. For example, if your goal is to jog five miles, start out at a brisk walk or easy jog before going all out. It’s also a good idea to perform a few stretches to loosen up cold muscles.

Dr. Miller’s Tips and Tricks for Exercising in the Cold

  • Layer up. There’s a reason this age-old advice to layer up keeps popping up: It works. Dr. Miller says dressing in thin, breathable layers is key to any successful cold-weather workout. “It is important to have all skin and appendages covered when going out to train in the cold, but the layers should not have you feeling overly warm or hot when you leave your house,” he says. “If you are going out for a run, your body will heat up and likely be sweating within just a few minutes, even if the temperature is below freezing.” As your body temperature rises, you can peel off external layers. Consider wearing a small sports backpack or cinch sack so you can stow articles of clothing as you shed them.
  • Use the wind to your advantage. If you’re headed outside for a chilly run, Dr. Miller suggests running into the wind at the beginning and then with the wind at your back on the way home. This allows you to minimize the amount of moisture (sweat) against your body, which helps to keep your body temperature from dropping. As a bonus, having the wind behind you provides a boost during the last portion of your run or workout, when your energy may be dwindling.
  • Be patient. Your first frigid fitness sessions may have you dreaming of a warm blanket and roaring fire, but they’ll likely become more bearable as you get used to the frosty temps. “Experienced elite-level athletes become acclimated to cold temperatures after extensive cold-weather training,” Dr. Miller points out.
  • Stay hydrated. Water is probably the last thing on your mind when you’re shivering your way through a snowy 5K, but experts agree that it’s still important to drink up in cold temperatures. Even if you don’t feel hot and sweaty, you’re still losing fluids that need to be replenished.

Essential Cold-Weather Gear

So, you know it’s important to bundle up, but what items do you really need? When exercising outside, you’ll need different gear than your everyday cold-weather accessories. Dr. Miller recommends investing in these fitness-friendly items to ward off the winter chill.

  1. Nylon clothing: When it’s cold outside, a sweaty cotton shirt will cling to your skin and bring down your body temperature. “When training in cold weather, it’s key to keep sweat away from your skin and not let your sweat start to freeze,” says Dr. Miller. Nylon fabric wicks sweat away from the body, which helps to decrease moisture against the skin better than cotton garments.
  2. Skull cap: Even if that old myth about losing half the heat from our heads has pretty much been debunked, a well-insulated skull cap will still decrease the amount of heat that escapes from your noggin. Plus, it simultaneously serves the all-important task of protecting your ears from the extremities.
  3. Balaclava mask: Not only does it protect your skin from the cold, a face mask also warms the air before it is inhaled into the lungs, decreasing the chance of coughing or triggering a reactive airway.
  4. Mittens: Wearing mittens can help to maintain blood flow to the fingers better than gloves because the fingers can share heat, and there is less surface area to lose body heat.

Is it Ever Too Cold to Exercise Outside?

Even with all of the proper precautions and preparations, is there ever a time when it’s ill-advised—or downright dangerous—to head outdoors for a wintry workout? According to Dr. Miller, as long as the body is allowed time to acclimate to cold weather and proper clothing is worn to cover all skin and appendages, there is no specific temperature that is too cold for training.
That said, he noted, as temperatures drop closer to zero, the risk of frostbite goes up significantly when the skin is exposed for more than just a few minutes.
Additionally, there is an increased risk of falls and ankle injuries, such as sprains and fractures, when ice is on the ground. “Caution with your footing is a must, and depending on the terrain in which you are training, devices like crampons can make a big difference in getting traction in snow and ice,” says Dr. Miller.
After your cold-weather workout, get inside to warmer temperatures as quickly as possible. Dr. Miller says that ideally, you should change into warm, dry clothes right away to prevent hypothermia and to decrease the risk of skin chafing.
Do you exercise outside in the winter? What are your favorite ways to stay warm during cold-weather workouts?

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Great tips! Report
BIKE4HEALTH 2/25/2018
Well timed Report
NASFKAB 2/25/2018
Very helpful & useful tips Report
BIKE4HEALTH 2/23/2018
Good stuff Report
PLCHAPPELL 2/23/2018
Good tips Report
2DAWN4 2/22/2018
I love to walk outside in the winter months! Report
2DAWN4 2/22/2018
I love to walk outside in the winter months! Report
MSROZZIE 2/22/2018
Good need-to-know information! Report
USMAWIFE 2/22/2018
great advice Report
BOLEBRON 2/22/2018
I can hardly walk where there is snow and I avoid to go out at all where there is ice. I'll wait for when it gets warmer and safe. Thanks! Report
RAPUNZEL53 2/22/2018
Thanks. Report
PICKIE98 2/22/2018
Lots of sunscreen on exposed skin is so important! Report
PICKIE98 2/22/2018
Lots of sunscreen on exposed skin is so important! Report
WALKZWDOGZ 2/22/2018
Rain I don't mind. Cold, snow or ice is why they invented exercise videos. :-) Report
BIKE4HEALTH 2/22/2018
thx Report
How timely. 3 inches of snow and in the teens. Report
NELLJONES 2/22/2018
Makes me want to stay indoors. Report
PATRICIA-CR 2/22/2018
Important to know! Report
AQUAGIRL08 2/22/2018
Great information! Thank you! Report
ROBBIEY 2/22/2018
good information, but I am totally an indoor exerciser. Report
JANET552 2/22/2018
Great tips Report
JANET552 2/22/2018
Great tios Report
EMGERBER 2/22/2018
Soom good information to know! Report
SADIEMYERS 2/22/2018
Good tips, thank you. Zero this morning. Report
AZMOMXTWO 2/22/2018
good info thank you Report
JSTETSER 2/22/2018
I will also ride my stationary bike for 5-10 minutes inside before I head out. That way my core is already heated. Report
RO2BENT 2/22/2018
Good to know Report
NEPTUNE1939 2/22/2018
great Report
-POOKIE- 2/22/2018
Cold air plays havoc with my asthma. Report
Where I live, they don't recommend much outdoor activity at temperatures below 5F. I'm no medical expert but air quality is almost always poor the colder it gets because the cold traps emissions at ground level. It seems like that would be an important consideration in this discussion, if the main point of exercise is good health. Personally I'm still sticking to spark videos and my stationary bike on those days. Report
JIACOLO 2/21/2018
Good information to have. I tend to shy away from winter activities outside, but really shouldn't. Report
MIYAMO 2/21/2018
Great article. Report
BIKE4HEALTH 2/21/2018
I had no idea...thanks Report
useful info--thanks! Report
Great article! Report
Great information! Report
MARTHA324 2/20/2018
I do exercise outside in the cold, but pretty much stop when it gets below 20 and/or if it's icy. These are great tips! Report
JANIEWWJD 2/20/2018
Thanks for all the great tips!!! Report
DMEYER4 2/19/2018
thanks Report
AJB121299 2/18/2018
nice Report
JUNETTA2002 2/18/2018
Cold weather is not for me. Report
JIBBIE49 2/18/2018
I hate cold weather. Report
MNABOY 2/18/2018
Thanks for the information. Report
KATHYJO56 2/18/2018
great information Report
EO4WELLNESS 2/17/2018
interesting. Report
KATHYJO56 2/16/2018
This is really good information Report
useful information Report
GRAMMYEAC 2/15/2018
A lot of good info on exercising in the cool weather here. Report
RHOOK20047 2/15/2018
Good tips Report
PATRICIA-CR 2/15/2018
Very important tips. Report
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