Fitness Articles

Winterize Your Workout by Knowing the Facts

Busting 6 Common Cold-Weather Myths

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Doesn't it sort of seem like a cruel joke that New Year's happens to fall in the dead of winter? Just as you've freshly made all of those fitness resolutions, Mother Nature plunges the great outdoors into frigid temps. Unless you're lucky enough to live in a tropical climate, snow, ice and chilly winds could show up as unwelcome companions on your run, walk or bike ride, making it tougher to pry yourself out of that warm, cozy bed.
 
If you don't have access to a gym or just prefer to exercise outdoors, Old Man Winter doesn't have to freeze your progress. After all, if explorers were able to safely explore the North and South Poles and swim for hours across the English channel, as the American College of Sports Medicine reported, most of us can manage a snowy 30-minute walk or jog.
 
However, the report also warned that when the temperature drops below -18 degrees Fahrenheit, there's a much higher risk of frostbite and hypothermia, especially with an added wind chill. Those with heart disease, asthma, poor circulation and Raynaud's disease should exercise extra caution and consult a doctor before exercising in extreme cold.
 
As long as you're in good health, you have appropriate gear and the temperature hasn't dropped to a dangerous zone, there's no reason to let these common cold-weather myths serve as excuses to skip winter workouts.
 

Myth #1: Exercising in the cold is bad for your lungs

 
Have you ever inhaled frigid air during a run or walk and felt a burning sensation in your throat and lungs? Not to worry—the cold isn't doing any damage to your respiratory system. By the time the air reaches the bottom of your windpipe, it's been warmed to regular body temperature, Dr. Steven T. Devor confirmed in a guest post for Fleet Feet Sports. It's simply not possible for cold air to freeze your lungs.
 
So, what's causing that burning feeling? It's due to the low humidity of the winter air, which takes moisture from the cells lining your throat, causing them to become dehydrated and irritated. "To prevent this discomfort, you can try using a light scarf or mask to help warm up the air that you're breathing in," suggests Tyler Spraul, trainer for Exercise.com.
 

Myth #2: Cold weather causes joint pain

 
While it may seem like your joints are more stiff or painful in the cold, studies are conflicting as to whether winter air is to blame. Some experts believe that the culprit isn't the outdoor temperature, but the barometric pressure in the air. As the pressure drops, the body's tissues expand, which can press against the joints and cause discomfort.
 

Myth #3: It can make you sick

 
Remember all those well-meaning warnings from our parents and grandparents about how being out in the cold will cause you to catch one? As it turns out, the opposite may be true. Some doctors believe that exposure to the cold can actually activate the immune system by boosting levels of norepinephrine, which can help to alleviate nasal congestion.
 
However, someone who develops hypothermia—dangerously low body temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or less—becomes more susceptible to illness and infection. The drier air also causes some constriction of the blood vessels in the nose and throat, which can reduce the mucus that normally helps to block viruses and bacteria.
 
To stay healthy during the winter workout season, take the necessary precautions by suiting up in warm gear, washing hands often to keep germs at bay and using a humidifier to add moisture to the air indoors.  
 

Myth #4: Recovery takes longer in cold weather

 
According to Dr. Scott Weiss, a licensed physical therapist and athletic trainer, this simply isn't true. "Unless you are living in the wild, the wintertime should have no effect on your healing," he says in The Active Times. "I have helped professionals and Olympians equally heal in the summer and winter. What’s more important is seeing the macro view of your life and planning accordingly."
 
For the most part, the recovery techniques that work in warm weather will be equally effective in winter.
 

Myth #5: You don’t need to drink as much water

 
You may not feel as sweaty or thirsty as you would after a mid-summer workout, but that doesn't mean it's okay to skip the water—in fact, you may need even more of it. Cold, dry air can have a dehumidifying effect on the body. Also, proper hydration helps to keep the skin moist, preventing the cracking and chapping that can make you more vulnerable to bacteria and viruses, while also promoting healthy circulation and cardiovascular function.
 
"Your body needs to stay hydrated during cardiovascular exercise, regardless of temperature," says fitness trainer Sarah Ann Kelly from MomTrainer.com. "Swap ice water for room temperature water if that helps."
 

Myth #6: You don’t need to wear sunscreen in winter

 
While the sun is less intense in winter, you should still take appropriate precautions. If there is snow on the ground, it will reflect more than 80 percent of the sun's rays and increase the risk of sunburn or skin damage, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. To stay sun-safe during outdoor winter exercise, they recommend applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to all exposed skin, and reapplying every couple of hours or after profuse sweating.

General Winter Workout Safety Tips

  • Warm up. When training her running clients, Kelly has them do a quick warm-up inside before venturing into the elements. "Perform a dynamic warm up series that includes squats, rotational lunges, windmills and plank rotations to get your body warm and to prepare your joints for the movements ahead," she suggests.
  • Layer, but don't overdo it. Start with a wicking base layer, add an insulating layer to trap warmth and top with a wind-blocking layer that can be easily tied around the hips if needed. "Keep in mind that if you're running or doing something relatively strenuous, it will feel 15 or 20 degrees warmer than the actual temperature," Spraul says. "If you dress too warm, you could end up overheating, which means you'll get cold much faster because you'll be soaked with sweat."
  • Consider the wind chill. Running in 30-degree weather is much different than running in 30-degree weather in 15-mph winds, as wind takes heat away from your body more quickly. "Make sure your sensitive areas are covered, particularly your hands and ears, as these extremities tend to be most susceptible to the cold, especially if it's windy," Spraul warns.
  • Pick a safe surface. To prevent dangerous slips and falls, Kelly suggests finding a safe path that is less prone to black ice, such as a track or known paved road.
  • Know the warning signs. If you experience fatigue, weakness, confusion, excess shivering, loss of coordination or slowed breathing or heart rate, heed the signals and head inside.
  • Stay in touch. Share your route with family or friends, and carry a charged cell phone in case of emergency. 
With the proper precautions and planning, you can safely maintain your outdoor workouts from the first frost all the way through to the spring thaw.

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Member Comments

  • I thought this was a Awesome, well wrote article, & very inspiring for this winter exercising! I hope everyone has a Marvelous & Blessed Monday!
  • How germane. Everyone needs to read this, yet I'm the first comment. Maybe it needs a new headline, like, "6 Pro Secrets to Surviving Winter Training." (But what do I know, I'm only a copywriter.)

About The Author

Melissa Rudy Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.