Fitness Articles

Winter Workout Safety Tips

How Cold is Too Cold?

462SHARES
Depending on where you live, weather conditions can vary greatly throughout the year. If you enjoy exercising outdoors, the different seasons certainly bring their share of joys and sorrows. Who wouldn’t enjoy walking, running, or biking on a warm summer’s night, a fall afternoon, during a sunny spring day, or even amid the tranquility of an early winter morning?

For many of us, we are entering the coolest—okay coldest—time of the year. If you enjoy exercising outside, then the bitter cold of winter can be more than just an inconvenience. And no, the alternative doesn't have to mean hibernating for a few months, only to resurface with the buttercups in spring. By taking a few special precautions, and monitoring winter weather and conditions, it can be completely safe—and even enjoyable—to work out in the wintry outdoors.

Chances are you've heard the nightmarish stories of some climbers battling Mt. Everest or someone missing in the forest and their struggle with hypothermia. But it is important to know that hypothermia can happen outside of mountain ranges and national forests. It awaits every ill-prepared outdoor exerciser who dares to venture out when temperatures and conditions shout to us to stay inside.

Hypothermia, basically, is dangerously-low body temperature—below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. It is a condition that occurs when your body loses more heat than it can generate in return. It is typically caused by extended exposure to the cold and can be brought on by being outside in winter without enough protective clothing or wearing wet (even sweaty) clothing in windy or cold weather.

When exercising outdoors in the winter, you should closely monitor your body and be aware if you are having any of the following symptoms:
  • Drowsiness
  • Weakness
  • Loss of coordination
  • Pale, cold skin
  • Confusion
  • Uncontrollable shivering
  • Slowed breathing or slowed heart rate
Don’t wait until you see all seven! When you recognize any of the above, it is time to go inside right away. Better yet, let’s avoid all of this. Here are some tips when exercising outside in the winter to avoid hypothermia:
  • Of course, dress appropriately for cold weather. In a nutshell: Layer, layer, layer.
  • Stay close to home. If you begin getting too cold, you can get back quickly.
  • Carry a cell phone in case of emergency.
  • Let friends and family know what you are doing, where you'll be going, and when you should be back.
Although following the tips above will keep you exercising safely through most winter days, it can still be unsafe sometimes—no matter what you are wearing or how conditioned you may be. It's best to stay indoors when the outdoors resembles these conditions:
  • Extremely cold temperatures with high winds. Wind takes heat away from your body more rapidly, making it more difficult for your body to generate the heat it needs already in very cold temperatures.
  • Extremely cold temperatures with rain. If you body gets cold—and wet—you're setting the stage for hypothermia to develop.
  • Ice. Icy roads and sidewalks are unsafe from an injury standpoint as they increase your chances of slips and falls.
Remember that completing a workout should not be a matter of life and death—no matter how committed you are. Take it indoors and use your favorite piece of cardio equipment, walk inside the mall, or do an exercise video. Being inside doesn’t have to be forever and you can do it if your safety depends on it.

Bear in mind that if you layer up, watch the forecast, and take some general safety precautions, you'll be pretty safe during about 95% of your winter workouts. (Enjoy the crazy looks you get from people!) For the other 5% of the time, enjoy the great indoors!
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About The Author

Jason Anderson Jason Anderson
Jason loves to see people realize the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle. He is a certified personal trainer and enjoys running races--from 5Ks to 50K ultramarathons. See all of Jason's articles.

Member Comments

  • ABBYK123
    I really get frustrated with a lot of the weather related comments…I live on the Canadian prairies where it has been -35 to -48 and our runners and snowshoe clubs are active daily.Its all in education and an investment in adequate winter gear and how to use it with full facial masks similar to snowmobilers but lighter.Exercise is a daily must here in preventing seasonal affect disease,depressio
    n and just plain obesity, and let's face it my life here is winter Nov-April if we are lucky! - 1/30/2014 4:52:27 PM
  • Too bad almost the entire winter here is extremely cold with high wind, snow and ice. Thank goodness for treadmills. - 8/13/2013 4:12:30 PM
  • This year I decided to join a marathon training group and we have ran in single and just barely over single digit temperatures. I don't like being cold so I do layer. I was nervous my first run day, but I found 'wicking' shirts and running pants that keep me quite warm so layering does work. - 2/9/2010 1:01:30 PM
  • RENA1965
    I find walking in all weather has hardened my immunesystem up 100% I use the many layers system and am always toasty warm even at -18 plus.. I also wear skiing glasses so the cold weather doesn't sting my eyes or vehicles flick ice up in my face.. I don't run in snow weather because a person can never know if there is a solid layer of slippery ice under the snow and fall...
    I also keep my mp3 and pedometer tucked in within layers of clothing- these can switch off at very low tempers.. - 2/9/2010 3:31:30 AM
  • The Article should make note that those with Sever Health Conditions such as Heart Disease and Asthma, should NOT expose themselves to such extreme cold temperatures and be involved in strenuous activities. Doing so could bring on a heart attack, stroke, or worse- sudden death. This happened to my Father In Law just clearing snow from his wind shield in about 32* temps. Take Care. - 2/9/2010 2:39:01 AM
  • This helped me understand what happened on my bike yesterday. My normal 90 min ride took me 105 and I was weak and exhausted which is unusual. Who would have thought in AZ I would have this problem. This is the coldest winter I remember. We actually got snow and it NEVER stays on the ground and this lingered in shade for more than two days. I will dress warmer! - 12/29/2009 6:58:23 PM
  • Great article. I lived in Chicago years ago and was pregnant and had to go out in -14 weather at night to a meeting. I got caught in a strong wind walking from the college parking lot and by the time I got into the building I was having uncontrollable shaking. There happened to be a doctor at the meeting who attended to me. Afterwards, I got a lecture on how being 8-months pregnant was an added risk for hypothermia. Security brought my car to the door when I was ready to go home. - 3/12/2008 5:55:25 PM
  • This is a great motiving article! We live in Wisconsin and my husband is training for a marathon in February down in the much warmer South. I'm not running, but am biking a metric century (100 km/64 miles), so I need to keep up my training also. We have been hitting a local trail each weekend; it goes for miles and has a three mile hike around a beautiful lake. It has been a great winter of working out! Usually we are alone out there, and it has snowed several times. I feel sorry for the people who usually swarm these trails for missing out on the beautiful snow-covered scenery! :) (Although, we were out yesterday and some Boy Scouts were there, having a sled dog event. Very cool!)

    But, as the article points out, if you use some common sense about what to wear then being outside in the cold air is fine. We have been fine in wind chills consistently below zero (but our water bottles started to freeze up a little bit - which was different!). Just dress for the weather and think about what you are doing. I have definitely discovered there is no reason to stay inside just because it is cold. It has been a great winter! - 1/27/2008 8:41:54 AM
  • I love exercising outdoors here in NJ during the winter months. Unless there is ice, I've even gone out in a snowstorm. I wear layers and of course my Under Armour coldgear...the feeling of exhileration I get after returning is totally amazing. - 1/2/2008 5:14:05 PM
  • Good reminders! My friend and I are avid walkers, even in the coldest weather. Our rule is to stay inside (snuggled up with our hubbies) if it's less than 10 degrees outside, snowing, raining, or winds of over 20 mph in the winter. We've been doing this for a couple of years now and, despite needing to spend 15 minutes layering up in the morning, it works well! - 12/27/2007 12:08:50 PM
  • JASONA2
    Wow! Great comments, ideas, and suggestions from everyone. This is a great expansion on what I wrote in this article. It is very hard to define 'extreme cold' because there really is no set standard that fits eveyone (as one poster stated!). Other conditions such as age, weight, acclaimation levels, current fitness levels are all factors that will affect how well a person tolerates cold weather. I enjoy running outside and would think nothing about going out when the temps drop into the teens. However, I would not encourage my parents (who are in thier late 70's) or my kids (9 and 4) to go with me.

    I think my point is that winter does not mean hybernating inside and abandoning your outdoor pursuits. I have too many people tell me that they were doing so well with thier walking or exercise outside "until it got cold". I know I get alot of funny looks from passing motorists sometimes when I am outside running. I guess they just couldn't imagine being outside let alone running!

    As another poster pointed out, layering is key and also wearing the appropriate materials ("technical fabrics" like polyester, wicking fabric, duodry, etc...) which serve to draw perspiration away from the skin and/or serve better at holding body heat. One misnomer though, it is common to hear the myth that cold air can freeze your lungs but this is not true. The cold air may irritate your throat and lungs but your lungs cannot freeze as once air that is taken in reaches the lungs it is warmed to body temperature. It may feel like your lungs are freezing but they aren't!

    If you are wondering if it is too cold, try it out but stay close to home. If you just find that you cannot get warm, go back in. That might be a good sign. Also, for all the runners and walkers, begin your route into the wind if you are going "out and back". That way the wind will be to your back on your way back. If you are a little sweaty then it won't be as cold.

    Thanks for all the great comments! - 12/27/2007 10:02:07 AM
  • A friend who grew up in Minnesota had a chest x-ray when he was middle-aged. The doctor asked about my friend's 'horrible bout with pneumonia that left all that scar tissue on his lungs." My friend never had pneumonia, but grew up playing ice hockey outdoors...the cold air froze his lungs repeatedly and scarred them! You tell me, how cold is too cold? It's not always the outward symptoms, but, obviously, cold temperatures can do internal damage. - 12/26/2007 7:02:26 PM
  • ICTOANA
    I live in south Louisiana so we never get "extreme cold," but I have still felt some of the symptoms they talk about in the article. I did a Google search and on WebMD it says that you can get hypothermia if you are outside in temperatures of 50°F (10°C).

    While I don't know the temperature where it really is too cold to work outside, but there is definitely a big range where it could cause problems if you are not adequately prepared. I think one of the biggest factors is how prepared you are for dealing with the cold, windy, and/or wet conditions. I wish that SparkPeople had gone more into preparation for dealing with these conditions. - 12/26/2007 1:10:18 PM
  • I think it is impossible to pin down a number where every exerciser will get hypothermia. I have found that I actually really love winter running (I go slower) down to about minus 8 (I guess that's about 17 Fahrenheit), but lower than that and I just don't enjoy it; the air is uncomfortably cold when I breathe heavily. Here in Helsinki you can buy running shoes with treads that make running on ice easier. :)

    One tip that maybe could be added is this: if you're still outside, don't unzip your jacket or take off your hat to cool down!!! Even though you'll feel like you're boiling in a parka, let yourself cool down slowly and don't remove or open any clothing until you're inside. It's some of the best winter running advice I've ever gotten. - 12/26/2007 12:08:55 PM
  • I would also have appreciated some examples about what "too cold" is, even knowing that it will vary depending on what a person is used to, the gear they are wearing, what they are doing, and the conditions. For instance, now that I've been in the Paciic Northwest for awhile, I know that I can spend about half an hour to an hour walking through a foot or so of snow into the low 20s without wind, but that a similar walk with winds gusting to the 40s in 30 weather means I'd better limit myself to 20-30 minutes - and wear extra lining, and a scarf over my face! In 10-20 degree weather and no wind, I need to wear very good gloves with liners, and liners plus wool socks ... and don't forget the ear covering!

    Sunglasses and sunscreen are also very important when out in snowy areas on bright days.

    Snow doesn't make much of a difference when I'm walking in familiar woods EXCEPT that in heavy snow, whiteout conditions can make it very hard to see where I'm going. - 12/26/2007 11:59:26 AM
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