Back to Fitness: Cold Weather Exercising

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The author and a friend enjoying the spoils of winter fitness

It’s December! Freezing temps! Nasty rain and snow! The shortest days of the year! Doesn’t it make you want to just get outside and exercise? Okay, maybe not. But maybe we just need a little shift in mindset?

December really can be a tough time to be motivated to get outside, but too many people use the weather as an excuse and fall out of shape. But, come on, it’s not like we live in North Dakota! I would like to offer the argument that winter in Virginia is one of the best times of year to be active.

1)  Exercising in the cold is a million times better than exercising in the heat and humidity.  I will take 20 degrees over 90 degrees any day. Yes, it is hard to get out into that biting cold, but once you warm up, those 20-, 30-, and 40-degree mornings really do feel refreshing. Your body takes a lot of resources to sweat, so, when we aren’t sweating much, exercising is actually much easier and you can go longer and faster than in the heat.

2)  The world is your oyster.  The fact is, most people who read this still won’t exercise much in the winter—reasonable human nature.  So, for those of us who will be out there, exercising in the winter is so quiet and peaceful!  The world can seem completely dead asleep at 6 a.m. on a cold, dark, December morning, which I proclaim is one of the more peaceful and contemplative times you can steal for yourself.  

3)  The views. One of my favorite things to do on a winter morning run or ride is to stop somewhere and turn my light off and just gaze up at the sky for a few minutes. We are so fortunate to live away from the big city life and actually have stars to gaze at, but do you ever take the time to do so? Let me tell you that it’s even better if you get out on a country road somewhere where there’s little light and then check them out. Mesmerizing. And if you’re lucky enough to be out in the sparse winter daylight, the mountain views are as crisp as they’ll ever be.  

4)  You’ll be a spring rock star. Many people’s spring is a time to dig out of the cellar and start a fitness routine. Have you ever gone into the spring feeling fit from a full winter of activity? Fitness is a year-round lifestyle change and as much as I say that winter is hard to motivate for, the spring is very motivating. If you have a base of winter fitness, you can really start to accomplish some great things. Put in some deposits now.

Okay, now that I have convinced you that getting out the door when it’s 30 degrees and dark outside is actually a great idea, can I help make it easier? Of course!  

I am a bit of a minimalist when it comes to gear needs, but not so much in the winter. I hate to be cold! A few choice pieces of gear can really make your decision to head out into the dark cold much more comfortable.

1)  A headlamp. For most of us, exercising outdoors in the winter means exercising in the dark.  With darkness sticking around until 7 a.m. and starting back again at 5 p.m., most of us with busy schedules are still stuck to the fringes of the day, and hence, darkness. Headlamps have come a long way in comfort and brightness and are critical gear for the winter. First, a good light is a safety item.  Forget reflective gear, cars and other people will see you coming from much further away with a headlight than they will with a reflective vest. Also, don’t you want to see where you’re going?  Even if you’re running on the safe sidewalks of Old Trail, having some light makes it so much easier.  Most newer headlamps are good enough that even being out on technical trails in the dark is no problem. Last, when the world is dead asleep, I kind of enjoy being in the world of my headlamp beam. It’s like the comfort of firelight when you’re camping in the woods. The light from your lamp gives you a smaller slice of the world to think about as you wake your body and mind up during your morning walk/run.  

2) Overdress at first.  Whether you’re young or old, it takes your body about 15 minutes to really warm up. For me, I just can’t stand being cold for that first 15 minutes and I leave the door fairly overdressed compared to my friends who are just tougher than me. But when I get hot, no big deal, I tie a jacket around my waist or take my hat off. When you’re really tentative about going outside and exercising in the cold, being cold is not going to help your motivation. So, go ahead and put on that puffy jacket that you know you’re going to take off in 10 minutes—worth it!

3)  Mittens over gloves.  If you’re prone to cold hands, try mittens rather than gloves, they really do make a world of difference.

4)  Make the micro adjustments during your walk/run/ride.  Okay, so now you’re warmed up and starting to sweat. But taking this jacket off just seems like a lot of work! This sounds silly, but most people prefer not to mess with their clothes too much and instead just end up getting hot and sweaty. Well, at least you’re not cold…until you stop or slow down! Once you are warmed up, be sure to make adjustments to your clothes and gear as needed to keep from getting too hot and sweaty. Take the jacket off. Unzip the quarter zip. Roll your hat up to expose your ears.  Take off your gloves. When you make these changes, your body temp will stay more constant and you’ll be glad you did.  

5)  Meet a friend.  By far the best way to make sure you snooze through your alarm and sleep in is when you have nobody waiting for you. I try to make arrangements to run/ride/hike with a friend early in the a.m. as often as I can because I will get up to meet them. To be clear, I hate getting up early, but it’s my only time to exercise, so I make it happen. I’m grateful for the friends I have made over the years who join me at 5 a.m. and you will find if you ask a neighbor or friend to do the same, they may just say yes!  

Happy Holidays to you and your family! 

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