With the summer sun and mild fall weather firmly behind us, it’s time to pack away our running shoes, bicycle and other outdoor training tools until spring. Or is it?
For many fitness buffs around the country, Canada’s chilly winter months bring a unique set of challenges. The assumption is that unless we quickly hunt down our misplaced gym membership card or stumble across a pickup game at the local Y, our waistlines are out of luck until April.
Also Read: Try This Bodyweight Outdoor Winter Workout
But with a little motivation and prep work, that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, certain schools of thought endorse colder temperatures for its multiple benefits, including as for its potential weight-loss and strength-building properties. Consider these important factors before deciding whether or not to train in the chill.
Low temperatures aren’t the only concern for winter trainees. Just as important are the snow and ice that can make sidewalks, bike paths, hiking trails and other outdoor surfaces hazardous. Equipment quality, type and fit matter – whether it’s shoes, tires, skis or skates. Above all, you’ll want to exercise caution and common sense.
Brad Peterson, MD, an emergency room doctor hailing from Champaign, Illinois, says he’s witnessed at least one death per year related to a winter fall.
“And it isn’t just the elderly,” he says. “Someone in their 30s slips and falls shovelling snow, breaks their hip, and maybe no one finds them in time.” Scary stuff.
Accidents can happen while running or biking on a secluded trail. Always let someone know your plans – including your location or intended path and the duration of your workout – before you head outdoors to train in icy, snowy or otherwise less-than-ideal conditions.
Choosing proper and safe attire for cold-weather exercise isn’t just a matter of bundling up and bounding out the door. Layers are important, but it’s also easy to overdo it. Exercise bolsters your core temperature, so the body’s natural defence against overheating – sweating – can lead to a soggy situation that ultimately leaves you wet and shivering.
Materials can make all the difference: Avoid cotton for the first layer, and instead go for a synthetic such as polypropylene that will wick perspiration away from your body. Be especially vigilant when it comes to protecting your extremities – always wear warm socks and gloves.
“The body is trying to regulate temperature, to keep it up,” Peterson says. “So it’s going to constrict blood vessels at the periphery — your hands, your feet, your nose, your ears — to conserve heat. When blood vessels constrict, say, in your feet, you can get frostbitten.”
Be on the lookout for signs of frostbite and hypothermia, which pose an ever-greater threat as the temperature drops and winds pick up.
Don’t get caught up in the idea that external (heat) and internal (thirst) cues will warn you when hydration levels are running low, because winter hydration can get a little complicated. It’s harder to know when you’re dehydrated in the winter, because you’re less likely to be reaching for a cold water bottle when it’s just as cold outside.
However, if you exercise, you need stay hydrated, period. And if you do become dehydrated, you likely won’t know it until it’s already affecting your performance – and possibly putting you in harm’s way.
“Without being hydrated, you can’t sweat,” Peterson says. “If you can’t sweat, you don’t experience evaporation, and evaporation is the number one way to get rid of heat.”
In other words, if you don’t dress and hydrate properly, you run the risk of overheating – even if your training grounds resemble the frozen tundra.
Because cold weather tends to constrict blood vessels and airways, even moderate activity in low temperatures can be dangerous for those with circulatory, pulmonary or respiratory conditions. Risk of frostbite, heart attack and stroke is heightened for some. And asthmatics must be wary of bronchial constriction or spasms, which can be triggered by both exercise and chilly or dry air, and could severely restrict breathing and oxygen intake.
If you’re uncertain about your health status – and even if you don’t already know you’re at risk – always consult your doctor before taking on any cold-weather exercise regimen.
And what about those supposed benefits? Can cold weather really supercharge your fitness results? The short answer: The jury’s still out.
Many cultures swear by the healing properties of frigid temperatures, abiding by cold-weather rituals believed to reduce pain and inflammation. A recent study linking cold temperatures to the stoking of calorie-burning brown fat yielded intriguing, potentially promising results. And some claim the constricting of blood vessels and tightening of muscles in the cold force the body to work harder during anaerobic exercise, thereby boosting strength-training or muscle-building activities.
Some theoretical benefits are as follows:
- You may burn more calories as your body works harder to keep your core warm
- Strengthen your heart – your heart works harder to distribute blood.
- Snow acts as resistance and helps build strength
- You get to improve your balance and stability with battling working out in the snow
- Stay happy and energized with the dose of Vitamin D – which is hard to get in the winter
- You will find you will workout harder to keep your core temperate up
However, Peterson warns that all those theories about working out in cold weather are just that – theories. Research on the subject is still thin. What is clear, he says, are the hazards involved, particularly for the elderly or those in questionable health.
The final verdict: If you’re healthy and prepared, take the plunge into exercising in plunging temps. Otherwise, head indoors for the winter.
“You’re less likely to get heat stroke or heat exhaustion,” Peterson says. “But that would probably be your only advantage.”