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Cold Weather Exercise: How to Stay Safe Whilst Staying Active

The New Year has come and gone, and by now many well intended resolutions have either been put on hold, given up or simply not started. According to YouGov, for 2024, 56% of those making New Year’s Resolutions pledged to “Doing more exercise or improving my fitness”. However, when it comes to successfully seeing it through, unfortunately the stats don’t lie; we Brits have been known to fail as early as six days into the new year!

It’s not surprising really, if you find the gym is too expensive or simply not your thing; if you don’t have the space at home for a yoga mat or a home gym, the only alternative is to go outside. At this time of the year, in this country, the outdoors is, to be frank, dark and cold. Not the ideal, inviting, instagramable environment most of us had in mind! However, for those of you still determined or prepared to give it another go, I’ve put together some practical advice on how to exercise effectively and keep warm in the cold weather. Good luck and enjoy!

How Does the Cold Weather Affect My Body?

scientist looking through microscope

For those who are insufficiently prepared for outdoor exercises during the winter months the cold can have numerous negative effects on the human body. We’ve all been there, looking out the window the clear, cloudless sunny day looks inviting – if it weren’t for the calendar you might even say it was spring. Yet when we step outside, the air temperature flushes our cheeks, bites at our fingers and burns our nostrils – you may even start to shiver. It’s, therefore, vital to be prepared for the outdoor environment when exercising in the winter months, as apart from the aforementioned, we are about to find out how exercising in the cold can put the human body under more strain than we realize.

The Science

There have been a number of studies that have looked at the effect of skin cooling and exercising in cool ambient environments. Consistently, it has been found that the cold negatively alters the elasticity of the body’s soft tissue – that is, our muscles, tendons and ligaments don’t move as well when it’s cold. This was found across different forms of exercise in cold environments including passive and active muscle activation, leg extension power, jump height and agility. Authors even went as far to suggest that exposure to just 15 mins of cold affected participants’ proprioception – that being their body’s ability to perceive its own movements, location and action in space. 

Other studies have found similar effects; when No and Kwak, asked 9 male soccer players to cycle at 60% of their maximum oxygen uptake (V02 Max) at three different temperatures, they found that both cool and hot environments negatively impacted participants VO2 max, heart rate, blood lactate concentration and time to exhaustion. Other studies have had similar results when looking at the effect of cold on skaters, suggesting that metabolic stress and prolonged cold exposure of over 30 minutes increases the likelihood of muscular injury. 

The Good Stuff

But hey, it’s not all doom and gloom. When it comes to running, a study of 7867 athletes by Mantzios et al found that peak performance in well trained and elite athletes was associated with air temperature between 10⁰C- 17.5⁰C. In fact, optimal air temperature for marathon running was between 10⁰C-12⁰C – significantly cooler than most of us would expect! But it’s a fine line to tread. As the air temperature drops below 10⁰C so does athletic performance, potentially adding minutes on to training or race times!

More recently, on his podcast Just One Thing, Dr Michael Mosley has been championing the positive effects of exercising in cooler conditions. Exercising in the cold can potentially increase the stimulation of exerkines in the skeletal muscles and fatty tissues, particularly irisin, that helps to regulate blood glucose levels (Chow et al). Another additional benefit to exercising in colder weather is we don’t get as uncomfortably hot as we do when exercising at hotter temperatures – provided we can avoid other cold induced injuries such as frostbite, hypothermia or slipping on icy surfaces! 

What Does it Mean?

So when we are thinking of prolonged exposure to cold during exercise we need to be aware that this can put extra strain on the body. By allowing ourselves to get too cold the working muscles are unable to produce enough heat to keep warm; this reduces movement capacity, making you work harder, puts strain on other body systems; potentially leading to premature fatigue and muscular injury. Cold induced injuries such as frostbite and non-freezing cold injuries such as trenchfoot and chilblains are things to be aware of. Remember; your hands and feet have a  high surface-area-to-mass ratio. Coupling this with restricted blood flow as your body focuses on keeping your core warm, your hands and feet become particularly susceptible to injury during prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. 

So, how can we protect ourselves from the cold but still reap the benefits of exercise?

Layering up

The best way to stay warm when exercising in the cold is to make sure you don’t get wet. No, I’m not just talking about rain; I’m talking about sweat. This is where layering comes into play. The benefit of wearing layers is that you can remove them if you get too warm and put them back on if you get too cold.

Base Layer

Starting with a good base layer, this will help to keep the surface of your skin dry by wicking away moisture. You don’t have to limit this to just the top half of your body either. 

Man running outside in winter sports clothing

If you’re planning to run or walk in freezing temperatures, consider adding base leggings or running tights to help keep your muscles warm.

Midlayer

Then we come to the midlayer. It’s important that this layer keeps you warm but doesn’t trap heat or sweat, which could make your base layer wet. Opt for breathable fabric that doesn’t allow for accumulation or condensation of moisture under your clothing as you exercise, but be aware that the trade-off is it won’t necessarily be windproof. So, depending on how active you’re planning on being, and the weather conditions (wind, sunshine, etc.), this will inform how thick you want your midlayer to be. On a cool, dry day this may be all you need.

Outer Shell

The outer shell is the final layer and this can work for both upper and lower body depending on the sport, terrain and conditions you are exercising in. This should protect you from the wind, rain, or snow, but also have breathable vents that can allow excess heat or moisture to move away from the body. 

If you know or suspect the weather is going to be extremely cold, say dropping below 5⁰C, you should consider a hat and gloves to protect your head and extremities. When the temperature is below 0⁰C consider wearing mittens. Hypothermia occurs when our deep body temperature drops below 35⁰C, and is a risk factor if you are not suitably dressed for the conditions. Hypothermia becomes a problem when the body is not able to generate heat, be that from exhaustion, injury or hypoglycemia. So although not a major or likely hazard it is well worth being aware and prepared. 

For more inspiration on how to stay warm whilst exercising check out these Runner World Blogs here and here.

Footwear

runner woman in winter sports clothing tying shoe laces

As the seasons change so should your footwear. If it’s icy underfoot, consider a shoe with a good tread or lugs. If you are planning a long distance hike or training for an ultra, consider carrying a spare pair of shoes and socks. This is so you can keep your feet dry and avoid non-freezing cold injuries.

Ultimately, sometimes you need to ask yourself whether it’s safe enough to step outside at all. Missing a workout or two due to bad weather will not derail a training program, but a fall on an icy surface could potentially lead to greater injury and put everything on the back burner for weeks. A shoe that is designed for icy or slippery conditions can add additional traction helping to reduce loss of balance. This article has some great ideas and advice regarding what to look for in a running shoe. You don’t need to break the bank or find something too dissimilar to what you are already training in, but a shoe that has been tested for winter weather and the surfice you train on, be it for road, trail, or hills is important.

Being Seen

Did you know that pedestrian fatalities are 3-7 times higher at night than they are in the day? One of the main reasons is that incoming drivers simply don’t see or are unable to judge what direction the pedestrian is traveling due to their poor discernibility – that is the drivers ability to recognise you without prior knowledge of you being there.

darkness car headlights silhouetted figure in black

Reflection & Lights

In any situation safety is key; and exercising outside in the winter is no different. The days are shorter, the mornings and evenings are darker, so it makes sense that the outer shell of your exercise clothing is brightly coloured and reflective.  As Black et al outline, it’s not just about being reflective either, it’s important to consider where the reflective material is on your body. By having reflective material on the upper and lower limbs for example, drivers are more likely to recognise the motion of walking or running, and this includes in the presence of glare, blur of visual clutter. 

Head torches and chest lights are also extremely helpful in alerting others and vehicles to your presence. They can also highlight objects on the path in front of you, saving you from a fall. Check out this Runners World article here for ideas and products that can cater for most budgets.

Staying Hydrated

turquoise sports drink bottle being opened outside by gloved hands

Staying hydrated is just as important in the winter as it is in the summer. In cold weather our thirst sensation can be reduced by as much as 40%, indicating that we don’t necessarily notice that we are dehydrated. 

Dehydration

Symptoms of dehydration include (but are not limited to) changes in mood and mental performance, fatigue, anger, loss of concentration and reaction time – all the more reason to keep sipping that water

Sweating isn’t the only way the body loses water. If the air is cold and dry outside respiratory water loss increases because the body warms up the outside air before it hits your lungs. Due to the raised central venous pressure some of us will have noticed that we suffer from induced diuresis – the need to pee when it’s cold! One way to stay hydrated whilst exercising in the cold is to take regular sips of warm water, as this can help to maintain core temperature and reduce shivering. 

Rehydration

Sweat loss and urine loss continues post exercise, this means the body loses sodium (salt) and other electrolytes during and after your workout. For those on a training program it’s worth noting that to rehydrate effectively you need to consume approximately 125 – 150% of your final fluid deficit (1.25 – 1.5L fluid for every 1 kg of body weight lost). Consider a sports drink that is focused on replenishing these electrolytes, or for those training for elite or endurance events you may want to consider an oral rehydration solution like the ones used for treating diarrhea. That might sound gross, but you might find that this improves your recovery time. You needn’t drink all your recovery drinks in one go either. Start consuming your fluids as soon as you finish your training, race or competition with the aim of hitting your target over the next 2-4 hours. Doing it this way, you’ll find you’re less likely to suffer from bloating and it reduces your need for those extra trips to the loo!


Catching That Winter Sun

woman in sports casual clothing wearing sunglasses outside in the winter

Did you know that ultraviolet A (UVA) rays reflect off snow and ice and can even penetrate glass? Did you know that ultraviolet B (UVB) rays are constant throughout the year and can penetrate clouds and fog? No?

Did you know that skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the UK and worldwide? Sounds a bit scary, huh? Well, it needn’t be so long as we all take steps to protect ourselves during sun exposure, even in the winter.

The most exposed area of the body during the winter is the face, neck, and the top of the ears, therefore it is recommended to apply at least SPF 30 sunscreen when you are outside.  Sunglasses, especially if there is a glare, are great for protecting your eyes. A wide brimmed hat will help to cover the top of your head and keep you warm, however I appreciate this item of clothing might be slightly harder to keep on during windy weather or whilst running!

For more information about how to protect yourself and your family visit Skcin or Skin Cancer Foundation for winter sun protection tips. 

Warm-up

From youth football teams to endurance running, a good warm-up can help prepare the body and mind ahead of any strenuous workout, and this is especially true when exercising in cold weather.

Man stretching leg on bridge running in winter

Your warm up will help to:

  • Increase your body temperature, especially the muscles at the extremities – your arms and legs.
  • Increase the range of motion in your joints.
  • Gently increase heart rate ahead of strenuous activity. 
  • Help your brain engage with your body and the sport you are about to play or train for.
  • Reduces perception of exertion – that is, your proceeding workout doesn’t feel as difficult. 

Keep it Simple

Your warm up needn’t take longer than 15 – 20 minutes and should raise your heart rate enough but you don’t feel over exerted. You can try gently jogging, squatting, or lunging. If you are recovering from injury or want to avoid a specific injury, try to make your warm up more sport specific; for example, if you play football, you might want to incorporate proprioceptive exercises and plyometrics that challenge your balance and agility. There is no one size fits all when it comes to a warm up but what is important is that you get warm so you can reap the benefits from your work out. If you are struggling for ideas, or are looking for a simple framework to follow try the FIFA 11+ injury prevention program, it is football focused but is a good example of a multifaceted warm up.


Post Workout/Event Refuel

several plates of healthy food

Carbohydrate

Carbohydrate is a go to refuel food for many post exercises and 2-4 hours after exercise is the window where this macronutrients can maximize on your muscle glycogen storage. This is because your glycogen synthase enzyme has been stimulated as your glycogen stores are depleted, the muscle membrane becomes more permeable, and your insulin sensitivity increases.

There are many appropriate carbohydrate rich foods out there that are great for a post exercise snack, from gels, sports drinks, toast with bananas, soup and baked potatoes there are so many options catering for all sorts of pallets and budgets.

Protein

Another macronutrient to focus on is protein. It is well known that during bouts of prolonged or high-intensity exercise muscle protein is broken down, and therefore consuming amino acids from good quality protein plays an important role in muscle repair. Foods like milk (whey), eggs and meat are great sources of protein. To increase your body’s intake, it’s recommended that you replenish your protein stores immediately after exercise. This can be easier said than done, and sometimes it’s the portable snacks that are easier to consume post workout, especially if you are at the gym and have to drive home. Consider chocolate milk, which will give you a double whammy of protein and carbohydrate. If you are on a plant based diet 120g of tofu or 60g of nuts will provide you with 10g of protein for that post workout boost. 

Get Expert Advice

If you find the nutrition side of training overwhelming, or you want to refine your diet plan we highly recommend Sammy Cooper, Performance Nutritionist who offers 1:1 nutritional coaching.

Sammy Cooper

The Take Homes

You can still reap the benefits of exercise during the winter, however there are a number of factors that need to be considered before you step outside. From layering up to sun protection; visibility and rehydration there is no doubt that cold weather exercise is more than just a walk in the park. With careful consideration and being prepared for the weather conditions you should be able to enjoy your exercise just as much as you do during the spring and summer months.

Rhiannon Jenkins of Jenkins Therapy

Who Wrote this Blog Article?

Rhiannon Jenkins is a Sports Therapist who specializes in Sports Massage and Remedial Therapy. To find out more about Sports Massage and the other treatments she offers visit Jenkins Therapy for more information.