I love to run and exercise outside. When it comes to exercise, I’ve managed to do most things wrong. This especially goes for winter exercising. A couple of times, I’ve exercised myself into life-threatening situations. So, based on my experience, here’s what not to do while exercising in winter.
Error 1: Don’t dress for the weather
Repeat after me. Cotton is bad. When cotton gets wet, it doesn’t dry. Wet clothes lose their ability to insulate, which means they can’t keep you warm.
When you exercise, wear synthetic, tight-fitting layers. On your upper body, wear a wicking bottom layer, a warm, synthetic fleece middle layer and a wind- and waterproof outer layer. Different experts estimated you can lose at least 10 percent of body heat from your head, so wear a hat and something around your neck. You can lose as much as 30 percent of body heat through your hands and feet, so wear mittens and consider two pairs of socks: an inner wicking pair and an outer wool pair. Dress for temperatures 20 degrees warmer than the actual temperature. If you’re warm as you begin exercising, you’re overdressed.
Winter exercising means dealing with ice, snow, slush, and puddles. Consider wearing trail running shoes or use a waterproof spray on your shoes. If you’ll be walking or running in snow, think about something like YakTrax, a shoe equivalent of a car’s tire chains. Consider trying snowshoeing – many ski rental places will also rent snowshoes.
I learned the necessity of appropriate dress the hard way when I went on a guided winter mountain climb. I had practically no experience with snow and no synthetic winter gear. I borrowed a nylon track suit and snow boots. However, my t-shirt and long underwear were all cotton. As I climbed, I began to sweat heavily. Every time I stopped to rest, I unzipped my jacket and pulled off my gloves to cool off.
The year I did the winter mountain climb was unseasonably warm. The snow on the mountain was deep but soft. Every step I took I sank to my thighs. When I wasn’t sinking, I was slipping. Both the exertion and the slipping contributed to my soggy state. Soon, I was shivering and spots on my legs and hands went numb and white. I was exhausted.
Error 2: Stay out in wet weather for too long
One expert recommended spending no more than 45 minutes running during rain or sleet. Most advised exercising indoors on wet days. All recommended getting into dry clothes as fast as possible after exercising outdoors.
I did a duathlon (running and biking) in icy rain. I wore the right clothes, but I was slow and ended up soaked and freezing for more than 90 minutes. I began shaking uncontrollably, I was clumsy and my thinking was muddled.
Error 3: Don’t know the symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite
Hypothermia occurs when a body’s core temperature drops below 95 degrees, according to WebMD. It’s usually caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, but can occur in moderate temperatures if a person has certain medical conditions or is wet. Symptoms include heavy shivering, confusion, drowsiness, slurred or mumbled speech, loss of coordination and a slow, weak pulse.
Frostbite occurs when skin and tissue freeze after exposure to cold temperatures, according to the Mayo Clinic. Frostnip is a very mild version of frostbite that can be treated with first aid. Symptoms include off-colored skin, prickling and numbness in the affected area, hard or waxy-looking skin and blisters or swelling after rewarming.
Both on the mountain and after the duathlon, without knowing it, I developed mild hypothermia. Also on the mountain, without my knowledge, frostnip developed in my hands.
Error 4: Don’t have a buddy
Fortunately, both on the mountain and after the duathlon, I was with others. On the mountain, two other climbers helped me thaw frozen extremities, climb down, and get home. My future husband was at the duathlon as my cheerleader, and he helped me find dry clothes and get warmed up before driving me home. In both cases I put myself into trouble, but because of others’ assistance, I suffered no lasting ill effects.
Winter exercising can be great. Sunshine provides vitamin D to help with the winter blues. You actually burn more calories when you exercise, because your muscles aren’t as efficient. Exercising strengthens heart muscles and, as long as you don’t overdo it, can help your immune system keep out winter bugs. But take extra precautions to make winter exercising fun and safe. Don’t learn the hard way like I did.
What are your tips for exercising outside in the winter cold?