Go for the Cold: Staying Active Outdoors in Winter
On sultry days last summer, when the heat and humidity ran roughshod over my pace and resolve, I would recall that clear, crisp winter morning when near-zero cold made the trees pop around me in chorus with the crunch of the pristine, packed snow under my feet. The trail, which had been cut just hours earlier by snowmobilers, wound through the state forest just a mile from my house. With the snowmobiles long gone, the silence, deep snow and frigid temperature suggested a remoteness that was exhilarating, and almost magical.
With the return of winter comes the chance to again experience the euphoria that can come with taking on all the season has to offer. Outdoor exercise can be challenging in any season, but winter can make it especially difficult to summon up the courage to take that first step out the door. But determination, proper planning and the right gear can keep Mother Nature from stopping you cold.
"There's a lot to be gained from outdoor exercise during the winter. Indoor exercise alone can make the winter seem a whole lot longer," says Dr. Edward R. Laskowski, co-director of the Sports Medicine Center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Dr. Laskowski is a physiatrist, a physician specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation. The former member of the U.S. Alpine Ski Team cautions that challenging the elements in the dead of winter requires planning: "Half the battle is prevention."
Here he offers some tips to help ensure a safe winter workout.
Dress in Layers
Layering clothes beneath an outer shell that is as waterproof and windproof as possible is critical, he says. "Layering helps maintain body heat and prevents the retention of perspiration on the skin."
Closest to the skin should be a thin layer of synthetic microfibers, such as polypropylene or Capilene to help wick sweat away from the body. The second layer provides insulation. It should assist in wicking moisture as well. Laskowski suggests lightweight synthetic fleece for the second layer. He recommends polypro socks and gloves under outer gloves to wick moisture from feet and hands. It is necessary to cover exposed areas. The body loses considerable heat when the head is exposed. A hat of synthetic fleece is a good choice. Outdoor gear retailers such as Patagonia, North Face, Early Winters and Nike all provide garments which meet Laskowski's requirements for efficient layering.
Don't Dry Out
Though there isn't the heat and humidity associated with summer exercise, the cold air is often very dry and robs the body of moisture. Frigid winds increase the dehydration factor. Laskowski recommends carrying
Eat for Heat
It is always important to maintain adequate caloric intake during prolonged exercise. It is especially critical in winter when the stress of cold increases caloric depletion. Energy bars or gels work well. Stash a couple, along with a spare pair of polypro gloves, in the fanny pack.
Calling for Help
Laskowski suggests that those who take their sport into the backcountry might want to carry a cell phone to summon aid in an emergency. It is also important to let someone at home know the details of your backcountry adventure in advance.
Trail Running/ Snowshoeing
Most of the single-track trails frequented by trail runners are obscured by snow. Tracks made by snowmobiles are great, but many trail runners prefer to chart their own course. That's why snowshoeing, a low-impact sport which can burn calories equal to
Snowshoeing is a favorite alternative to downhill skiing for Laskowski: "It's a great, simple sport. You don't need a lot of gear or lessons. And you can get the whole family involved."
Veteran mountain biker Geoff Jones doesn't let winter stop him. In fact, he prefers riding in winter. "My body just seems to work better...with layering you can always unzip something and cool off...that's hard in the summer."
In addition to proper layering, Jones suggests that riders wear a head band over the ears or neck gaiters on especially cold days to hold in the heat. A balaclava under the helmet is also a good idea. He also recommends neoprene boot covers on windy days. He cautions that in near-zero temperatures, cycling speeds alone can generate enough wind chill to freeze exposed shin.
Jones also suggests that riders make sure they have reflective material on their clothes or bike: "In winter we tend to run out of light, so its a good idea to use reflective strips or a flashing tail light." Studded snow tires or chains can be good options in icy conditions. He suggests that riders might want to carry a piece of sandpaper to remove any ice that forms on rims and impedes the brakes.
Janet Bromley, a hike coordinator for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), leads treks year-round in eastern Connecticut. She says that many retired people attend the weekly Tuesday morning hikes. "We get some very experienced and accomplished hikers," she says.
Bromley, who has taken AMC leadership and wilderness first aid courses, says bad weather rarely stops her group: "As long as you are dressed properly, and don't sit around wet in an open area, you'll usually do just fine."
Snow-covered ice can be treacherous and she suggests that hikers use poles or stabilizers on their shoes for traction. She cautions that hikers should go in a group of three or more persons to ensure safety in the event of an emergency. That allows for someone to go for help while the other remains with an injured person. "An injured hiker all alone can be just a mile from a road, but that can be a long, long way (if things are going wrong)."
While today's space-age gear has helped tame winter, Laskowski says that there are times when it might be best to stay indoors: "On those days when the wind chill is dangerously low, it might be prudent to just stay home. Such conditions provide a narrower margin [for error]...and little room for mistakes."
With the proper gear, caution and determination, most of us can successfully take our favorite sports into winter's arena. Outdoor exercise can make a winter day. No other season can make you feel more alive.
The North Face
The Winter Backpacker
University of Calgary Outdoor Centre
Some tips for safe winter hiking, plus links to more sites. American Hiking Society .Available at: http://www.americanhiking.org .
Information about winter hiking, gear and clothing, Dartmouth University. Available at: http://www.cs.dartmouth.edu/whites/winter.html .
Last reviewed November 2009 by
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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