How to work out in cold weather

Here in Rhomboidia the weather has taken a distinct turn for the chillier in the past few days and is set to get colder yet in the days to come. So it seemed an apposite time to discuss the topic of how to work out on cold weather, and, even, as a surprising number of you seem to ask, whether to work out in cold weather.
To answer those questions in reverse order:
Should I work out/run in cold weather?
The short answer is Yes, why the hell not? Actually that’s answering a question with a question, but never mind. The slightly more useful answer is Yes, just do so appropriately. Obviously, if you have the option to run inside on a treadmill or work out in the gym, then you are no lesser the athlete for choosing that option. If I had the choice and was not specifically training for a sport that required cold weather acclimatisation, like skiing or obstacle racing, then I would take the indoor option when it was inclement out. Most of the time I don’t have that choice my home gym area is outside on my patio. I don’t have a garage or spare room to bring my weights undercover. If it is cold out I just have to layer up. If it is raining particularly hard and the bar would be too slippery I find some other way of doing things.
There is also the point that ‘cold’ is a relative term. The current cold snap that is rolling over Rhomboidia and the British Isles is definitely chillier than we have been used to this year, and we may get a few inches of snow for a couple of days. I’m feeling it. But, at the same time, it must be said, we Brits and Rhomboidians tend to be somewhat ill prepared for even brief spells of ‘extreme’ weather. In his excellent and highly recommended book ‘Eat and Run’, legendary ultra runner Scott Jurek describes adding sheet metal screws to the soles of his running shoes for his 5AM training runs in the 10 below zero Minnesota winters. And those Russian calisthenics dudes who do all the crazy gymnastic workouts in outdoor playgrounds in those Barstarzz videos? Do you imagine they go indoors to hibernate for duration of the Russian winter? Nyet. They do not.

As to the ‘How’ of it, here are some tips:

Dress in layers.
You will warm up as you move, regardless of the temperature, but you need to start off warm and be able to regulate your temperature as you go. This means layers. Use a good wicking baselayer. Either a tech fabric or merino would be my choice. Make sure your layers are practical to shed as you go along, as needed, and easily portable if you are on the move. If it is really cold, wear gloves and a hat. A lot of heat escapes from your head and your fingers will get really really cold, being exposed and thin. The exception to this, obviously is if you are doing something that requires grip. I have tried ‘tactical gloves’ for OCRs and being able to grip the barbell without my hands sticking to the metal when it is cold out but I find them uncomfortable to grip the bar with. I prefer to wear long-sleeved tops and pull the sleeve over my hands in between obstacles/lifts.

Warm up more.
The colder it is, the colder you are, the colder your muscles are, the longer it takes it warm them up. This particularly applies if you are going to be lifting, pushing, pulling heavy stuff and putting big strains on your joints. I am never entirely convinced of the need to warm up greatly for jogging: jogging is a warmup exercise really, and really juts general walking and moving about is probably adequate preparation, to my mind. but if you are a warmer upper before doing a jog, then just do a bit more of it. All of this doubly so if you are working out first thing and have just crawled out of your nice warm bed,

Stay hydrated
dehydration can inhibit your body’s ability to regulate temperature every bit as much for staying warm in the cold as cooling it in the heat. When you see your breath fogging in cold air, that is moisture leaving your body. We tend to drink less when it is cold because we are not drinking for the cooling effect of liquids. Don’t be that person. Keep up your 3 to 4 litres a day, whatever the weather.

Choose your Terrain
If you are running, choose your route sensibly. If there is snow and ice underfoot, don’t run on pavement on concrete. That is not technically ‘running’, it is ‘skating’, or if we are going to be technically accurate ‘slipping and falling on your face’. Running on trail or grass if going to give you a much better footing. Shorten your stride if it is slippy, getting your whole foot in contact with the ground each time.

Watch the weather
Also if running, think about the prevailing weather conditions as you go out: obviously if there is blizzard forecast on the next couple of hours you don’t want to be heading out on a remote trail but on a much less extreme not, what is the wind doing? If you do the outward section of your run with the wind behind you, then turn and head back into the wind for the run home, when you are already all sweaty under your layers, that wind is going to knife right through you and you are going to have a miserable time.

Finally the most important thing if you have been out exercising in the cold and wet is getting inside into the warm and dry once you are finished. I’m sure many of you have seen the infamous footage of James Appleton falling victim to the brainfog of hypothermia at the finish line of Tough Guy 2015:

Hah!, that’s encouraged you, hasn’t it. Just to put it into context, James had just finished Winter Tough Guy, which was, at the time, the most notoriously brutal obstacle race (and the original one), of which one of the key features was endlessly repeating water obstacles involving full body immersion in sub-zero temperatures. You’re probably not going to be that bad after a brisk 5k or bit of Boot Camp in the park, but the principles are the same: Get in the warm, get out of your cold, wet gear and into something warm and dry and get some calories in you during your anabolic window.



  1. Julia Holman

    Thanks for this…. useful. As an early morning runner I have to fess up that I am doing an extremely brief warm up as I start slowly and that’s a good a warm up as any. I wear a woolly hat, gloves and all the usual stuff. I wear loads of Vaseline on my lips to stop them freezing, and I am considering a balaclava and an extra pair of knickers if it drops below -5 as I could not feel my nose or my arse Yesturday.

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