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Exercising During Winter: Staying Safe in Cold Weather

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Ontario winters can be bitingly cold. While many of us prefer to curl up indoors or under a blanket, there’s also those braving the outdoors for their workouts. When the temperatures decline and snow has fallen, the thought of heading outside for your workout can be unappealing, but there’s no need to stay cooped up inside. Exercising outdoors in cold weather can be some of the most challenging and rewarding exercise sessions. Aside from the physical benefits, research shows that exercising outdoors can increase energy, decrease depression, lessen anxiety, and enhance mood.

There are risks associated with cold-weather workouts, just as there are risks when exercising in the heat. But with the right gear and know-how, outdoor workouts can be safe, injury-free, and enjoyable when the temperature drops.

Learn to Layer: Keeping Warm in Winter

When preparing to exercise outdoors this winter, the first step is to dress correctly for the weather. While wearing thick, heavy clothes may sound like the best idea, layers are considered ideal for exercising in cold temperatures. Even if it’s freezing (or below freezing) outside,  It is tempting to overdress to stave off the cold, but during a vigorous workout, the body will heat up even when it is freezing outside. Dressing in layers is the best solution for exercising in the cold, as they can be removed gradually when warming up and replaced if the body begins to cool off.

The layer of clothing worn closest to your body is often referred to as your “first layer,” or “base layer.” When selecting your base layers, it is important to select pieces of clothing with sweat-wicking properties. Garments with sweat wicking properties draw moisture (sweat, snow, or water) away from the body and towards the exterior layer of the fabric. The next layer, known as the “mid-layer” should act as insulation to hold in heat. Garments made of fleece or wool are considered ideal for their abilities to hold in heat. For the outer layer, or “top-layer,” select garments with waterproofing and wind-resistant qualities that also advertise breathability.

When exercising in cold weather, the core retains its warmth more effectively than our extremities do. Our ears, cheeks, nose, and hands are extremely susceptible to the cold, especially on windy days. Gloves are a necessity in cold weather. For the days below 0 degrees, gloves can be layered with mittens to provide additional warmth and help prevent frostbite. Depending on the conditions outside (snow, rain, wind, etc), different coverings for the neck, head, and face are required to protect you from the elements. If the wind chill is low, or if an activity is fast-paced, such as skiing, bring a facemask, goggles, and a neck warmer. In milder weather conditions, a thick headband or a toque can be sufficient to protect If the weather is milder, a headband or a hat that covers the ears is often enough to keep you protected from the elements.

The feet are also susceptible to the cold, especially in slushy, snowy, or wet conditions. Keep feet warm and dry with moisture-wicking or thermal socks and waterproof footwear.

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Cold-Weather Risks: What to Look Out For

Overexertion

Exercising in the cold requires more effort. The heart is working harder, and winter conditions (think snow, ice, and slush) are more taxing on certain muscle groups than regular dry-land training. Be sensitive to your body, know the signs of overexertion, and tailor workouts accordingly. Allow for a longer warm-up so the body can acclimatize – and literally warm up – to cooler temperatures. Focus more on the quality of the workout than on the quantity.

Know your Limits

Regardless of the activity being performed, always be in the know about your level of fitness. A New Years Resolution to become more athletic does not mean that you will immediately be in good shape. Be realistic about your level of fitness and your athletic abilities. If you are out of shape and not used to regular workouts in moderate weather (think Autumn temperatures), extra caution must be exercised when working out in winter environments. For example, if you’re visiting the mountains for a snowboarding/skiing trip, do not spend 8 hours on the slopes on the first day if regular exercise isn’t a part of your daily routine. Begin your trip with measured amounts of snowboarding/skiing and gradually build on more time and intensity from there. If you have any pre-existing medical conditions, always consult your physician before beginning your winter workout regiment. Our Kitchener-Waterloo urgent care clinic has physicians specializing in Sports Medicine and an on-site Physiotherapy clinic.

Frostbite

Frostbite occurs when the skin freezes. The hands, nose, cheeks, and ears are most vulnerable to frostbite. As the wind chill drops, the risk of frostbite increases, so be aware of the weather conditions before heading out the door. When the temperature or wind chill falls below minus 27 degrees Celsius, exposed skin can freeze in 30 minutes or less. Early warning signs of frostbite are redness, swelling, numbness, tingling, or a burning sensation. If you have already experienced frostbite on a part of your body, that area is more susceptible to future frostbite incidences.

Hypothermia

Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops and the body loses heat faster than it can produce it.6 This can be caused by exposure to extreme cold for a long period – from getting wet in the cold or a sudden stop or slowing down of activity that prevents the body from keeping itself warm. Some warning signs of hypothermia include feeling dizzy or disoriented, extreme fatigue, and slurring of speech.

Luckily, most risks associated with exercising in the cold can be easily averted by wearing the appropriate clothing, assessing the weather conditions, and being attentive to the sensations of the body. If anything feels out of the ordinary, seek medical attention immediately.

Injuries

Athletic injuries are some of the most common reasons we see patients for at our Kitchener-Waterloo Urgent Care Clinic.  Uneven ground can be treacherous under ice or snow since snow can mask obstacles like tree roots. Snow also makes it difficult to detect slippery surfaces underfoot. To avoid injuries caused by slipping and falling, such as ankle sprains, choose routes and trails that are familiar, well maintained, and well travelled. If the ground is icy or slippery, adjust the pace as necessary. It’s better to take it slow and be safe than to be fast and risk a fall.

Cold Weather Exercise: The Must-Do List

Aside from being aware of the physical risks of cold weather workouts and having the right apparel, there are many other factors to consider when it comes to safety.

Take Advantage of Daylight

Train in the daylight so you can see your surroundings and safely navigate any tricky terrain. Exercising during the winter can be challenging enough in clear conditions. Adding the element of darkness to the mix is an avoidable danger. It is also warmer when the sun is up, so take advantage of daytime workouts whenever possible. The sun is still strong in winter, and snow is a natural reflector of the sun’s rays, so don’t forget sunscreen. Without protection, the skin can still burn.

Safety in the Dark

With shorter days, we often cannot avoid exercising in the dark. Consider the following safety tips for early morning or nighttime workouts.

Wear the Appropriate Gear

Whether running, skiing, or skating, wear the appropriate safety gear, and ensure that their quality is up to standard. In the case of skating or skiing, protect the head by wearing a helmet. For runs or hikes, choose footwear with good traction (either shoes with spikes on them or removable grips for shoes) to stay steady on slippery terrain.

Monitor Fluid Intake

It’s easy to forget to hydrate because cold weather depresses thirst.7 But dehydration can happen just as easily in cooler temps as it can in the heat. Approach fluid intake during a winter workout just like you would for a summer workout, especially if you’re exercising for longer than two hours. Be well hydrated before heading out to exercise, and aim to drink a liter of fluid per hour of vigorous exercise (or eight ounces every 15 minutes).8 A good marker for dehydration is urine. When you are well hydrated, your urine will be light in color or clear. If it is a dark or caramel color, that is a strong sign that you need to increase your fluid intake.

Find a Tribe

Work out with a buddy or in a group. There is power in numbers, both for physical safety and in case of something unexpected. Workout buddies are also great motivation to get out the door on those really cold days.

Stay Safe when Solo

If you’re exercising alone, consider carrying an alarm, and choose familiar routes that are well lit and frequented often. Keep the workout close to home so that, if conditions suddenly change, home base isn’t too far away. For example, if a long run is on the schedule, consider short loops instead of a longer out-and-back route. Finally, be sure to let someone know where you’ll be and when you’ll return.

Be Visible

Dressing for the dark as important as dressing correctly for the weather. Regardless of the season, outdoor enthusiasts should always make themselves as visible as possible when working out in the dark. Select garments with reflective material to help increase your visibility. Clip a light to the back of a running belt or pants, or wear a headlamp during your workouts for extra visibility.

Create a Post-workout Protocol

Be concerned about the risks of extreme cold even after exercise. Once a workout is complete, get out of the cold as quickly as possible to keep your body temperature from dropping. Remove any wet clothing and replace with a dry layer. If it’s necessary to stay outside after a workout, bring along additional warm clothing to put on over your workout gear.

Prevent and Treat Athletic Injuries at our Kitchener-Waterloo Urgent Care Clinic

To learn more about exercise safety and injury prevention tips for your winter workouts, visit our Kitchener-Waterloo urgent care clinic to speak with one of our physicians. If you’re in the process of recovering from an athletic injury, visit our medical centre to book a consultation with a member of our Kitchener physiotherapy team, Onyx Physiotherapy.

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