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For the outdoor enthusiast, weather changes can bring on challenges. Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or just love being active, you may be wondering what to do when the temperature drops, humidity is high, or it’s raining and muddy. It’s important that you think about seasonal implications so that you can keep your exercise safe and productive.
Brrr… Chilly, Ahhh… Hot!
No matter the climate, layers are key.
If It’s Cold
Stinging in your ears, numb fingers, watery eyes, and burning lungs are all signs that you’re working outside of your body’s optimal ambient temperature, and your body has concentrated blood flow around vital organs to help keep you alive. As a result, blood flow to skeletal muscle and extremities is very limited. Blood carries oxygen and when your muscles are firing rapidly, that’s especially important.
According to Dr. George Jessup, advisor to Texas A&M University’s Mountain Sports Association, dressing properly is crucial, though often misunderstood. Layers of lightweight clothing that wick moisture, offer wind resistance, and cover as much bare skin as possible are ideal. A light hat or cap, gloves, and ear warmers are also important for retaining vital body heat.
If It’s Hot
Dr. Jessup says that overheating can quickly become a problem when outer layers aren’t removed during exercise. As soon as you start to feel a bit warm, remove a layer. An absorbent sweatband, or cap with one inside, can keep sweat out of your eyes. You can also carry a lightweight towel.
Dr. J., as he’s known around campus, suggests keeping layers close by and easily accessible, though, so that you can quickly cover back up once you slow down. When your body is hot and wet with sweat, cool outside air or strong air-conditioning can cause your core temperature to drop too quickly.
Smooth ’n’ Dry
Moisture plays a prominent role in how the body copes with temperatures. Wet skin or clothes channel heat away from the body, causing it to work harder to maintain a functional core temperature. This isn’t exactly ideal for trying to get in a solid workout! The wicking fabrics and light layers mentioned above are key for keeping you dry.
Outdoor moisture (or lack thereof) goes right along with concerns about temperature. Precipitation can be a hazard on several different levels. A water-resistant or breathable waterproof outer layer is important if there’s anything falling from the sky. (Even if it’s bird poop!)
Wet pathways, or those covered in ice or snow, can be dangerous. Sprained ankles, knee injuries, and pulled muscles occur all the time as a result of exercising on unstable ground. University of Wyoming senior Kaitlynn G. stresses the importance of proper footwear. Durable shoes with a heavy-duty tread pattern are necessary for muddy, icy, or snow-packed roads and trails.
Wet on the Inside
Most people know that hydration is essential in warm and humid weather, when your body loses a lot of water through perspiration. It’s also one of the most overlooked aspects of exercising in cold weather or cool indoor environments. Even though you aren’t sweating as much, your body is still losing water because it’s working hard to generate heat.
Without being sufficiently hydrated ahead of time, you will find that your performance and ability to exercise will suffer. You may also get cramps and body aches. Although the exact amount of water needed by everybody is different, try to drink close to a gallon or more per day when you’re active. Drink as much as possible in the morning, so that you’ll be hydrated before your workout. Drink more before bed because that’s when most physiological changes are occurring in your body.
The flip side is dry air, whether cold or hot. You may notice static electricity build up; that’s a result of cool, dry air. Or, in Arizona, for example, temperatures are often above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but the heat is dry.
Exercising outdoors in this dry air can quickly lead to cracked, dry skin, blisters, and chapped lips. Again, not exactly ideal for working out; all of these can limit your comfort, and therefore, performance. Use moisturizing balms to protect any exposed skin and your lips, too. Also remember: the sun’s ultraviolet rays are in effect all year, even if it’s cloudy. Wear sunblock whenever you’re out during the day.
In the Dark
There are a limited number of daylight hours, especially in winter. Most people who run, bike, or walk typically try to do so in the morning or evening. With later sunrise and earlier darkness, the times available to safely exercise outside diminish. Exercising with a friend can increase safety.
Being physically active around roadways before sunrise or after sunset can be especially dangerous if you like to have your headphones plugged in. Try to reschedule your routine during daylight hours if possible. If not, wear plenty of reflective gear, including a vest, rear light, and headlamp. Plus, turn down the music and stay aware of your surroundings. You may want to carry a whistle to attract attention if you need help.
Prep and Cool-Down
A few preventive measures can help to offset the challenges of variable weather.
Warm-up and cool-down exercises are absolutely essential. Ensure that you spend at least five minutes warming up by walking, doing jumping jacks and lunges, arm circles, etc. Follow that with a few stretches .
Also take time to gradually cool down by walking or doing whatever you do more slowly. Many trainers believe stretching at the end of your workout is even more important than at the beginning—but don’t let that deter you from prepping, too. These few extra minutes can really prevent injury.
Change It Up
If your regular forms of activity are inconvenient or uncomfortable due to weather, you’re probably not getting the most out of your exercise, or you may avoid it entirely. Finding an alternative that gets you excited will keep you moving.
You can also embrace the weather by trying some new things. For example, cross-country or downhill skiing, snowboarding, hockey, and ice-skating aren’t an option when the weather is hot, so take advantage of cold and snow. Things like lake and ocean swimming, beach volleyball, hiking, and paddling are better for warmer climates, so get out and enjoy the sun. You can even have fun in rain, as long as you’re dressed appropriately and prepared to get a bit muddy.
Ken L., a sophomore at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, points out that weather can also increase the challenge of everyday activities. He notes that walking to class or climbing steps in snow can be a workout. The same is true in humid places, where sprinting for the bus or making it up a hill can be a challenge.
So, what’s Ken’s favorite seasonal exercise? Sledding. You may whiz down, but you have to hike back up! You’ll tone muscles, burn calories, and have a great time doing it.
Weather doesn’t have to be an obstacle to physical fitness. With appropriate awareness and preparation, you can be active and have fun.
- Running: Consider finding an indoor track, treadmill, or even an indoor pool for lap swimming.
- Sports: If you play sports like soccer or tennis, racquetball or basketball could be great alternatives.
- Outdoor Circuit Training: Head to the weight room to tone muscles. Rotate between the different weight stations and alternate with aerobic exercises.
- Be creative. There are other activities like martial arts or dance to consider as well. The most important thing is to find an activity that keeps you interested and active while still challenging you to perform.
- Protect your body by dressing in thin, wicking layers.
- Make sure to drink plenty of water, even in cold weather and air-conditioned gyms.
- Warm up before being active and take time to walk or do your activity more slowly to cool down.
- Consider lighting and road surfaces, and be aware of your surroundings. Exercise with a buddy to increase your safety.
- Try some activities that are in season. Changing up your routine can eliminate boredom and work your body in new ways.
Get help or find out more
American College of Sports Medicine, Selecting and Effectively Using Hydration for Fitness
American College of Sports Medicine, Preparing For and Playing In the Heat
http://www.acsm.org/access-public-information/articles/2012/01/13/preparing-for-and-playing-in-the-heatMcHenry County College Fitness Center Newsletter, Exercise and Cold Weather: Tips to Stay Safe Outdoors
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, November 2006, Vol. 38, Issue 11. Prevention of Cold Injuries during Exercise