17 expert-backed tips for working out through the winter

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It’s the start of winter and it’s just beginning to get cold outside in much the US. For many of us, there’s a good chance it’ll be dark by the time we leave work every day for the next few months.

And that’s depressing enough that it seems like a reason to put off workouts, curl up with a book or some Netflix, and wait until spring to get back into shape.

Unfortunately, nice as that might sound for a moment, it’s kind of a terrible plan.

The benefits of exercise don’t fade away with the summer sun. If you let your workout routines lapse, you’re going to be stuck with weeks or months of recovery work in spring, increasing your injury risk and slowing any progress towards fitness goals.

If anything, winter is perhaps when we could most use the stress-reducing and mental health-improving benefits of exercise. Plus, a good run or bike ride is an excellent way to work off some of those holiday cookies and a way to counteract some of the brain-dulling effects of a few too many holiday cocktails.

With that in mind, we’ve collected a few tips from John Honerkamp, a coach with the New York Road Runners and former professional runner, and from experts at the American Council on Exercise.

Here’s how to get ready to emerge from winter feeling happier and healthier than you would if you took this time off.


Know that it’s worth it. Exercise improves mental health, is perhaps the most effective anti-depressant we have, improves your sex life, makes it easier to focus at work, and more. Not only is it “good for you,” but you’ll <em>feel</em> better too.

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Taking a couple months off is a killer. “You’re not going to lose a ton of fitness in a week or two, but three or four weeks, it gets bad,” says Honerkamp. You lose fitness pretty quickly if you aren’t getting a workout in — there’s no way around that. It can take months to even get back to your baseline fitness after that.

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Start as soon as you can, especially since December’s weather isn’t that bad. “It’s important now, because the bad months are January and February.” December is the best time to get accustomed to moving around in the cold, since in most places (sorry, Minnesotans), it’s still bearable out. Build a routine ASAP.

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Though shoveling snow can certainly count as a workout too.
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Take it easy at first. You may need to get your lungs and muscles used to the cold. “Don’t panic if you have trouble breathing initially,” Honkerkamp says (asthma excepted, of course). Cold air can feel sharp, so give yourself time to warm up, and perhaps move a bit slower at the start.

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It’s easier to start now than it will be in the middle of winter holidays, with associated travel and family gatherings. “If you can nail down a routine prior to getting into the heat of the travel and holidays, you already have the structure before it gets too bad,” says Honerkamp.

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And if you start early, it’ll be easier to keep off some of that extra holiday weight.

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Accountability matters — make plans with a friend: “I used to meet a buddy of mine at 4:30 [in the morning] in Central Park,” says Honerkamp. “I knew she would be there waiting for me.” It’s a lot harder to skip a run if you have a partner you’re leaving out in the cold.

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Dress for the occasion: Wear layers, and get gloves and a hat. You’d be surprised by the temperature you can stand if you’re dressed for it, and it’s easy to find performance clothes these days. You want things that will wick moisture away from your body, so avoid cotton.

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Don’t get overheated: People are often more likely to overdo the warm clothes when they’re getting started, says Honerkamp. You want to start a workout a little chilly, thinking you would have been more comfortable with one more layer.

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Stay hydrated. Many people forget they need to drink as much when they’re cold. You’re still sweating if you are moving and dehydration is dangerous.

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Know when it actually is too cold. Properly dressed, most people are fine in 20 degree F weather. But if windchill and temperature combine to be -20 degrees or below, there’s a real frostbite risk for exposed skin. When it’s below zero, you may want to warm the air you breathe by wearing a face mask.

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If you see penguins…
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Source: American Council on Exercise


Ice is a no-no, since a slip can result in broken bones that can keep you sidelined for a long time. If it’s icy out, do an indoor workout or a treadmill run, says Honerkamp.

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Take safety precautions for the dark too. Wear lights or reflective gear if you are going to be running or biking on roads. This can be another reason to stick with a partner, too.

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Make it easy to get yourself out the door. Put your clothes and shoes out beforehand, and even sleep in your base layer if that’ll help, says Honerkamp (this is a year-round recommendation).

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If your work is flexible, consider a midday run. You’ll get daylight, it’ll be a little warmer, and it’ll be mood-boosting perk that’ll help you focus in the afternoon.

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Enjoy the somewhat more peaceful nature of a winter workout.

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Donnie Sexton

Take some pride in what you’re doing. Honerkamp participates in a group called November Project that gets members out early for daily workouts, no matter what it’s like out side. He says they call it being “weatherproof,” and it can be a nice badge of honor if you’re out there, no matter how nasty it is.

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