When the mercury drops and daylight starts to seem like a mirage, you might be tempted to take your workout inside. But resist the urge: Research shows that outdoor exercise can boost your mood, your performance and your calorie burn. But to reap the rewards, you need to be smart. Here are some potential pitfalls and how to avoid them.
Dressing too warmly: No one likes to start a workout shivering, but being too hot is just as bad as being too cold — especially in the winter.
"Most exercisers dress so they are comfortable at the start of their workout when their body has not warmed up yet," says Cassie Dimmick, a certified sports dietitian, running coach, and health and fitness instructor in Springfield, Mo. "Then, near the middle and the end of the workout, they are hot and uncomfortable, often causing them to cut their exercise short."
But sticking with your workout might not be in your best interest either. "When you sweat, you're going to risk getting chilled as the sweat evaporates," says Janet Hamilton, a registered clinical exercise physiologist and a certified strength, conditioning and running coach in Stockbridge, Ga.
The fix: Everyone has different cold tolerance, so keep track of what you feel comfortable in at different temperatures, suggests Dimmick. When you check the weather, don't forget to take wind chill and humidity into consideration. In terms of clothing, layers are key because they're easy to adjust on the go. Just keep in mind that you want to start out slightly cold, says Dimmick, so you're comfortable after your body warms up.
Wearing the same footwear: Most walking and running shoes are well ventilated and composed of mesh. This is great in the summer when your sneakers can start feeling like greenhouses, but in the winter, that perforation can let in as much air and moisture as it lets out.
"Dampness is more of a problem in cold weather," says Karen A. Langone, a board certified podiatrist, past president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine and current treasurer of the American Association of Women Podiatrists.
"It's not going to dissipate as much, so you're going to retain coldness more than you would otherwise," which can put you at risk for thermal injuries such as hypothermia or frostbite. Standard sneakers might not have inadequate traction for slippery conditions.
The fix: Don't exercise until your feet get cold and then go home. "If you wait to feel discomfort, you may find that it's too late," says Langone.
Instead, take preventive measures. For some, that means donning wool socks. Others might need to switch to waterproof shoes. If you still need extra warmth, consider heated insoles.
Sweating without sunscreen: Research suggests that distance runners might be at an increased risk for skin cancer, possibly because of the inordinate amount of time they spend in the sun with their skin exposed. Sun damage is a serious problem for any outdoor exerciser at any time of the year.
"There is good evidence that sweat enhances ultraviolet effects," says Dr. Brian B. Adams, interim chairman of the department of dermatology at the University of Cincinnati. "An athlete who is sweating burns almost 40 percent more quickly than when they are not sweating." Furthermore, snow can reflect as much as 90 percent of UV rays back to the athlete.
The fix: Athletes (and nonathletes) often use sunscreen based on the temperature outside, says Adams, which means many don't touch the stuff come winter. But it's just as easy to get sunburned in the colder months, especially if you're exercising in the snow.
To stay safe, 30 minutes before you head outside, apply a broad spectrum, water/sweat-resistant sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 and carry a one-use wipe sunscreen (or small bottle) if you plan to be out longer than two hours.
"People who are outside in the snow can also activate their cold sores," says Adams. So prepare your pucker with a sunscreen- infused lip balm before you hit the slopes or attack a trail.
Leaving eye protection at home: Your skin isn't the only thing the sun can harm in the winter. It also can affect your vision, says Dr. Terrence P. O'Brien, professor of ophthalmology at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. That's because your eyes are at risk for sunburn, much like your skin. The condition is called photokeratitis, or snow blindness, and can cause anything from watering and redness to a decrease of vision.
If your winter exercise just consists of short runs or rides around town, you probably don't need to worry. But people who spend more time outdoors at high altitudes, such as skiers and snowshoers, should take precautions. That's because in addition to the thinner ozone and bright reflection off snow, people at high altitudes also experience stronger UV rays. "With every 1,000 feet above sea level, the intensity of UV rays goes up 4 percent," says O'Brien.
The fix: Wear wraparound eye protection that transmits 5 percent to 10 percent of visible light and absorbs all UV rays, says O'Brien — the larger and darker the lenses the better — and keep them on even in overcast conditions. Even when you're not at high altitude, you might want to wear glasses or goggles; they also protect your peepers from cold and wind, which exacerbates dry eye.
Not hydrating: Although you might not be sweating as much as during the summer, you still lose fluids in the winter. "You can get dehydrated even when it is cold outside, and being overly dehydrated decreases your speed and performance," says Dimmick. "So, planning for drinking during workouts in the winter is very important."
The fix: Most people need less fluid when it's colder, so adjust your intake accordingly, says Dimmick. "I still recommend drinking at regular intervals (every 15-20 minutes) to assist gastric emptying." To prevent your drink of choice from turning into a slushy — or worse, a chunk of ice — nestle your bottle under your top layer.
Blending in: Along with the cold, winter brings darker days. The combination usually forces exercisers to head outside in low visibility wearing warm clothes that are often as drab as the weather. "With more dark hours and darker clothes, runners need to be sure they have reflective outer layers, gloves or lights on so cars can see them and avoid causing injury," says Dimmick.
The fix: If your cold-weather gear doesn't come with reflective details, buy high-visibility accessories, such as a vest or ankle cuff. And keep in mind what part of your body is sparkling. "I wear reflectors all the way around my body because I figure if I'm crossing the street drivers need to see my side; if they're behind me they need to see my back, and in front of me they need to see my front," says Hamilton.
Sticking to the same route: Running, biking or walking along a familiar path is not always the best option. "Routes that are safe in the warm months can be treacherous when it is freezing out," says Dimmick. They also might take you far from home, which can spell trouble in the event of an emergency, or leave you battling the wind on the way back when you're most likely to be sweaty and chilled.
The fix: Have an arsenal of routes ready so you can choose the one that's safest, suggests Dimmick. "Check bridges and curves for possible ice, and adjust your route to cut out overpasses and bridges if necessary." If it's an especially cold, windy day, start your run with the wind in your face and consider running short loops instead of out and back. "It gives you bail-out points," says Hamilton.