Many warm-weather exercisers discontinue their training programs when
the temperature drops below 40¡ F. This is unfortunate, because
heat-producing physical activity is well-suited for cooler weather
conditions. When approached appropriately, most people can exercise
safely and successfully when temperatures are in the 20s and 30s.
Of course, if you find cold-weather exercise aversive, you can always
substitute walking through shopping malls, or running indoors on a
treadmill. Stationary cycles, stairclimbers, rowers, and cross-country
ski machines provide a variety of training alternatives for those who
prefer to exercise in shorts and tee-shirts.
However, if you comply with a few basic training recommendations, you
should be able to enjoy outdoor walking and running on all but the
coldest winter days. But first, let’s examine some misconceptions
about cold-weather exercise that might otherwise limit your training
1. Breathing colder air does not freeze your lungs. In fact, by the
time inhaled air reaches your lung exchange areas it is approximately
body temperature. It is therefore not necessary nor recommended to
wear scarves or handkerchiefs over your mouth/nose when walking or
2. Exercising in colder weather does not adversely affect your
muscles, nor compromise normal walking and running movement patterns.
Although sprint workouts are not advisable, you need not slow your
standard training pace due to lower temperatures. Also, it is not
necessary to reduce your normal training time/distance under most
3. Exercising in lower temperatures does not require several layers
of clothing to maintain body warmth. A pair of sweatpants and a hooded
sweatshirt should be sufficient for temperatures above 20¡ F.
Actually, wearing too much clothing can result in excessive heat
accumulation and perspiration, both of which can have detrimental
So how should you prepare for winter runs and walks? Start with the
assumption that the temperature is about 10¡ warmer than it really is.
This accounts for the extra heat you will produce as you begin to
exercise. Of course the more vigorous the activity, the more body heat
you will generate.
Keep in mind also, that your legs and trunk tend to stay warmer than
your hands and head. A pair of gloves, mittens, or socks over your
hands can make a big difference in your comfort level, as can a
headband, stocking hat or hooded sweatshirt. Usually, a single pair of
athletic socks is sufficient, as your feet benefit from frictional
heat during walking and running. The choice between tights and
sweatpants is largely a matter of personal preference. As temperatures
decrease, I recommend the following progression of upper body attire.
Above 50¡ F Short sleeve tee shirt.
40¡ -50¡ F Long sleeve tee shirt.
30¡ – 40¡ F Short sleeve tee shirt and sweatshirt.
20¡ – 30¡ F Long sleeve tee shirt and sweatshirt.
Under 20¡ F Short sleeve tee shirt and long sleeve tee shirt and sweatshirt.
A good warm-up inside the house typically makes your first few minutes
of outdoor activity more enjoyable on cold days. Several minutes of
calisthenic exercises such as trunk curls, push-ups, knee-bends, and
step-ups can increase your body temperature considerably.
If you are sensitive to breathing cold air, try to inhale through both
your mouth and nose. Although nose breathing has a greater air-warming
effect, most people can not get enough air through the nose alone to
sustain fast walking or running. Breathing through both channels
should ensure enough oxygen for exercise as well as warmer air
temperature. By the way, keeping yourself well hydrated is helpful in
this regard and for optimum physical performance. Proper fluid intake
is no less important for winter exercise sessions than any other
season. Be sure to drink ample water or fruit juices before and after
your cold-weather workouts.
Assuming you are properly prepared, and neither overdressed or
underdressed, your walking/running form and pace should be little
different than during the rest of the year. However, when you finish
your workout you should transition immediately into your cooldown
activity and go inside for your concluding stretches. Standing around
wet with perspiration in cold temperatures is not advisable, as this
can result in quick cooling and tightening of your muscles.
In summary, an appropriate winter running workout may be approached as follows.
1. Check the weather conditions and temperature and dress
appropriately. However, if the sidewalks/roadways are icy or slippery
with snow, postpone your exercise session until they are clear.
2. Perform four to eight minutes of warm-up activity for your legs (e.g., knee bends), midsection (e.g., trunk curls), and upper body (e.g., push-ups).
3. Step outside and promptly begin your walk or run. Start slowly, and progressively increase your pace to the target intensity.
4. As you finish your training session, slow down gradually and continue with four to eight minutes of cooldown activity.
5. Without stopping, go indoors and finish your workout with a few stretching exercises.
Note: Be sure to drink sufficient fluids before and after your training session.
Of course, you may always choose to exercise indoors on uncomfortably cold days. But, if you prefer the fresh air of the great outdoors, these guidelines should be useful.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South
Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA., and author of several fitness books
including the new releases, Building Strength and Stamina and Strength
Training Past 50.