How to Get a Great Outdoors Workout in the Winter

winter landscape

photo by MellaViews via pixabay

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Becoming accustomed to outdoor winter workouts has been difficult for me but worth the effort. Though I am not one of the 20% of Americans who have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or winter blues, I can say that regularly experiencing the outdoors makes me happier and more productive during late fall and winter months.

I am a summer person, who reveled in the long, hot, and humid days of this season as a kid and spent much of my free time playing outside, swimming at a community pool, and riding my bike in North Carolina. Winter, with its short days, scarcity of sunshine, and frigid temperatures, has never been my favorite time of year.

But learning to embrace the colder weather and equip myself to withstand wintry conditions has helped me to enjoy this time. Specifically, I’ve learned how to get a great outdoors workout, running, cycling, walking, or hiking, during the months from November to March.

Get technical apparel and gear

The key to liking and loving winter workouts is not the ability to toughen up. It’s the ability to choose and wear appropriate clothing and gear.

Where I live in North Carolina, temperatures may fall to 10 degrees or less but tend to hover around 20-40 degrees in the coldest of winter with some nice warm days interspersed throughout the season. Here are some items that I use and recommend:

  • Merino wool base layer, long-sleeved shirt: this shirt keeps me warm plus wicks moisture away from my skin as I sweat, keeping me from getting chilled during pauses in my workout intensity

  • wool socks: these are great year-round as they wick moisture plus keep my feet at the right temperature in the winter and summer

  • gloves: my collection includes running- and cycling-specific gloves with proper grip depending on my activity; these are easily tucked away as soon as my hands warm up

  • wind-blocking jacket: blocking the wind is essential for staying warm; my cycling jacket doubles as a running jacket on windy days

  • hat: my regular winter toboggan works well as does a fitness beanie

  • running and cycling tights: these are essential on cold days; certain compression material may also provide muscular support but I wear them mainly to stay warm in the winter

If you are on a budget or are unsure of how much you’ll actually get outside this winter, focus on items that have multiple uses. For example, my long-sleeved Merino wool shirt works well as a casual shirt; my workout gloves are fine for driving; and I can wear my wool socks nearly anytime.

Check with your local bike, outdoors, or running store to get their recommendations and pick up items appropriate for your area’s climate. Shop online at stores like Athleta (go to Sport > Training to find running tights); Performance Bike (find base layers, full finger gloves, and tights for cycling); Mountain Hardwear (look at hiking items in the training category); and Nashbar (consider my favorite, a Gore jacket with the WINDSTOPPER feature).

Pay close attention to the weather

I plan my workouts based on expected weather conditions. Unfortunately, forecasts are notoriously inaccurate if you are looking to judge if there will be rain at 10 a.m. three days from now, for example; however, they are helpful to get a general idea of weather patterns. Also, I check for updates the day of my workouts.

Here are the main things to consider when looking at a forecast or the day’s weather conditions:

  • temperature: this factor is important but should be considered with overall conditions

  • sunshine: typically, more sunshine equates to more warmth, no matter what the other conditions are

  • precipitation: the chance of precipitation should be considered but rechecked the day of your workout as the timing and presence of rain, sleet, and snow often varies from original forecasts; a light snow can be pleasant for an off-road run, walk, or hike but generally I avoid outside winter workouts in wet conditions

  • wind: monitoring wind speed is crucial as a cold, strong wind can turn nice or so-so conditions into unbearable ones

  • sunrise and sunset times: consider whether you might be outside in daylight or in the darkness; note that I use this information mainly to prepare for a hike in the woods rather than to schedule an outdoor run

Evaluating weather conditions help me make decisions about when to get outside plus the type of clothing and gear to wear. For example, even when the temperature drops to below freezing at night, it may rise to 50 degrees at noon so I might plan to get outside at lunchtime. Or, I might notice that the temperature will remain cool all day but there will be cloudy and windy conditions in the afternoon so I’ll go for a run in the morning.

In regard to the exact items to wear, experiment to see what works for you. I tend to need less coverage than most people; so if I go to a bike ride and everyone else is wearing cycling tights, I may be fine with just my regular bike shorts.

Also, though dressing in layers (that can be removed) is useful in general, you may not have a place to store extra items during your workout. So be conscious of wearing what will work for you during most of your time outdoors, not just the few minutes that you are warming up. You’ll soon discover that you can stay comfortable for much of your workout with the right selections.

Enjoy yourself

Winter provides a unique landscape that can be intriguing. Bare leaves allow you to view houses, barns, etc. that were previously hidden. The winter sun shines a different angle, giving you a new perspective.

Wherever you go for your workout, there may be fewer people around, creating a quieter and often tranquil experience. And, you may feel a kinship with the people you do encounter, as both of you have decided to embrace the beauty of winter.

Note that the cold weather may degrade your performance slightly at first and then improve as you become acclimated to the cold weather. For example, having trained through the winter a couple of years ago, I ran a 5K in 27 minutes in 17-degree February weather and felt warm for much of the race.

Still, the point of an outdoors workout in the winter is not to set personal records but to enjoy the season. And, if weather conditions make an outing too dangerous, know that it’s okay to stay inside and rest.