When conditions turn snowy, slushy, or just plain wet, it’s no reason to stay inside and skip your workouts. Developing good exercise habits now will carry you into sunnier weather, and you’ll be ready to tackle tougher, and more fun, activities when summer comes around. The American College of Sports Medicine has even noted that exercise can help stave off the “winter blues.” Bonus benefit: being cold and shivering may actually help burn fat and expend extra calories during your workout.
If you’ve been having a hard time getting out the door, we have a few cold and wet weather tips, from gear choice to top motivators. Of course, for people new to working out or who have health conditions, it’s always a good idea to check with a medical professional before starting a new exercise program — that’s especially true for working out in cold and wet conditions.
Keep Plans Loose
“Be flexible,” says Julie Toole, a former cycling instructor and winter sports enthusiast who is now a Toronto-based midwife. This winter was a tough one in Ontario, with temperatures dropping into the negatives regularly and several feet of snow piling up. But that hasn’t stopped Toole from getting outside for some of her workouts. While she stays inside and rides a stationary bike some days, she tries to get out whenever possible, keeping plans flexible and changing her workouts according to weather. For example, when snow is too deep to run or hike, she straps on snowshoes and heads out.
“I’ll also break up the workout if it’s too cold to be out long,” she says, and notes that she’ll sometimes plan to be out for two hours but cut back to one when it’s brutally chilly. Finally, incentivize those plans: If you do get out for that snowshoe, Toole recommends making a deal with yourself, like the promise of hot apple cider in a hot bath when you get done.
Warm Up Inside
“Several years ago, I raced the Hypothermic Half Marathon in Ottawa in February,” Toole says. “It was negative 35 degrees and the course was covered in ice.” Rather than heading out into the cold, she stayed inside as long as possible before the gun went off, doing lunges, running and jumping on the spot to get warmed up without having to go outside. Now, for morning workouts, she does some squats and other warmup movements before heading out for workouts.
Cold, wet weather means two things: First, drivers won’t be expecting anyone to be out exercising on the road, and may not be as attentive as they would on clear, warm days. Second, if it’s overcast or still in winter months, it will get darker earlier. The Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center has pointed out that more pedestrian and cycling fatalities happen in the evening hours, so be aware and safety-conscious. Even rainy days that don’t seem so dim when inside can require a light when you’re out walking, running or riding, not so you can see where you’re going, but so that others can see you. Put on a headlamp, a flashing clip-on light strapped to a back pocket, or, at the least, add some reflective gear when you’re going to be out on the road.
The Federal Highway Administration has noted that poor visibility and wet pavement from rain and snow are the worst conditions for pedestrians, and those types of weather have the highest rates of accidents and fatalities. Make sure you’re highly visible, wearing bright colors and reflective materials, and opt for off-road trails and paths when possible. And while exercise is important and getting outside is great, don’t be afraid to call it quits when visibility is poor or conditions feel dangerous. Hit the gym or the treadmill instead on the worst weather days.
Layer Like a Pro ...
While it’s tempting to drop cash on ultra-heavy layers, Toole is a firm believer that layering is the better way to go. "It's a cliche for a reason,” she says. She recommends a thin merino wool glove liner under big mittens.
Wearing multiple layers of pants and tops is great, too, according to the American College of Sports Medicine: Start with a sweat-wicking sport-specific base layer (like merino wool long underwear) and layer wind- and waterproof layers on top. Simon Huntsman, head of R&D at the roadwear brand Rapha, says for base layers, 100 percent merino garments are considered premium and perform extremely well in cool conditions. Read the label to find the right one for your usual temperature range: “For milder conditions, where perhaps less heat retention is required, more open knit structures and blends are considered more appropriate,” he says.
Pay attention to materials and what temperature ranges articles of clothing are made for. The nice part about layering is that your gear will be useful for more of the year, versus a heavy down jacket that only has a few days of usefulness.
… And Then Add a Buff
A buff — a simple tube of moisture-wicking, warm fabric — is one of the most versatile pieces of clothing, and can work as a hat or a scarf to warm up any outfit. Stacy Sims, PhD, an exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist, is a firm believer that if you can keep your neck and mouth warm, you’ll suffer less. In her book, “ROAR”, she highly recommends using a neck gaiter/buff. “Covering your neck — and maybe chin and mouth — can make even the coldest conditions more bearable,” Sims wrote. And when it’s truly freezing outside, pulling the buff over your mouth allows you to breathe in warmer air. (Toole swears by a layered buff in truly cold conditions, opting for a thin merino one covered by a thicker fleece.)
Invest in a Good Raincoat
For wet days, the best advice is to invest in a good raincoat: not just one that is actually waterproof, but one designed for athletic activities, and that fits well and feels comfortable in a wide range of motion. When trying on a coat, get goofy and make sure you’re in the same postures you’ll be in outdoors. If you’re a cyclist, hunch over like you’re riding a bike, or if you’re a CrossFit enthusiast, do a few burpees or jumping jacks in the dressing room. Make sure nothing is pulling or tight when you move. “In my opinion it is all about two things: fit and fabric,” says Ian Martin, the VP of R&D at the cycling apparel brand 7mesh.
The fit is going to be a personal preference, so try a few coats before you choose. There are a lot of great waterproof fabrics available (look for waterproof, not water-resistant, when rain jacket shopping), but Martin is a big fan of Gore-Tex, and the American College of Sports Medicine notes that the breathability and waterproof nature make it a great choice. Look for a material that’s waterproof but claims breathability, and try to find one with good air regulation, like zippered armpit holes that can add breathability if it gets warm, or side panels that can be unzipped for added air flow. These can get pricey, but a raincoat with layers under it can do double duty as a winter coat in many conditions.
Weatherproof Your Feet
Your feet are the first to get cold and wet on most outdoor adventures, so choose footwear that will keep you comfortable longer. For the outdoorsman on a budget, simply putting plastic baggies over your socks before putting shoes on will trap heat, keep feet dry, and serve as a windproof layer. Wool socks are ideal for wet or cold conditions, since they absorb moisture better than cotton, and if you live in a particularly wet area, looking for shoes that offer water resistance with neoprene layers is a smart move. (There are also sprays like NikWax available that can make normal shoes more water-resistant.) Lastly, in truly cold conditions, chemical toe warmers that stick to the soles of your socks can make a huge difference, and they’re one of Toole’s favorite go-tos for tough days. (You can also slap these on top of the gloves in your mittens to keep your hands warm!)
Make It Fun
The last — and possibly best — piece of winter advice from Toole comes down to choosing activities that make you excited. This winter alone, she’s played ice hockey, skied, snowshoed and even got out with a dogsled, in addition to running, hiking and fat-tire biking. Figure out what winter activities sound like fun, and opt for those instead of slogging through your typical winter workout.