Fitness experts share their hard-earned advice and clothing recs that’ll keep you warm even on the coldest days.
Don't forget sunscreen. The sun is just as strong, if not more, on winter days — especially in you’re exercising reflective snow.ZinaidaSopina / Shutterstock
By Locke Hughes
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Fair warning: After reading this article, you can no longer use cold temperatures as an excuse to skip your workout. While exercising on a blustery, 30-degree day may not be as pleasant as a sunny and 75-degree day, it is possible — and even enjoyable, if you do it right.
The main rule of thumb for winter workouts: Layer, layer, layer. You’ll want to wear two to three layers, depending on how cold it is, the wind chill and your level of acclimation to the cold, says Rebekah Mayer, national run program manager and certified run coach at Life Time.
A moisture-wicking base layer, like merino wool, works great in cold weather, says Paul Ronto, a marathon runner and director of digital content and research at Run Repeat. “Merino wool keeps you warm, doesn't get smelly throughout a hard workout and wicks moisture better than synthetic materials, which is crucial on winter outings,” he explains. Avoid cotton, which gets damp and doesn’t dry easily.
For the second layer, pick a lightweight jacket or vest in a synthetic material, like polyester or fleece. Finally, a windproof jacket, with or without insulation depending on the temperature, makes for a perfect outer layer.
But you might want to start with one less layer than you think you need. “You should actually feel a little chilly when you first walk outside, as your core temperature will rise as you exercise,” explains Tom Holland, exercise physiologist and author of "The Marathon Method". “If you are warm when you first start, you might be overdressed.”
40 to 50 degrees: Lightweight capris or shorts with a long-sleeve shirt layered over a t-shirt or tank. Once you warm up, you may want to remove the long-sleeve top. Wear light gloves and an ear band if your extremities run cold.
30 to 40 degrees: Lightweight running pants or capris with a long sleeve shirt or light jacket, layered over a t-shirt. Light gloves and a headband or hat protect sensitive extremities.
20 to 30 degrees: Lightweight or windproof/thermal running pants, depending on the wind-chill. On top, wear a light long sleeve base layer paired with a windbreaker. Gloves or mittens and a hat are essential, and thermal socks may be needed to keep toes warm.
10 to 20 degrees: Thermal/windproof pants will keep your legs warm, paired with a thermal base layer and winter running jacket on top. Add a buff or face mask. Consider investing in a waterproof trail shoe or winter running shoe for more warmth. Switch from gloves to mittens, especially if you have Raynaud’s disease or other reason for cold extremities.
0 to 10 degrees: Wear thermal/windproof pants, with an additional base layer tight added below if needed. Depending on the weight of your running jacket, you may need to add another later underneath, or a winter running vest over your jacket. Switch out a lightweight buff for a thermal buff, or a warmer face mask. If your hands run cold, add hand warmers to your mittens.
Below 0 degrees: Add a thermal layer below your thermal pants, and a warm vest over your jacket. Add a second buff (either on your neck or wrapped around your arm) to switch out when the first one gets frosty. Use hand warmers, and minimize any exposed skin.
Hat and gloves are a must-have for winter workouts. Your hands will get especially cold, since your circulation in your hands worsens as your body works harder, Ronto explains. “I'd say find really warm gloves to ensure you're not wasting precious energy trying to warm your hands throughout your workout.”
A winter hat will work in extremely cold temps, but if it’s not too chilly, a baseball hat might be a better bet. “You can easily overheat in a winter hat and just end up holding it in your hand,” Ronto notes. “A ball cap, on the other hand, keeps snow and rain out of your eyes without causing you to overheat.” A running headband also works to keep ears warm, without too much extra insulation. If you’re skiing, you’ll want to wear a helmet (and a buff or face mask if it’s particularly chilly), as well as heavy-duty ski gloves.
Your regular running shoes should do fine on most cold-weather runs if the terrain isn’t too wet or icy. If streets are wet from freeze and thaw cycles, however, look for water-resistant shoes with Gore-Tex, Ronto suggests. You can usually find this material in trail running shoes.
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Black ice can also be a big danger for runners and walkers. “Choose your route wisely and go more slowly than usual, and consider using special traction devices that attach to your shoes, like YakTrax,” he suggests. (See recommended gear, below.) Finally, choose shoes that have reflective elements, which can help with visibility since it gets darker earlier in the winter.
Don’t forget to drink plenty of water! “It can difficult to remember to drink when you are bundled up and can’t feel yourself sweating,” explains Aaron Gray, MD, sports medicine physician at University of Missouri Health Care. However, you still need extra water to replace what you lose through exercise, even in extreme cold.
Yes, you still need to wear sunscreen. The sun is just as strong, if not more, on winter days — especially in you’re exercising reflective snow. Vaseline also comes in handy in the winter, Mayer says. “It’s a simple barrier when applied to your face or other exposed skin before a cold or windy run.”
Sometimes, it’s simply too cold to work out in the great outdoors. To avoid frostbite, avoid working out when the windchill is in the negative temperatures — especially -15 degrees or less, Holland says. In that case, a treadmill or gym session will have to suffice!
Finally, if you suffer from asthma, have poor blood circulation or heart problems, you may be at higher risk for complications from cold weather exercise. Always check with your doctor before heading out.
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