Wintertime presents a multitude of challenges to your weekly workout routine. Here’s the pro advice on staying active when your body wants to hibernateBy: David L'Heureux
When the mercury starts to drop, so does our motivation to get up and get going. Unfortunately, it’s also at this chilly time of year that we instinctively want to pack in more calories, which makes sticking to an exercise plan even more critical. We talked to professional trainers and coaches in two of the coldest spots in the country—the Northeast and the Rocky Mountain West—to find out how they stay motivated and in shape during the winter.
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During the dead of winter, your body is literally fighting the elements to stay warm, so dressing appropriately and practicing a proper warmup is all the more important. “Convection, conduction, evaporation, and radiation all contribute to stealing heat away from the body as it tries to maintain a warm and cozy 98.6 degrees,” says Ray Ignosh, M.S., C.S.C.S., and a U.S.A. Cycling certified coach. Ignosh recommends easing into cold-weather activities, paying attention to layering, consuming plenty of calories and fluids before during and after exercise, and taking extra time to warm up.
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Besides the cold weather, there are other challenges to maintaining a workout in the winter. The days are shorter—many people don’t even leave work before it’s dark out in December and January—and everyone has additional family and work commitments tied to the holidays. “We tell people to put exercise and training time right in their planners, Outlook schedules, and iPhone calendars,” says Ryan Kohler, M.S., C.S.C.S., a senior coach and nutrition manager for Carmichael Training Systems in Colorado Springs, CO. It’s important to budget time for exercise and get up a little earlier to fit in time at the gym or outside. “It can be tough getting up early when it’s dark and cold, but it all feels worth it when you know you started your day out right and took care of your workout,” says Kohler.
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Signing up for a race or event in the spring can help keep you focused in the dead of winter. But you won’t get there in a day, week, or month. So don’t compound existing winter and motivational hurdles by setting huge off-season goals. “Set micro-goals that you can work toward in the short term,” says Kohler. “Try to hit those smaller goals and milestones throughout the winter to keep you on track.”
Say your goal is to run a 5-K in 25 minutes. You’ll need to run 8:20 miles to do so. If you are currently running 9-minute miles, try working your average down to 8:50s, then 8:40s on the treadmill or out on the road. You’ll find satisfaction by hitting these micro-goals and by springtime you’ll be ready to take on bigger challenges.
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“If it’s really cold outside, hit the gym,” says Ignosh. “Swim, work the stationary bike, or run on the treadmill.” Most gyms have trial memberships or affordable options for newcomers who don’t want to make a big financial commitment, especially right around the New Year. Better yet: Join a gym or a workout group with a friend.
“It helps to have other people out there suffering with you,” says Kohler. “Go on group runs or rides, or do a workout with friends in their garage or basement and follow it up with a group meal.” Adding a ritual aspect makes getting out the door more manageable and maybe even something you will look forward to. “Most people respond to external motivation,” says Ignosh. “So having a die-hard workout partner is much better than having a fair-weather friend.”
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Quality apparel and equipment makes everything easier, and that’s especially true in the winter. If you’ve been exercising in the same old hat, top, tights, socks, and shoes for years, treat yourself. There’s nothing like a new $100 jacket or pair of shoes to keep you on point. Unsure of the proper gear and layering strategies? It’s easy, says Kohler. “Think of it like a banana. You want to have layers that you can easily peel off and then put back on as your body’s temperature goes up and down.”
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For both tops and bottoms, start with a good, moisture-wicking base layer. On top of that you’ll want an insulating, mid-weight thermal layer with a wind and weatherproof layer on top to protect you from the elements. Finally, if you plan on braving super-cold temps and exercising outdoors, cover your mouth and nose. “Wearing a balaclava or scarf around your face helps warm and humidify the air,” says Ignosh. “Unfiltered cold air can lead to discomfort, burning, and even damaged lungs when it hits your nasal and respiratory pathways directly.”
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Maybe you’ve walked by the Pilates or yoga studio and wondered if it’s for you. Or perhaps the spin class that goes on everyday piques your interest. What about swimming? Winter is the time to find out. Take a chance and mix up your routine.
“If you are a single-sport athlete, you have a lot to gain by mixing it up in the winter,” says Kohler. “You will work different muscle groups, switch gears, and learn a new activity. We recommend cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking in the snow, and mountain biking on packed snow to our clients. Anything that challenges the body to move in a way that it isn’t accustomed to moving is good for your overall fitness.”
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Rest and recovery are essential to a workout program, according to both Kohler and Ignosh, yet so many people neglect it. “It’s especially important to rest in the winter because when you exercise outdoors in the cold your body works overtime to stay warm,” adds Ignosh. Inevitably, you warm up, cool down, then warm back up again. All of this temperature fluctuation, combined with the cold weather, breaks down the body more than at any other time of the year.
“Sometimes it’s best to shut it down and take a few days or weeks off,” says Ignosh. As far as your body is concerned, it’s okay to give in to those lazy winter impulses. Taking a week or so off lets your muscles, joints, and mind recuperate. When you pick it back up, you’ll find you are more rested, energetic and often stronger than you were before you took time off. However, both Kohler and Ignosh caution: Don’t get bogged down for too long. Winter exercise builds the foundation for success in the spring and summer.
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