Cold Weather Exercise: Tips for Staying Safe
Our last blog discussed misconceptions about cold weather exercise and some of the dangers. Now we will discuss the proper protocol for staying safe while working out in the cold.
The best defense against frostbite and hypothermia is to dress appropriately. THIS DOES NOT MEAN TO OVERDRESS! If you overdress, then you will sweat more, thus resulting in a greater loss of heat. Instead, DRESS IN LAYERS. Your bottom layer should be a thin material that draws sweat away from the body, like polypropylene. You do not want the bottom layer to be cotton because it will absorb your sweat and stay wet close to your body. The next layer should be for insulation like fleece or wool. The last layer should be waterproof, but breathable to allow moisture to escape. If you start to sweat while you are exercising you can remove layers and put them back on as needed.
Wearing a hat is essential. Heat loss from the head alone is 50% at the freezing mark. Make sure the hat covers your ears as well to avoid frostbite. A scarf may also be worn to assist with preventing heat loss from the neck. The body will shunt blood flow from the hands and feet to the center of the body to keep organs warm, so wearing gloves and extra layers of socks is important. You may want to consider using two layers of gloves as well. This way you can use a thinner polypropylene layer closer to your skin and remove the outer layer as needed if you begin to sweat. If the temperature falls below a comfortable level (typically below 0ºF), try placing a scarf across your face to warm the air you are breathing.
Someone who has a lot of muscle mass will tend to stay warmer with exercise in the cold because muscle generates heat and keeps the body warm. The same is true for someone with a layer of fat under his/her skin because fat does not allow heat to transfer out of the body as quickly. An inexperienced or out-of-shape person may be more prone to hypothermia because they may have to take repeated rest breaks during activity. When your body rests from activity while you are out in the cold, you have cut off your source of heat and are therefore more vulnerable to the elements. If you are running in the cold, you may want to perform multiple laps around a shorter route that passes in front of your home. That way, it you become tired or cold, you are not too far from home in order to rest inside.
Another important tip to remember is to stay hydrated. You may not feel like you are sweating as much or becoming dehydrated, but you are just as likely to get dehydrated in the cold as in the heat. Your sweating, breathing, and increased urine production in the cold may be dehydrating you without you even noticing; so make sure you stay hydrated with water or a sport drink, depending on how intensely you are exercising.