I’m well known for stripping off and going for a cold dip whenever the opportunity arises. I even have an emergency dip kit in both of our vehicles for fear of not being able to take an impromptu plunge.
I love cold exposure for all the benefit I talk of here, but the real truth, the thing I don’t often talk about is…
…I actually hate the initial feeling of being cold.
See me at the start line of a trail run and I’m the fella in the hat, snood, fleece and full leggings surrounded by a sea of tiny shorts and vest tops.
For a weight training session, I look about 2 stone heavier at the start of my warm-up than I do by the time my working set starts, due to the many layers of clothing I have on.
Despite my love of the ice bath, when I have a conventional bath, unless the water is so hot it removes 3 layer of skin and threatens to make me pass out, I won’t get in.
Every morning I go outside, shirtless, to drink my coffee and take in some vitamin D, yet at all other hours of the day in winter you will not find me without a fleece snood adorning my neck. I wearing it right now.
I’m a complex (confused) kind of guy.
Although, in this neck of the woods, we have passed the mid-winter/solstice point of the year, the coldest weather is yet to come.
This cold and dark period can leave many people feeling glum, down, or downright depressed.
S.A.D or seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern, affects 1 in 15 people between the months of September to April, according to the NHS, and over 35% of people surveyed finding their moods affected to some degree in the darker autumn and winter Months.
Lack of sunlight exposure is one of the major contributors associated with onset of SAD.
We have discussed the importance of sunlight previously for health and well-being, but there are a couple of ways to leverage the effect of sunlight to make it even more potent.
Take a dash of sunlight, add a pinch of physical activity and splash of nature and you have a powerful potion for alleviating the winter blues.
This is one of the main reasons I love to workout outside.
At first it may not seem appealing, but once you start it feels great for both the mind and body, and you emerge from the outside like some kind of rosy cheeked hero of old.
What follows is my basic guide to training/moving outdoors in winter. Much of it is common sense, a thing that increasingly appears to be less common nowadays, but some of it, you may not have considered.
So without further ado…
The Wild Life Guide to Training and Moving Outside in Winter
First things first.
Mindest is key.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”William Shakespeare, Hamlet – Act II, scene 2
If you think that going outside in the cold and wet is horrible, you are quite correct.
If you think going outside in the cold and wet is an exciting adventure that will forge you into a robust, anti-fragile human beast, you are also quite correct.
The day is exactly the same, only the mindset is different. Life is much easier when we take a ‘I get to do this’ attitude rather than a ‘I have to do this’ one.
So, see your outdoor movement session for what it really is – a chance to experience the world and your body in a way that most people never will. And bask in the smugness of it.
And if positive thinking is really not cutting it, then make the session super short. Just enough to get some of the benefits of being outside and moving your body, but not so long that you end up cold, tired and miserable.
Start small and build it up over the winter.
There is a common misconception that you are unlikely to dehydrate in the cold. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
We need water in the system to help us stay warm on cold days as well as cool on hot days. In fact, some studies show that we are more likely to enter into dehydration in the colder months.
Dehydration can exacerbate hypothermia too, due in part to the increased viscosity of our blood further reducing circulation. The symptoms of dehydration and hypothermia are very similar (see later).
Add to this the increased water loss due to exertion from moving and we have the ingredients for disaster.
Bottom line, keep hydrated.
Hydrate before you start your movement session. Hydrate as needed during the session. Hydrate after. And remember that hydration isn’t only about water, keep your electrolyte levels up too.
It can be hard to get in fluids when it’s cold, so include warm drinks. I like to add electrolytes like LMNT’s Chocolate Salt with hot water for a delicious, hot winter beverage.
If it’s sub-zero, then make sure your drinks bottle is insulated.
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail
Everything takes a little more effort in the cold, so channel your inner Artic explorer and plan your sessions beforehand.
It doesn’t take much, just check the forecast and gather your gear accordingly.
Think ‘just in case’ rather than ‘just enough’. I’m a firm believer in having and not needing something, rather than needing and not having it. The former leads to a little extra workout from carrying the additional kit, the latter leads to dying on a mountainside.
I know which one I prefer.
Warm up properly
A warm up is vital to really getting the most out of your movement session. The sad reality is that most of us don’t warm up adequately, if at all.
I know because I was the same for most of my time training.
Now that I’m getting on a bit and my joints creak more, I wish I had paid more attention to my warm up.
Stop viewing your warm up as an annoyance that you need to get through in order to start the workout, like your mum forcing you to eat your brussel sprouts before you can eat your Yorkshire pudding.
It’s all part of the workout, just as your sprouts are part of your roast dinner.
This all becomes even more important in the cold, when joints and tendons may be stiffer, blood flow slower, and the risk of pulling muscles more prevalent.
I love skipping as part of my warm ups. Generally, that portion of my warm up takes about 7 minutes.
But in the winter time, that will be at least doubled to make sure everything is good and warm before I start anything else.
You can even do your warm up indoors before you head out, if you like.
Just do it.
Adjust your expectations
Although some research suggests that cold weather may actually increase your VO2max and thereby offer you a PB – for most of us, it’s probably a better idea to reduce our expectations.
Increased clothing, colder and dryer air, unstable footings, physical discomfort, and many other factors can all reduce our performance capabilities.
Trying to get a deadlift PB when your hands are so numb they can’t feel the barbell is less than optimal.
But that’s okay. We don’t have to smash it every single session. This is especially true if your main reason for getting outside is for your mental health.
Of course, if you feel good and the conditions seem favourable, then have at it. If not, then reduce the load, intensity, or time.
The aim of a movement session for most of us is to make us healthier, not chase numbers.
Leave your ego indoors.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”Alfred Wainwright
Ultimately, what clothes you wear for moving outdoors is dependent on a number of factors:
- The weather
- The environment
- The activity
- The duration
Dressing for a cold and dry day is very different than for the cold and wet. Being wet will increase the rate at which you dissipate your body’s heat, potentially increasing the risk of hypothermia.
A sunny yet snowy day is glorious, but it’s the perfect conditions for sunburn and eye damage from bright light.
Running over frozen muddy ground can be a pleasure. Running across iced up tarmac, less so.
A winter hike along the beach whilst bundled up in your best jumper and scarf is a pure treat, but running up the side of a hill like that will leave you sweating and then suddenly cooling into hypothermic hell.
Stepping out in nought but a pair of obscenely tiny speedos for a 5 minute ice bath is wonderful. Wearing those same speedos for an hour long winter surf, not so much.
It’s all context based.
But there are some constants that I use when planning my outdoor movement session’s clothing.
This allows us to have options. You can always remove some clothing, but you can’t put on what you don’t have. Having your clothing system in layers allows you to have a fair degree of climate control.
I like to start with a moisture wicking base layer. This can be a modern synthetic, technical fabric or a more natural wicking material. I prefer merino wool because it’s both warm in the cold and wicks away sweat in the warm. And because I’m a hippy.
Next, is some kind of warm or insulated layer. Hybrid jackets are good, as are synthetic fleeces. Obviously, you could again wear a heavy gauge woollen top.
For really cold weather, I often take a duvet jacket or gilet for the extra warmth. These come in really handy for when you stop the exertion, to stop you cooling down too quickly.
To cut the wind chill I will often carry a windproof layer. Sometimes this property can be combined in one of the above layers.
I really like the Montane wind smocks. These things pack down to the size of an apple, weigh virtually nothing, yet cut the wind dead. There has been many a mountain trip where I was so glad to have one.
If it’s going to be wet then you need a waterproof layer. Again, if you are just skipping in your back garden then you probably won’t worry about this. But if you are out on a long distance run, for example, then it could be a literal life saver.
Good footwear is a must. Don’t let it become restrictive. This will slow down blood flow to the feet and toes, make them feel colder, and potentially cause more serious issues. The same goes for all our clothing actually.
This is yet another reason that I like foot-shaped shoes, as they tend to have ample space in the toe box to allow some snuggly woollen socks. Bear in mind that many minimalist shoes have very little insulatory benefits in the sole. Transition shoes such as Altra may be a better option.
If the ground surface is slippery due to ice, then it’s worth investing in some ice cleats. My cleats of choice are the Due North Everyday ice cleats. If I’m running in thick snow and ice I pop on a pair of running crampons like these.
I also like to run with running poles for extra stability when its icy.
The worst thing in the world after having a lovely workout outside is having to cut off frost bitten toes with a jigsaw. So keep them warm and dry.
Be safe, be seen
With the shorter days and reduced visibility in winter, it’s no time to be subtle, it’s time to stand out.
Hi-vis and reflective wear is the ticket. Light yourself up like a Christmas tree with flashing lights to add to effect. If I’m running, you could one of these kinetic lights that uses your own motion to power the LEDs.
I also wear a headtorch at night, and carry it with me anytime I’m anywhere remote, just in case. It makes me visible and lights up my path ahead of me to avoid stumbling.
Don’t forget your extremities. ALL EXTREMITIES!
A hat and gloves are vital to have on you even if you don’t use them. As we get cold, our brain will draw warm blood away from our extremities to preserve the core organs, so help them out with gloves and hats.
I love a neck gaiter/snood as an extra layer that can cover my mouth and nose on really cold days.
Lads, if you spend a lot of time out in the cold, you also might want to invest in some thermal pants for the other extremities.
Dress as if it’s 10 degrees warmer
If you are moving in a way that generates a lot of heat, maybe don’t wrap up quite so much. If you start sweating a lot, then remove the warmer outer layers, the sweat will chill and you can end up really cold and in some bother.
The trick is to dress as if it’s about 10 degrees warmer. Yes, you’ll be a little cold at the beginning, but you’ll thank me in no time at all.
Carry some spares
If I’m out and about in winter, especially on extended jaunts, I always take a backpack with some spares and extra kit. You can add some food, drinks, emergency kit and a mobile phone too.
Treat it like a loaded carry/rucking session.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
With all these clothes, make sure you put them on before you really need them. Getting really cold and then putting stuff on does not have the same effect at all.
Sometimes, it’s just better to stay at home. Don’t put yourself at risk or risk the lives of others that will have to come and rescue you.
Again, leave your ego at home.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…until it does actually kill you.
It’s true adding some hardship and stress to the system can act as a hormetic stressor that promotes positive adaptation.
But it’s worth knowing the signs of hypothermia, because you’ll be dead before you adapt.
Signs of hypothermia include:
- Exhaustion or feeling very tired.
- Fumbling hands.
- Memory loss.
- Slurred speech.
Basically if you are shivering excessively, you need to get warmed up asap.
Another sign that I use a lot is hand dexterity. If I can’t lift my pinky to my thumb, that’s a sure sign that I need to get in and have something warm to drink.
Sometimes, people confuse hypothermia with drunkenness due to the ‘UMBLE’ behaviour – fumble, stumble, grumble and mumble. So look out for that.
There you have it, a basic guide to getting out and moving in the winter to gain all the wonders and power of moving your body in nature.
Stay safe and have fun.
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