Tips for exercise in cold weather

The winter is a time where people often struggle to maintain their exercise routines. While Charleston does not regularly experience below-freezing temperatures, it does become cold enough to deter many avid runners and other athletes. The winter months and their cold temperatures should not provide an excuse not to exercise. In addition to helping to improve cardiovascular conditioning, burn calories, and lose weight, exercise during this period can improve overall health. It has been shown that regular exercise can decrease the incidence of common illnesses, such as colds. It has also been suggested that exercise might improve mental health, boost energy, and prevent or reduce depression. Spending hours in the gym to lift weights or repeatedly use treadmills and elliptical machines can become tiresome. However, with appropriate planning and adherence to some basic clothing and exercise principles, almost anyone can get a great workout outdoors in cold weather.


Many runners and outdoor exercise enthusiasts do not have access to an indoor track or workout facilities. These tips can make exercise in the cold bearable.

The main point to remember about clothing for outdoor, cold-weather exercise is to wear layers. One thick, heavy layer can cause the athlete to become too warm, and there is no way to adjust to changing body temperature. Layers allow the athlete to remove a garment or put it back on to adjust to changes in temperature and the body’s heat production. It is thought that a combination of three layers is optimal to prevent heat loss. The innermost layer should consist of polyester fabric that wicks away moisture from the body. Cotton should be avoided since it absorbs sweat and could keep the body wet. The second layer can be thin or heavy depending on the climate and exercise. Usually fleece, down, wool, or synthetic fabrics make good second layers that can be put on or removed as needed. Finally, the outermost layer should be a windproof and waterproof shell. Nylon fabrics such as Gore-Tex and similar materials are sufficiently breathable but repel wind and water. The goal with all layered clothing is to stay warm and prevent heat loss without causing overheating and excessive sweating.

Avoid Overdressing
Wearing too many layers or clothing that is too thick and warm can be detrimental as well. Running and other forms of strenuous outdoor exercise can make the athlete feel as if it 20-30 warmer. Overdressing can lead to more sweating than the appropriate amount and layers would generate, and that sweating can cause the body to become wet and cold. In general, if dressed with appropriately, one should feel slightly cold when starting to exercise.

Protect the Head and Extremities
Layered clothing does a tremendous job at keeping the outdoor athlete warm. However, it is important to protect the head, hands, and feet. To minimize the amount of heat lost, the body decreases blood flow to the hands and feet. Wearing gloves or mittens on the hands and a pair of warm, moisture-wicking socks on the feet will usually protect the extremities. Wearing a hat can decrease the large percentage of body heat that is normally lost from the head in cold weather.

Sunglasses and Sunscreen
Often snow and ice can reflect a tremendous amount of sunlight. One should wear sunglasses to protect eyes against the light and glare. Wearing sunscreen on the face and using lip balm with sunscreen to block ultraviolet rays and prevent sunburn is important in the winter, just as it is in the summer. Tweet this tip.

Snow is not a typical condition in the Charleston area, but it is possible for wet areas of roads and other running surfaces to freeze. Also snow and ice are common in other parts of the country where many people travel during this season. To decrease the chance of slipping and suffering an injury, wearing appropriate shoes in these conditions is critical. Shoes with studs or prominent tread can help on trails or slick roads and sidewalks. Checking shoes for excessive wear and changing to newer shoes if the current ones are worn out is important as well.

Athletes often forget to drink enough water or sports drinks in the winter. Body fluids are still lost through sweating and breathing in cold months just as they are in the heat of the summer months. Drinking enough water or sports drinks before and during exercise and replacing fluids after exercise are just as important in the winter. Often putting slightly warm fluids in water bottles before going outside will help keep the fluids from getting too cold to drink.

Run into the Wind
Running experts recommend that it is better to run into the wind at the beginning of a run. Sweat production increases as exercise continues. If the second half of a run is directed into a strong wind, the air flowing past a runner with clothes damp with sweat can feel extremely cold and cause a drop in body temperature. It is probably better to run into the wind at the onset when one has not started to sweat and have the wind at the back later in the run.

Recognize and Avoid Hypothermia and Frostbite
Serious injury from cold temperatures, such as hypothermia and frostbite, are not common in this area. However, athletes must recognize the signs of these conditions and prevent them. Loss of feeling, tingling, or loss or color in the face, hands, fingers, and toes are signs that frostbite could be developing. Mental status changes such as confusion or disorientation, slurred speech, and uncontrolled shivering can be signs of impending hypothermia. If the athlete is concerned about these types of changes, he or she needs to get into a warmer environment immediately and slowly warm the body and the parts that are affected.

Note: This post appears in the STOP Sports Injuries blog, and a modified version of this post appears in the USTA SCoop – the USTA South Carolina blog.

7 Responses to Tips for exercise in cold weather

  1. […] away, the second should be heavy fleece or wool to insulate, and the third should be breathable waterproof material to repel wind and rain. Avoid cotton, since it will lose its insulating powers when we […]

Leave a reply

Please note: I cannot and will not provide specific medical information within these comments, just as I won't anywhere else. Also, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive, off-topic, or spam. If you have questions, please read My Comments Policy.

david-headshot I am an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston, South Carolina.

On this blog, on my podcast, and in articles for numerous publications and in media interviews, I aim to provide you leading commentary and education on injury treatment and prevention to keep you performing at your best! Learn more about me >>


I'm excited to help with information and interviews for print, radio, television, and online media. Media information >>


Writing I write articles and columns for a number of publications and organizations. Writing information >>
Sports Medicine Simplified: A Glossary of Sports Injuries, Treatments, Prevention and Much More

Learn more about the glossary >>
© 2017 Dr. David Geier Enterprises, LLC

Site Designed by Launch Yourself