How to Stay Safe When Exercising in Cold Weather

Follow these guidelines to stay safe and perform your best when exercising or competing in cold weather.

The dangers of exercising in the heat get a lot of attention. But cold weather presents a different set of problems, which can impair your performance and put your health at risk.

Whether you're playing playoff football in December, going for a run in the snow, skiing or playing hockey in an extra cold rink, you must adjust your regular habits to account for how cold affects your body.

The folks at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute put together a set of guidelines to help athletes stay safe when training in cold temperatures.

Acclimatize to the Cold

When preparing to train in the heat, you can actually acclimatize your body by exercising in increasingly warmer temperatures. The same goes for the cold.

The main benefit is psychologically preparing yourself to handle uncomfortably cold temperatures and still perform at a high level. According to Dr. John Castellani, a physiologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, Thermal Physiology & Medical Division, the body does physiologically acclimatize to the cold, but this doesn't seem to have an impact on intense exercise.

If you regularly exercise outside, the falling temperatures of early winter do the job for you. But if you're not used to it and you have a cold event of some type coming up, it may be best to exercise for 10 minutes or so to prepare your mind and get used to the cold.

Remember to Hydrate

You probably won't sweat as profusely as you do when you work out in the summer sun, and this can give you a sense that you don't need to drink as much water.

Certainly you'll still sweat, but the cold actually suppresses your thirst. To make matters worse, you may actually lose more fluid through your breath. "Cold air is usually associated with dry air; thus there is an increase in respiratory water loss during cold-air exercise," explains Dr. Castellani.

According to Dr. Ken Rundell, a physiologist at the U.S Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, athletes should consume about eight ounces of a sports drink, which contains carbohydrates and electrolytes, every 15 to 20 minutes.

Always Warm Up

This is a no brainer preceding any type of exercise, but it's particularly important during cold weather. A dynamic warm-up prepares your body for activity by increasing blood flow, activating your central nervous system, improving range of motion and, you guessed it, warming up your body.

Luckily for you, the body is an amazing furnace. Through thermogenesis, it can generate sufficient heat to maintain your body temperature, and it generates 10 to 20 times more heat during exercise, according to Castellani. A dynamic warm-up safely starts your "furnace" by gradually increasing the intensity of activity before a workout, practice or game. And, you'll be less likely to sustain an injury from tight, cold muscles.

Adjust Your Equipment

If it's especially cold, you need to wear additional layers and cover exposed skin where possible. This includes your head in a helmet, so try wearing a head sock. Also, avoid wearing wet or damp apparel and equipment, which accelerates hyperthermia. Wear extra warm socks and/or water resistant shoes if you're running outside. Or if you have a break—such as halftime—take that time to put on a fresh pair of socks.

You also need to think beyond warmth. Pepper Burress, head athletic trainer for the Green Bay Packers, has experience keeping his players healthy on the frozen tundra that Lambeau Field can become. "The lack of footing (traction) leads to slipping and possible collisions with the frozen surface (leading to contusions)," he says. Burress advises to experiment with footwear and cleat length on frozen surfaces to obtain better traction.

Stay Inside When It's Too Cold

If you find you're shivering, your body is involuntarily attempting to protect itself by generating more heat through rapid muscle contraction. If you are shivering, odds are you won't be at your full capacity.

"If the conditions are such that the athlete is shivering, then training may not be up to standard since shivering (an involuntary muscle contraction) may cause a loss of fine motor control," explains Castellani. 

Monitor Asthmatic Symptoms

Many of us have experienced exercise-induced asthma, especially when competing in cold weather. This is something I personally struggled with. It was most problematic when I was skating for the first time during hockey season or when playing in a particularly cold rink.

Apparently this is fairly common. Dr. Rundell says exercise-induced asthma, technically called exercise-induced bronchospasm, is three times more likely to occur when you exercise in cold weather—even among elite athletes. Symptoms include "labored breathing, dyspnea, chest tightness, excessive mucus and post- (or during) exercise cough or wheeze."

Dr. Rundell advises warming up 30 minutes prior to competition to trigger the response and allowing it to subside before you actually compete. But this only works for some people, so you may need to see a doctor. Also, you can try wearing a facemask, which increases the temperature and humidity of the air you breathe.

RELATED: Weight Room Got You Down? Try These Winter Outdoor Workouts

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Topics: TRAIN