A Beginner’s Guide to Working Out in Winter

Illustration by James Coreas.

Braving Winter Weather for Outdoor Exercise

When the cold winter winds start blowing, exercising outside seems like one of the worst ways to spend your morning – or any other part of your day. However, with most gyms closed or heavily restricted for in-person services due to Covid-19, outside or at-home workouts are the best options for staying fit this winter. Working out in the winter can be daunting, especially this year, but with preparation and a plan, it doesn’t have to be.

Dressing for the Weather

“There is no such thing as bad weather – only bad clothes,” says Karolin Nilsson, director of Balance Functional Fitness at Balance Gym. Nilsson is a native of Sweden, so while her tolerance for cold might be higher than some, she has a point. Clothes can make or break a workout experience in any temperature, so make sure to have these winter workout essentials.

Tights or pants: Look for bottoms that are insulated and wind resistant. For really cold days, layering tights or pants can be a good option for keeping warm.
Shirt: Layering is key in the cold. Start with a tighter base layer, and depending on the temperature, add another looser long sleeve to stay warm.
Jacket: A lightweight, wind resistant jacket can serve two purposes: blocking the wind and locking in warm air close to your body.
Headband: Headbands keep your ears warm while working out and are less bulky and restrictive than a hat.
Gloves: Lightweight running gloves can keep your fingers and hands from being exposed to the wind.
Face mask: The face mask that you’re already wearing for Covid can double as a way to keep warm while working out in cold weather. Neck gaiters work especially well as running masks because they can be styled in many ways.

Three Dynamic Stretches

Walking Lunge
Target: Glutes, hamstring and hip flexors
How: Step forward into a lunge and keep your front knee in line with your hip and behind your toes, while keeping your back knee from touching the ground. Push off with your back leg and lunge with your opposite leg.

Arm Circles
Target: Shoulders
How: Extend your arms horizontally to either side of your body and move them in small, forward circular motions. After about 10 circles, switch to backwards motions. Repeat with bigger circles until loose.

Leg Swings
Target: Calf, quads and hamstrings
How: Stand on one leg and swing the other forward and back 10 times. Then, swing the same legs from side to side 10 times. Repeat with the other leg.

Warming Up in the Cold

Cold weather makes it harder for muscles to get warm and flexible, which makes our bodies more prone to injury, so a proper warmup in the cold is as important as proper clothing. Before you start a workout, you should already be sweating. Follow these tips to get your blood moving before facing the great outdoors.

Warm up for as long as it takes to get warm. In an interview for Under Armour’s MapMyRun blog, Andrea Fradkin, associate professor of exercise science at Bloomsburg University, said a warmup of less than 10 minutes can improve performance and reduce injury, but warmups in cold weather might take longer.

Warm up inside if you have the space to. It is easier to get warm inside, so warming up before you head out the door can save time.

If inside isn’t an option, wear extra layers while warming up. Any of the essentials listed in this article can be layered, and even if you don’t plan on doing your workout in a jacket and extra pair of pants, added layers will help you get warm faster.

Start with low-intensity cardio exercises. Before any stretches, get your muscles warm by doing active exercises like jogging, skips, butt kicks and high knees.

Once warm, use dynamic stretches to stretch anything that is still tight. Cold muscles don’t stretch as easily, and forcing a stretch before you’re warm could lead to injury. By waiting until your muscles have warmed up, the likelihood of injury decreases. According to Hospital for Special Surgery, an orthopedic hospital, dynamic stretches will continue to increase muscle temperature while warming up, in turn decreasing muscle stiffness.

Karolin’s Expert Corner: Safe Workouts in Winter

Stay hydrated. “It’s hard to do when it’s not warm outside, so I would try to drink water in the morning and evening. In the summer, we want cold water because it tastes good because you’re so overheated, but you don’t have to drink cold water. Maybe keep the water at room temperature, because sometimes when you’re already cold, it’s hard to drink cold water.”

Know the conditions. “When it is getting snowy outside, I would skip running because it is slippery. I would do burpees or things like that instead of going out for a run.”

Use hand warmers. “Don’t forget the hand warmers! Bring hand warmers if your hands are very cold and hold on to them.”

Getting Creative with At-Home Workouts

Outside workouts in the winter aren’t for everyone, and even with gyms cutting back on indoor services due to Covid, there are still ways to work out inside as the weather gets colder. The easiest way is to bring your workout to the comfort of your own home.

Home Essentials

Your home equipment doesn’t need to be as extensive (or expensive) as the equipment as your gym. Devin Maier, co-CEO of Balance Gym, recommends having these pieces of equipment on hand for at-home workouts.

Kettlebell: This versatile weighted ball can be lifted and swung for full body workouts.
Small dumbbells: Small hand weights can be used in HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts.
Sliders: These lightweight disks are used to make bodyweight workouts more challenging. These also have easy home alternatives, like paper plates for carpeted areas or washcloths for hard floors.
Resistance bands: These stretchy bands come in many sizes and resistance levels and are great for arm, shoulder and hip strengthening exercises.

Being at Home Doesn’t Mean You’re on Your Own

Join a gym. Since the pandemic started, many gyms in the area have adapted to the conditions and launched virtual workout programs. Before it gets too cold, some still have outdoor class offerings.

  • Balance Gym: This CrossFit-based gym chain recently launched a virtual training program called Virdio that seeks to replicate the feeling of being in a gym. Learn more at www.balancegym.com.
  • HUSTLE: This studio focuses on HIIT and stationary bike workouts, and all members can sign up for live online classes. For pro and all-access members, a library of on-demand classes is available. Learn more at www.hustle-dc.com.

Find workouts online. YouTube has countless free workouts available to anyone who is interested. Businesses and individual content creators alike regularly upload new workout videos that are free, easy to follow and just a search away.

  • Orangetheory Fitness: This gym chain uploads daily workout videos to their YouTube channel, complete with tutorials, timers and upbeat music. Learn more at www.orangetheory.com.
  • 305 Fitness: This dance-based gym has a series of workout videos on their YouTube channel that give watchers a taste of their “305 at Home” virtual program. Learn more at www.305fitness.com.
  • Yoga with Kassandra: This YouTube channel is one of many run by an individual who uploads workouts. Kassandra specializes in yoga and makes workouts of various intensities for different levels of experience. Find them at www.youtube.com/user/yogawithkassandra.

Devin’s Expert Corner: Staying Motivated

Have a plan and a backup plan.
“Pre-Covid days, you could have a go-to gym or a go-to studio, but I think the tough thing now is there’s a lot of uncertainty. Your studio might have to close down briefly for Covid, so you can’t just rely on one plan when it comes to getting your workout in.”

Set up good habits. “A lot of it is just setting up good habits, which could be having equipment easily at your disposal at home, having a friend that you do this together with – kind of like an accountability buddy, check in from time to time. There are [also] a lot of groups online that can keep you on track and motivated.”

Make small lifestyle changes. “It’s not necessarily small changes in fitness but in your overall general health. You’re more likely to be motivated to exercise because you didn’t stay up too late, you’re not hungover, you’re hydrated. Then it becomes more natural to make sure you are sweating on a somewhat daily basis.”

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