When it's cold outside, most of us feel like hibernating indoors, and exercise often takes a back seat until brighter days beckon. Yet, if you can tear yourself away from the warmth of the fire, training in cold weather can bring plenty of benefits with it.
Improve your mood
Low light levels in winter can reduce the feel-good hormones in our brains, which can make many of us feel down in the dumps during the colder months. Exercise can boost your mood at any time of year, but it has a particularly profound effect during winter, sending those all-important feel-good hormones soaring, and keeping the winter blues at bay. In fact, research has shown that a good workout can be up to four times more effective than taking antidepressants, for improving symptoms of depression. As well as being an effective mood booster and pick-me-up, getting outdoors in the fresh air in cold weather can help replenish vitamin D levels in the skin.
Great for calorie burning
Cold weather training is particularly good when it comes to weight control, for two reasons.
Firstly, during colder weather, the body is programmed to keep hold of calories. This is a throwback survival mechanism designed to get you through the harsh winter. These calories tend to be stored as fat. Combine this with the inclination to overindulge during the festive period, and it's not hard to see how easy it is to pile on the pounds in winter. Training at this time of year is, therefore, an effective way to keep those pesky fat stores in check, so you don't emerge in spring feeling out of shape and sluggish.
Secondly, the good thing about winter training is that the cold weather makes you burn more calories. In order for the body to maintain its core temperature during cold weather, it needs to work that extra bit harder to keep the body warm. Your body's metabolism is forced to work harder, resulting in extra burning of fat and calorie reserves.
Boost your immune system
During cold weather, there tends to be more bugs and viruses doing the rounds, and few of us can escape the winter without succumbing to a cold or even the flu. If you choose to exercise at this time of year, however, you can boost your immune system, helping to fight off common winter infections. Some studies have concluded that training in cold weather may reduce your chances of getting winter viruses by up to 30%, compared to those who shun sport at this time of year.
A great cardiovascular workout
Cold weather forces your body to work harder during training, and this also applies to your cardiovascular system. As the heart works harder to pump blood around the body during cold weather exercise, this invigorating workout helps to keep your heart health in tip-top shape.
Strengthen your stamina
Facing up to the challenge of heading outdoors in the cold to exercise can bolster your stamina and endurance levels. This can improve your health and fitness, and ensures that you perform well and remain in good shape all year round. If you plan to take part in long distance running events, which often take place in spring, cold weather training also gives you the essential practice and preparation you need.
Better than training in hot weather
Cold weather might force us to hunker down indoors, but, actually, training at this time may prove more favourable than training during hot weather. Even when exercising in the cold, you'll quickly warm up once you get going, but when the weather is hot, you may end up feeling drained, sweaty and dehydrated. These risks are less of an issue when you train in cooler temperatures.
Try something new
Training in cold weather gives you the opportunity to try activities that you might not have experienced before. This could include skiing, or even cold-water swimming, which has been proven to alleviate stress, aid body circulation and reduce heart disease risk. If you train in a place that is often busy during the warm weather, such as the beach or park, the good news about exercising in cold weather is that the crowds will be huddled indoors, so you could have your training ground all to yourself!
Improved performance and recovery
With all these health benefits in mind, and the fact that you're choosing to train under conditions when most others wouldn't bother, you're helping to improve your fitness levels and performance, all year round. Regular exercise boosts your performance, but also aids the recovery time following exercise. If you suffer from any specific health complaints or injuries, where staying mobile is important for keeping symptoms at bay, maintaining your training in all weathers can be an essential part of recovery.
There are risks you need to consider when exercising in any type of weather, but certain aspects should be particularly taken into account if you venture for a workout outdoors when it's cold.
Not warming up properly
You should always carry out warm up exercises before training sessions, to get your muscles and joints ready for action, and to avoid causing injuries. It can be a shock to the system for the body going from a warm house to the cold outdoors when exercising, so taking the extra care to get your body revved up for movement is vital during chilly conditions. A drop in temperature can also be a risk factor for occurrence of achilles paratendinitis in those who train in cold weather. Warming up before exercise is thought to reduce this risk, however.
If you're feeling cold before you start exercising, it's easy to see why you could be tempted to pile on lots of warming layers for your training session. The problem with this is, as your body warms up from exercising, you run the risk of overheating. This could cause sweating and skin chaffing, and will undoubtedly make you feel uncomfortable during your training, which could impact on your performance.
Try to remember that you'll warm up quickly when training, even during cold weather, and instead, opt for loose, breathable layers. Of course, much depends on the activity you're undertaking, and a short walk may command different types of clothing compared to a lengthy run.
By the same token, it's important that you wear enough layers so you don't suffer from hypothermia, especially if you're undertaking extreme activities, such as cold water swimming. You're already at greater risk from hypothermia when training during wet or cold conditions, so taking precautions so that your body is protected with the right clothing can be a matter of life or death. If you experience symptoms such as slurred speech, uncontrollable shivering or loss of coordination, seek medical help immediately.
Not supporting your body
Training in cold weather places extra demands on your body, so it's vital that you're prepared for this and that you protect yourself in whatever way possible. The correct type of footwear is essential, to cope with conditions such as damp, ice, snow or mud, and to prevent slipping or falling over. The extra strains on your body may require you to take care of previous injuries by wearing appropriate supports or braces.
Although you might associate getting dehydrated with exercising during hot weather, it is still something to bear in mind when the temperature plummets. Dehydration may be harder to spot when it's cold, but it is still important that you drink plenty of fluids and stay hydrated, no matter what the weather.
Another thing we don't associate with cold weather training, but is, nevertheless, a concern at any time of year, is protecting the skin from sunburn. Even when the weather is cold, you can still get burnt by the sun, especially if you are training at high altitudes. Slap on the sunscreen, and protect your eyes, if necessary, by wearing goggles.
When you're out in the cold, blood flow is concentrated on your body's core, leaving your extremities - hands, feet, cheeks, nose and head - susceptible to frostbite. Make sure you're aware of the symptoms of frostbite before they occur - namely, a stinging feeling or numbness. Avoid rubbing the skin, as this can damage it.
To help prevent frostbite during outdoor training sessions in cold weather, wear gloves and a hat, and put these on before you start to feel the cold set in. Consider buying footwear that’s slightly larger than your usual size, to accommodate thermal socks. Look for items that are designed for use during cold weather exercise, so that they're warm, yet breathable, and provide the optimum comfort requirements for training. Bear in mind that it's not just the cold that can increase frostbite risk, but the wind chill can penetrate clothing and deplete the insulating warmth surrounding your body.
By knowing the risks and taking the necessary precautions, however, you can still gain a multitude of benefits from your cold weather training.