When the Going Gets Cold, the Cold Get Burning:
The Benefits of Training in a Cold Environment
Year round training outdoors can be tough for those of living in the midwest and northeast. Even with the relatively mild winters we've enjoyed in recent years, working out when the temps dip into the single digits can be a challenge (unless you're the hardest of hard core, see photo below). I've spent hundreds of dollars on cold weather cycling gear but the hour it takes me to find everything, suit up, (then realize right before I leave the house that I have to go the bathroom) and finally get outdoors timewise equals a great Spinning® session and 90 minute hot yoga class at the gym. Once I'm on my bike and on the road it feels great, but in my advancing years I find myself preferring the relatively easy creature comforts of a Spinning® class over a winter road ride.
But before you settle in to your snuggies on the couch in front of the fire post Zumba class, please be aware that research suggests that exercising in a cold environment provides many physical benefits over warmer climes.
Will you burn more calories when you exercise outdoors in the winter? Perhaps. If you take the same workout you'd do indoors, your body has to work harder to get your heart rate up and research has shown that insulin is lower in colder temps, which may help promote fat burning. There are however several more established benefits to winter outdoor training:
- All of those extra winter clothes make you work harder & when walking on slippery surfaces you are more likely to engage your core (careful not to fall). Here in western New York, us natives have perfected the "penguin walk" and it's a daily part of typical winter life. I'd rather look silly shuffling upright than sitting on my butt on the ice.
- Getting your blood pumping outdoors can help boost your white blood cell count & immune system. Germs love hot & sweaty environments like the gym. One of reasons why people get fewer colds in the summer is because they spend more time outdoors, not because cold weather causes colds (it doesn't).
- Marathon times improve the lower the outdoor tempertaure, and worsen as the temperature increases above 50º.
- Cold weather sunshine can help fight SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). It's hard to wallow in the winter blues when you're outside running, walking, riding, skiing, skating, etc. especially when you're with a buddy.
- Some studies have shown that cold temperatures stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for rest, digestion, & repair) which can trigger the release of dopamine & serotonin, the chemicals that keep you happy.
If you decide to venture out, this is the time for endurance training, what cyclists call LSD (long slow distance) as opposed to interval training. Your heart & your muscles will thank you.
Keep your extremities protected. My toes are always freezing when I ride outside in brisk weather no matter how thick my shoes covers, and I've found that a double pair of socks with a layer of saran wrap in between is the only thing that works for me. I've heard of dozens of tricks for staying warm when exercising outdoors in the winter, and like anything else it really is about finding what works for you. Modern synthetic fabrics like Gore-tex® are most likely to keep you warm throughout your workout and wick away sweat from the skin, although some people swear by wool or silk.
If you have any other tips or advice for outdoor training in the cold, please leave them in the comments below. I'm heading outside now into the snowy Buffalo winter for a walk, and plan to bring a little Happy Feet to my neighborhood.