T he first thing to go is motivation, when the days get short and the temperatures drop and the outside world becomes a hostile place for exercise.
Which is why the first thing to change when winterizing your workout is your mind. Everything else, while important, comes in second place in the race to stay in shape.
Instead of focusing on the terrible weather, said Scott Jones, director of health and well-being at the Treasure Valley YMCA’s Downtown branch, latch onto a goal, and hold on for dear life.
“Last year, for example, it was 20 inches of snow for months, the sidewalks were slippery, the roads were slippery, you couldn’t get out of your house, it was just terrible conditions for working out outside,” Jones said. “But if you knew that in February or March or April you had an event or a goal that you were trying to reach, that can help get you up and out of the house doing something.”
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For Jones, a certified personal trainer and avid runner, the goal was the Race to Robie Creek, a grueling April half-marathon. Yours doesn’t have to be that strenuous. A February cruise to hike the pyramids in Mexico? Perfect. Spending the holidays with those active grandkids? Check.
“I know from a training perspective, it’s finding those goals and helping people keep them in the forefront of their vision,” Jones said. “If you have a goal that involves anything warm ... getting up and envisioning: ‘Where am I going to be? It’s going to be 75 degrees, and I’m going to be running on the beach.’ That can help stimulate that movement out of the house.”
After motivation, safety is the paramount consideration, whether you are running, cycling, hiking or simply taking a brisk walk on the Boise River Greenbelt. And safety requires preparation.
The American College of Sports Medicine said it’s perfectly safe to exercise in the elements if you’re smart about it.
“The greatest occurrence of hypothermia happens when people are not prepared for it,” the ACSM stated in its position paper, “Prevention of Cold Injuries during Exercise.” “Cold, wet, and windy weather poses the greatest risk for developing hypothermia. ... Remaining dry, especially for those exercising in remote regions, is extremely important.”
Be careful about hydration
Be careful about hydration; when skin temperatures drop significantly, “thirst is less noticeable in cold compared to hot weather.” Because feet sweat even in the cold, change your socks at least twice a day if you’re wearing heavy boots while hiking or skiing.
John W. Castellani, a research physiologist with the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, was the main author of the ACSM paper. He said the Army’s research into safety and outdoor exertion stemmed from a 1995 incident in which five Army Rangers died of hypothermia while training.
“To stay warm, the body does one of two things,” Castellani said. “It shivers, and that makes heat. The second thing is we constrict our blood flow to our skin. That lowers the amount of heat lost to the environment.
“People will go out, and their exercise metabolism is OK when they’re dry, and then they get wet, they get fatigued, they can’t generate as much heat,” he said, a circumstance that applies to winter runners, hikers, snowshoers, bicyclists and skiers alike. “As people become fatigued, they slow down, and if they’re wet, people dump a lot more heat.”
Castellani cautions outdoor exercisers not to go out alone in winter if they’ll be far from home. He also suggests that people engage in some kind of activity, such as jumping jacks, before they go out into the cold. A pre-exercise warm-up allows them to tolerate cold better.
The YMCA’s Jones throws in another precaution: The best way not to slip on snowy, wet or icy pavement while hiking or running is to work on core strength and balance.
“Even just getting up out of bed and spending a couple minutes doing a plank pose, that’s going to help extremely with core strength,” Jones said. Plank is basically the position your body is in at the top of a pushup — balancing on toes and hands with straight arms. For even more benefit, try doing an engaged plank, tightening every muscle while on toes and hands.
And for balance? Practice standing on one foot for a minute, then the other and repeat. It’s a subtle but powerful exercise that can be done while washing dishes, brushing teeth, watching television or waiting in line for that latte.
Winter running means changing gait, proper gear
Rich Harris, co-owner of Bandanna Running & Walking in Boise, has been running year-round since his teens in suburban Chicago.
Harris, who raced professionally, said he would rather stay in bed than run on a treadmill. And he loves running on city streets in light snow, when the flakes muffle sound and the world is quiet and still.
But it’s not like regular running. Depending on the conditions, you have to change gait for safety’s sake, he said. Your stride needs to be shorter. You need to run more on mid-foot rather than strike the ground with your heel first so your feet don’t fly out from underneath you if you hit a patch of ice. And you need to slow down.
“You just have to pay attention a lot more when you run in the winter when the ground is wet or snowy,” Harris said. “I understand why people don’t want to do it. It’s a lot to deal with. It’s hard to get into your natural rhythm and zip along.”
It also helps to have proper gear, clothing and shoes that keep you warm and dry and safe, available at all price points.
“I can show you very expensive stuff over here,” Harris says, gesturing to the full racks in his 23-year-old shop, where it’s easy to blow through $500 to get outfitted from head to toe. “But you can do it going to Walmart or with what you’ve got in the house right now. ... The important thing is to go out and train and race.”
His first piece of advice is to layer: Something light that wicks away moisture next to your skin, followed by a jacket for protection from wind and light rain. If you run cold, heavier running pants, such as SportHill’s XC model for $135 will fill the bill; if you run hot, the lighter Voyage for $85 is a good bet.
Don’t forget a headband or hat and gloves or mittens. The Saucony Ulti-Mitt for $35 is a popular item at Bandanna. It’s a glove with a kind of hood that pulls over the fingers for extra warmth or tucks into a pocket on the back of the hand when not in use. And, as the store display boasts, it’s “fleece backed for nose wipe.”
Shoes are also key. Some runners prefer trail shoes in winter, the Saucony Peregrine at $120 for example. The shoe has heavier tread and a hard rubber sole that grips better than a regular running shoe. It is much clunkier, however, when running on pavement. Others buy traction devices such as Yaktrax cleats that strap on over a regular running shoe.
Yaktrax “give you a nice sense of security versus slipping and sliding,” Harris said. “Last year we sold 45 to 50 pairs. That’s more than 10 years combined, practically. Last year was such an anomaly — we hope.”
Harris said weather conditions don’t affect his shoe selection, but they do affect his running clothes. His shoe of choice all year is the $150 Brooks Glycerin, which “has a very flat bottom. You’re not thinking, ‘There’s a great shoe for traction, but that shoe works for me.’ ”
Because he runs cold, Harris said, he wears the SportHill XC pant, which is made of the company’s 3SP fabric and is windproof to 35 miles an hour. His base layer is any short-sleeved shirt that wicks moisture, and his outer layer of choice is any long-sleeved SportHill top made of 3SP. He tops it all off with a headband, but stays away from gloves.
Fatter tires for cyclists
And for all you cyclists out there, winter doesn’t mean you’re stuck on a stationary bike or resigned to months of overheated spin classes.
If you have $1,500 or more to spend, a fat-tire bike is the way to go. George’s Cycles will start carrying Specialized’s version of the chunky cycle in late November. The men’s version is called “Fatboy,” the women’s is the more politically correct “Hellga.”
Fat-tire bikes “usually have about a 4-inch tire or above,” said Joe Renaldo, sales manager at George’s. “They’re built for riding on the snow. You can ride them on the sand dunes. But they work just like a snowshoe. The more tread you can have, the wider surface you can ride on, the easier it can be. You can float above that snow and really get a lot of grip.”
If you don’t want to shell out that much cash, Renaldo said, you can put fatter tires on your regular bike. They run between $25 and $50 each. Wider tires don’t need much clearance — a few millimeters is probably enough — but if you’re not sure about the proper size, you always can bring your bike into a bike shop for advice.
You also might want to buy a set of fenders. They’re around $45 a pair; your jacket and your bike will thank you.
“If you’re going to have a fender on there, which I suggest, because the last thing you want to do is have all that wetness either up on your backpack or a big stripe up your back,” Renaldo said, “then it will mean you have to have a little bit skinnier tire in there.”
Paul Schoenfelder, recreation manager for the Boise Parks and Recreation Department, has been a regular bicycle commuter for the past 20 years. When winter rolls around, he said, safety comes first. He makes sure his bike is in good working condition, because winter roads are hard on two-wheeled vehicles.
“Bicyclists should ride on the right-most side of the right-most appropriate lane where it is safe to operate a bicycle,” Schoenfelder said. “If it is icy and slick and not passable, adjust where in the road you ride. Wear a helmet, headlights, tail lights and as much reflective gear as visible as possible.”
He knows whereof he speaks. On one brutal winter about five years ago, he said, he was riding on the far right side of the road. Light snow had obscured the surface. He didn’t realize the gutter was solid ice.
“I moved over to the right side of the road, wiped out and bashed my head on the road,” Schoenfelder said. “If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, I wouldn’t have been going to work that day.”
Freelance writer Maria L. La Ganga is a former reporter and editor at the Los Angeles Times.