What You Need to Know About Training Outdoors This Winter

What You Need to Know About Training Outdoors This Winter

Training through the winter doesn’t have to mean hibernating in your pain cave — here’s how to enjoy outdoor training even in the coldest conditions.

Depending on where you live in the Northern Hemisphere, winter weather can stretch from early November to late March. It isn’t unusual for most triathletes to withdraw to their ‘pain caves’ during this time, huddling in the dark with their trainers, free weights, and treadmills until spring when they emerge like bears from hibernation.

It doesn’t have to be this way — there are lots of people who continue to train outdoors all winter, and by most accounts they enjoy it immensely. You, too, can become one of these all-season outdoor training athletes, with just a little extra preparation. Here’s how to enjoy the invigorating cold air, beautiful scenery, and peaceful atmosphere of winter training.

Staying Warm

Obviously, winter temperatures are the number-one reason most athletes choose to train indoors rather than venture outside, but this need not be the case. With the right clothing, you really can train comfortably on all but the coldest days. A few things to consider:

  • Like Shrek, you want to think of yourself “like an onion,” which means layering. Layering allows you to respond to the natural progression of body heat through exercise: you’ll be colder at the start of your activity and get warmer through the middle, before possibly feeling colder again towards the end. Opening or removing layers and then closing or replacing them can help keep you in a constant state of comfort.
  • Moisture is the enemy of warmth, so inner layers need to be effective at managing perspiration. Merino wool garments are the undisputed choice here, as they not only wick moisure, but remain effective at keeping you warm even when damp.
  • Wind also tends to remove body heat much faster than still air. That’s why even the slightest breeze can make a not-so-cold day feel that much chillier, and why the temperature seems to drop as soon as you get moving on the bike. Outer layers that have a wind-blocking fabric will help minimize wind chill and keep you warmer.
  • Don’t forget your face and hands. Even if you are really well bundled up, you will feel uncomfortable if your hands are cold. The same goes for your face, so ensure you have really good quality mitts or gloves and some sort of face warmer for the coldest days.

Choosing an Activity

Whether you tweak your usual workouts or add some crosstraining to your plan, it’s possible to enjoy a variety of activities outside in the winter.

Cycling can be done over the winter months but obviously not in the way that you would in the summer. Although the roads may be clear, it is important to be aware of the presence of black ice, especially early in the day. It’s best to avoid roadways that don’t get direct sunlight. An alternative to riding your regular road bike is to take up the challenge of fat biking. If you’re not willing to invest in an oversized bike, look up rentals in your area — nordic skiing centers often offer rental bikes and provide well-marked trails for a great workout.

With respect to running, proper footwear is vital not only for warmth but for minimizing the chances of slipping and falling on snow and ice-covered roads. If you run often in wet conditions, a shoe with a waterproof upper can help keep your feet drier, and trail running shoes with a more aggressive tread can improve your odds of staying upright. For really icy trails, you may also want to invest in some traction aids like YakTrax or MicroSpikes. If you do use these, just be sure to take them off when running on dry pavement or rocks, as they can actually worsen grip on that surface.

Another great option is to take up a winter sport, like nordic skiing or snowshoeing. These sports will give you great aerobic benefits and are generally high-output, which means you’ll stay warm.

Lighting

Winter means shorter daylight hours, and if you’re balancing outdoor training with a day-job, you’ll most likely find yourself pushing workouts into the dark now and then. Seeing (and being seen by drivers and other trail users) is an important element of these workouts.

One option is to simply choose well-lit roads or paths, but if you’re venturing outside an urban area you’ll want to add some reflective or even lighted clothing. A lightweight headlamp can also be extremely useful for areas where lighting is absent or low.

If you’re cycling into the dark (or even just the twilight) you’ll want to make sure you have a (charged!) taillight and bar light to keep you visible from all angles. Consider adding some reflective and/or hi-vis clothing to your winter kit as well.

Staying Hydrated

Although you are more prone to dehydration in the summer months when the temperature is higher, the dehydrating effects of dry, winter air cannot be overstated. Athletes often underestimate how much fluid they need to take in during the winter and subsequently become fluid-depleted.

It is important to carry fluids and to drink continuously whenever you undertake outdoor activities of more than an hour or so during winter. To keep your bottles from freezing, start with hot water from the tap, which can buy you a little more time. Insulated bottles can also help keep fluids from freezing.

Be Aware of Frostbite

Even the most prepared athletes will sometimes suffer frostbite during a training session, so a brief overview of this thermal injury is warranted at this point. Like burns, frostbite is graded by the depth and degree of tissue that becomes injured from freezing. First-degree frostbite is the most common and has no lasting effects, but is painful as the affected tissue warms up. Second- and third-degree frostbite are progressively deeper injuries and are distinguished from first degree by the presence of blisters. This type of injury is tetanus prone, so if you are not up-to-date on your vaccines, this is your reason to see your physician to get a booster.

Fourth-degree frostbite is the most severe and involves all layers of tissue right to the bone and can have important longterm consequences. This degree of frostbite is commonly seen in mountaineers or those who spend extended periods of time outdoors in extreme environments.

All frostbite — except for fourth degree, which requires emergency evaluation — should be managed with gentle rewarming either in warm air or water. Rubbing the affected area is discouraged. First-degree frostbite requires no additional treatment. Second and third-degree frostbite should be evaluated by a physician within 24-48 hours and you need to watch for signs of infection. The most important thing to remember about frostbite is that an area that has been affected is injured and prone to refreezing at a higher temperature for a period thereafter. If re-exposed to the cold, the injury can become more significant, so it is critical to protect any frostbitten areas and ensure they do not refreeze again.

With a few careful considerations, anyone can enjoy outdoor training during the winter. While it may take a little extra preparation, winter training can be rewarding, invigorating, and even beautiful! Train hard, and train healthy.

Dr. Jeff Sankoff

Jeff Sankoff is an Emergency Physician, long time triathlete and USAT/IRONMAN University Certified coach. He has completed 6 IRONMAN races (including Kona) and more than fifty races at the 70.3 distance including 5 World Championships. He produces the TriDoc Podcast that can be found on most popular podcast platforms and iWork’s with LifeSport Coaching. You can learn more about him at his website: TriDoc Coaching.