With the polar vortex behind us, it’s time to get back outside for our regular winter workouts. In Madison, WI, where I live, winter temperatures often fall below 20 degrees, but you’d never guess it from the number of walkers, runners, cyclists and skiers.
For me, exercising outdoors is the best way to keep my mood upbeat during winter. (Having a dog forces the issue—he’s got to be walked three times a day). Turns out my instincts are supported by research. Studies have found that not only do people exercising outside work harder, they report feeling better and they often exercise longer.
Z Living Companion, Alyson Charles, a fitness and wellness coach and national championship runner, cites many reasons to exercise outdoors. “A big component to our overall health and vitality is getting grounded and connected to the Earth, and you can do that simply by taking a walk and being mindful, present and grateful for the loveliness of the world we live in,” says Charles, who has coached Division 1 athletics. “The scenery can help spice up your workout, so you feel more invigorated and less likely to stare at the time, wondering how much longer you have to go.”
Charles says outdoor exercise opens you up to more workout possibilities and doesn’t require any equipment other than a pair of shoes. To really rev up your calorie burn, she recommends running intervals. “Perhaps one minute of walking and two minutes of running, alternating that for 30 minutes total,” she recommends. For committed runners, Charles recommends fartlek workouts. “You cruise for two minutes, go hard for one, and alternate between running at a moderate pace and running hard for at least 20 minutes, up to 40 or so,” she explains.
Exercising outdoors in cold weather challenges your willpower and commitment, which can be a major benefit. “Knowing you challenged yourself in tough conditions provides a wonderful sense of accomplishment that boosts confidence and keeps your fitness momentum flowing,” she explains. So far, the thing that has stopped me this winter hasn’t been frigid temperature, but dangerous ice accumulation.
Unfortunately, not all of my neighbors remove the ice from their sidewalks, so there are some days when I don’t get to run or walk much due to the ice. “There are cleats available to attach to running shoes for better traction,” suggests Charles, “and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are great alternatives to running.”
I’m lucky—Madison is a winter workout paradise, with ice rinks and ski trails all over town. If I can’t run, I turn to one of those options. Staying comfortable during outdoor workouts is all about finding the right attire, says Charles. “Layering is important, as well as wearing athletic clothing that wicks away sweat. Covering exposed skin and wearing a stocking cap is crucial, as most heat loss is from the head. Inhaled cold air is warmed instantly, so there is little danger involved in cold weather exercise.” And, she says, make sure to let at least one other person know about your workout plans. Giving them details on your workout duration and route will help you stay safe.