Unless you’re vacationing on a tropical beach, the chill of winter can sometimes present a challenge to training as usual. But as long as you are prepared—and dress the part—winter can be an incredibly rewarding time of the year to train outside. Here are a few tips on how to dress appropriately for winter training.
Despite cooler temperatures, the body still sweats when exercising in cold weather. And highly trained athletes are especially adept at triggering the sweat mechanism. The key to dealing with sweat during cold weather training is to wear layers of technical materials.
Technical materials wick the moisture away from the skin, keeping you drier and warmer as the intensity heats up. There are many synthetic materials that do the job, including polypropylene, nylon, polyester, spandex, and various blends. In addition, wool is an excellent natural material.
But stay away from cotton. The same reason you want cotton in your bath towel is the same reason you want to avoid it while working out. Cotton excels at absorbing water and sweat. There’s nothing worse than a layer of cold sweat trapped next to your body while exercising outside during winter.
Once you’ve chosen appropriate materials, the next step is to dress in layers. This means wearing a few layers of lighter weight items, rather than a single thick one. When you first step outside, you will need more warmth until you are into the workout. But once you get going (or as the weather changes), you want the ability to remove or add layers to regulate your temperature.
Start with a lightweight, breathable base layer. End with an outer layer appropriate to the conditions. If it is windy, wear a jacket with some wind protection. If it is rainy or snowy, wear a jacket that provides wetness protection. If it is calm and sunny, opt for a more breathable outer layer such as fleece or wool or another cold weather shirt to wear over your bottom layer. If you are cycling, be sure to stuff a wind vest in your jersey pocket for descents. Arm warmers and leg warmers are also items every cyclist should own.
Protect the head and neck. A great deal of heat escapes from these areas of the body. Choose a hat or headband made of technical materials to keep the warmth in and wick away the sweat. A hat that covers the top of the head will be warmer than a headband that merely wraps around the ears. Cyclists will want to choose a beanie or skullcap that fits beneath the helmet. A turtleneck or neck gaiter can keep the neck extra warm. In really cold weather, a balaclava provides extra coverage for the face.
The extremities—feet and hands—are especially prone to cold. As body temperature drops, blood from the extremities is shunted to the core. This can shield against oncoming hypothermia (low internal body temperature) but can leave the extremities susceptible to frostnip (skin numbness or tingling due to cold) or frostbite (damage due to freezing skin).
For the hands, be sure to wear gloves or mittens that provide appropriate insulation. Fingerless cycling gloves are not the best choice when temperatures drop below 50 degrees, but can work if you wear a glove liner underneath. For more warmth, there are many great fully fingered gloves for cyclists. I always keep around several basic pairs of running gloves since I go through them like socks in the winter. I especially like the lightweight Asics gloves with grips on the palms for dexterity. Snowshoers or skiers should opt for a colder weather glove made for cross country skiing or downhill skiing.
For the feet, keep in mind the points about technical materials made earlier. Avoid cotton. Use synthetic materials or smart wool to wick away moisture and provide insulation. It is usually best to stick with the same thickness of sock you normally wear with your shoes. But you can wear longer versions of that sock to ensure ankle coverage. I especially like to wear compression socks or sleeves to keep my ankles and calves warm during winter training.
For cyclists, neoprene booties, toe covers or shoe covers are indispensable. Below 60 degrees, I start to think about putting on my lightweight Lycra shoe covers and don my neoprene booties below 50 degrees. I hate having cold feet!
For runners or snowshoers, sometimes a larger pair of cycling booties or shoe covers can be used over the top of running shoes if you will be moving through deep snow. Another option is to take a plastic bag and wear this between your socks and shoes. This provides a cheap layer of protection against the elements to keep your feet warm. If you want to get more sophisticated, look for vapor barrier or waterproof socks such as SealSkinz.
Last but not least, don’t forget the underlayer. Remember the rule about cotton. Leave the cotton undies for casual, non-perspiring activities. There are plenty of technical fabric options for men and for women that wick away moisture while providing support, comfort and warmth.
And whether you swim outdoors year round or move indoors during the winter, the chill in the air can make it hard to get into a cold pool. If you are a swimmer that has trouble staying warm during workouts, consider a long sleeve rash guard (designed to fit snug) to provide a layer of insulation.
The trick to staying warm in winter training is preparation. Once you have the appropriate materials, then dress in layers and add/remove items as the conditions warrant. When well equipped, there can be nothing more exhilarating than a good workout outdoors during the winter months. Enjoy!