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Health & Exercise Forum

Walk or Run Safely This Winter: Part 2 of 2

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Jan 31, 2011

Dr. Mackarey's Health & Exercise ForumMany people living in Northeastern Pennsylvania exercise outdoors year round. The psychological benefits are many. We live in such a beautiful environment. Each season brings its own unique beauty and winter is no different. Most will not have to abandon outdoor activities but you must make some adjustments in equipment, clothing and food for each season and temperature changes that go with it.

These tips are appropriate for those who did well in the Steamtown Marathon in October, qualified for the Boston Marathon in the spring, and will be training all winter. Furthermore, those who enjoy winter exercise through walking, running, snow shoeing or cross country skiing will also benefit from this information. Consider the importance of making changes and adjustments in training according to the weather and temperature.

Over the past several years, great strides have been made on understanding the effects of extreme temperatures on performance. Current wisdom from the University of Otago in New Zealand has found:


  • Optimal warm-up in cold weather is very different than in the heat
  • Spend more time warming up followed by slow, gentle stretching in cold temps.

The Brain

  • Can anticipate changes in body temperature, with feedback from the skin, and will adjust the intensity automatically. Subconsciously, the brain calculates the outside temperature and the duration of the activity and will automatically slow down the performance even before fatigue occurs.
  • If the performer attempts to override the brain, the cerebrum will respond by creating severe symptoms and sensation of exhaustion such as those associated with heat strain or hypothermia. Therefore, the temperature in which you intensely perform will overpower even the fittest athletes.

Optimal Performance in Cold Weather

Researchers have developed various strategies for athletes to stabilize their core temperatures in extreme hot or extreme cold conditions:

  • BELOW 45 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT – CAUTION/COLD: Humans possess limited physiological defenses against the cold.
  • Clothing – It is important to layer clothing. Use UnderArmor (headgear, gloves, shirts and pants) to allow sweat to breathe away from the skin to the next layer of clothing. Use a facemask to cover your mouth and nose to prevent frostbite and to warm the air before it enters your lungs. Chemical hand and toe warmers are great. Wear running shoes designed for winter conditions when surfaces are slippery.
  • Warm-Up – Gently warm up inside but don’t break a sweat. Wait for your running partner in the warm car or house until they arrive. The best warm up in very cold weather is to begin your activity SLOWLY! Runners, for example, should run a ¼ the normal pace for 3-5 minutes, then ½ pace for 3-5 minutes, then ¾ pace for 3-5 minutes to prevent injuries. After 10 to 15 minutes, you may open up the throttle.
  • Safety – Be alert for icy patches and poor visibility for drivers who will pass you. Wear florescent and reflective colors when running in fog, at dusk or at dawn. Run in daylight with the warmth of the sun when possible.
  • Cross-Train- if it is very snowy, skip the run and try cross-country skiing or snow shoe walking or jogging for a change. It is a great running substitute and vigorous workout!
  • Food & Drink – For short-term exposure (1-4 hours), make sure you fill your muscles with lots of glycogen by getting 4 grams of carbohydrates for every pound of body weight. During exercise consume extra carbs by drinking 5 to 6 ounces of sports drink every 15-20 minutes. Hikers and campers performing vigorous activity in the cold for days at a time will require extra fat in their diet and on their bodies to store as energy. This is no time to count calories or fat intake, as anyone who has climbed the high peaks knows!
  • 45 TO 50 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT – OPTIMAL. Many physiologists and outdoor enthusiasts consider this temperature range to be optimal. It still requires 10 minutes of slow warm-up by ½ to ¾ pace running or cycling. Also, layers are advisable to start off warm, keep warm and shed before you become overheated. Food and drink requirements are still important as with all long duration activities but may be ¼ to ½ the requirements discussed above.

Visit your doctor regularly and listen to your body.