How to Stay Safe During Your Winter Workout

It’s certainly cold out, but if you’re one of the millions of Americans who vowed to up your fitness game in this New Year, what’s a determined amateur athlete to do?

Why, slap on a hat and some gloves and head outside of course!

George Lebus, M.D., sports medicine physician on the medical staffs at Texas Health Fort Worth and Orthopedic Specialty Associates, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, says he sees people who have done that each January. But there’s a lot more to warming up than adding a hat and some gloves alone, he says.

Exercising outdoors can be tough enough, but when it’s winter, the cold can add another layer of potential injuries. You can slip on ice and get windburn from the cold air, among other things, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of getting hurt while staying in shape this winter.

“Exercising and playing sports outside in the winter definitely presents some unique challenges,” Lebus says. “Whether you’re a competitive athlete on the basketball court or the soccer field, a recreational athlete hitting the ski slopes, or even just trying to get around on the icy sidewalk, with these types of activities, we see everything from knee injuries like ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tears to things like fractures.”

When it’s brutally cold outside, you may want to get in and out of the cold as fast as possible and may consider nixing your warm-up, but Lebus says foregoing a good pre-activity warm-up can do more harm than good.

“Sometimes in the cold, not warming up properly can lead to muscle and tendon injuries like hamstring strains,” he says. “In addition, with underlying problems like asthma people sometimes experience worsening of these conditions or there is a diagnosis called exercise-induced asthma, which can be more common in cold weather.”

Warming up is essential to preventing injury, especially when the mercury drops, but Lebus adds that the way you warm up can make all the difference.

He explains that there are two main types of warm-ups: static and dynamic. Static involves holding a pose over a certain amount of time to stretch and lengthen that muscle over time.

“The classic example of this that most people would think of is a hamstring stretch,” he says. “Sitting on the ground reaching for your toes and holding it for a certain number of counts and then relaxing.”

Dynamic warm-ups involve changing the length of a muscle over time like static warm-ups, but they do not involve holding a pose.

“People are probably not as familiar with these, but they still do them, like jumping jacks and lunges,” Lebus says. “Dynamic exercises and warm-ups are probably better in terms of preventing injury than static pre-participation to an athletic event.”

Paul Tetro, personal trainer at Texas Health Fort Worth Fitness Center, agrees on warming up muscles and adds that staying hydrated, learning how to breathe properly and dressing for the elements are equally important to having a safe workout.

“Dress in layers. It’s usually runners and walkers that need to pay attention to it the most,” he says. “Wear a hat and gloves, and consider a zipper jacket—simply zipping and unzipping a jacket can help you feel warmer or cooler. You also want to maintain good hydration, just like you would in the summertime.

“Pay attention to your breathing. Whenever you breathe air through the nose, it moistens the air, and it also warms the air. If you breathe in through your mouth, it will get dry, and your throat will get sore and scratchy. You want to make sure you breathe through your nose and exhale through your mouth.”

Tetro adds that if you’re an avid trail runner, check the weather forecast and prepare for inclement weather before you head out for your run.

“Make sure there’s some sort of shelter nearby,” he says. “You don’t want to do a trail run in the woods for five miles without having the ability to seek shelter and warm up if necessary.”

Both Lebus and Tetro add that cooler temperatures shouldn’t prevent someone from satisfying an itch to exercise outside.

“I’m an outdoorsy person — I love to exercise outside,” Tetro says. “I love to work out in the light. And that helps with things like seasonal affective disorder, too. If you’re getting that sunlight, that can help.”

Lebus says he advocates for people to exercise outside in the winter – as long as they’re doing it the right way – and remembering their skill level.

“I would never discourage anyone from exercising, but for some, it’s tempting to get out there and go as hard as you ever could because back in the day you could do it,” he says. “It’s crucial for people who haven’t done something in a while to warm up and try to ease back into activity. The best situation is to try to develop a pattern of activity so the body is more used to regular exercise, which is easier said than done.”

Pacing yourself and being cautious can help make sure you’re able to stay safe and embrace cold weather workouts all season long.

“There’s no better roadblock to getting back in shape or getting back into a great habit than an injury,” Lebus adds. “It seems like it would be a great idea to get right back to where you were right away, but if that leads to an overuse injury or hamstring strain or Achilles injury, for example, that can really set you back and put you on the shelf for quite some time and that makes the whole goal much harder to achieve. A little bit goes a long way, listen to your body, and warm up, cool down and start slow.”

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