Winter - hibernation time. Restricted to climate controlled indoor environments, avoiding inclement weather conditions and starving off cabin fever can feel like a seasonal sentence. If you live in a northern climate, you may already be feeling trapped indoors, craving fresh air and outdoor training sessions as you deal with limited daylight hours, cold temperatures and slippery surfaces.
It doesn’t have to be this way. With some understanding of how to prepare for the colder temperatures and the willingness to engage in certain cold weather activities, the winter time can be transformed into an incredible time of outside fun and training opportunities.
So what are the options? We can divide them into two general groups.
Gravity Based Winter Sports tend to be more strength and power based and appeal to the fun loving, adventurous type. The exertion is generally short lived and intense and is usually coupled with great speed. Downhill skiing and snowboarding top the list, but for those with a more self-propelled spirit, ski touring, back-country skiing and ice climbing are great winter options.
The more vigorous cousins to Gravity Based Winter Sports are Cardiovascular Based Winter Sports. Snow-shoeing, running, skating, x-country skiing and skate skiing are winter activities that can be done in almost any temperatures. There is even the option of winter triathlons that merge trail running with mountain biking and skate skiing.
Chances are that the winter training options presented above are not activities that you have never heard of before. So why do people who generally love the outdoors hibernate through the cold months waiting for spring? Most of the time it is because people just don’t think they can stay warm… and let’s face it… being cold is unpleasant at best.
Some General Guidelines:
1. Use base-layer clothing made from fabrics that are designed to wick moisture away from your skin. This will help to keep you dry and warm for the duration of the workout. For base layers, these days I can’t live without merino wool. This incredible fabric is incredibly comfortable, stays warm even after it gets wet and even still looks good enough when you’re done to hang by the fire and socialize in. My favorite brand here is IceBreaker through there are more and more clothing companies that are offering Merino solutions.
2. Do not overdress. Though this may feel nice and comfortable at the beginning, you will sweat much more than you would otherwise, making your clothes wet. Wet Clothes = Cold Body. Generally speaking, if you feel slightly cool before starting your activity, you have dressed perfectly for the conditions. It sounds simple but you will have to continually fight your inner voice what wants to bundle up. This is especially true if you are more cold adverse. If feeling a little cold before you begin is a non-starter for you then I have 2 strategies that you can try.
A) Do a short warm up indoors in the clothes that you will be training in to raise your body temp before heading into the fresh air. (don’t overdo this or you’ll sweat and create the opposite effect you’re hoping for)
B) Put on an extra outer layer (vests work great for this) and then be prepared to shed it in the first 10 minutes of your activity.
3. Dress to your training plan. Hard workouts will require less clothing than easier workouts or a casual walk. Activities that are more intermittent and have you sitting on a chairlift or standing still require more clothes and some tactical layer strategies. If you’re unsure how to dress, bring a shell jacket that can be used for your warm-up and cool-down but easily taken off and stowed for the more intense part of the workout.
4. In most cool or cold weather conditions, sport sunglasses or goggles will protect your eyes from, the bright sun reflecting off of the snow and prevent them from watering due to the cold, wind or driving snowflakes. Even if I’m cross country skiing in overcast conditions or at night I will still use glasses with clear lenses in them. A tip - never put your goggles or glasses up on your head if you want to wear them for the rest of the session as they will immediately fog with the heat coming off your head. If left there this condensation will turn to ice and it’s game over.
5. The down coat is king when it comes to cold environments and this is especially true for intermittent activities. A light-weight down coat that is easily packed is the perfect solution for winter activities that incorporate starts and stops. My giant down coat is a staple. It clips on my harness when I go ice climbing so that I can stay toasty when I’m not moving, I wear it pre cross country skiing as I’m organizing myself outside before stripping down to my light “go” layer (see tip #2) and I even use it when it’s colder than my normal downhill ski temperature threshold but the powder is too good to pass up. Remember when you’re buying a coat like this - functionality is everything. You don’t care that it is not flattering. You don’t care that it covers your bum and has a gigantic hood. You certainly don’t care that you may be mistaken for the “Stay Puff Marshmallow Man”. All of these are actually important and desirable features of the jacket that you will LOVE. Remember that in the hierarchy of winter activities, warm and is infinitely sexier than cold... period.
6. Keeping hands and feet warm go a long way toward enjoying outdoor winter activities. A common mistake is to over-layer your feet which will cause them to sweat, which can lead to cold toes. For cardiovascular based sports, a single pair of warm, wicking socks will normally do. In very cold conditions or for gravity based sports, use a double layer of socks. For ice climbing I will often bring a second pair of socks and base shirt knowing that after the exertion of walking up to the base of the climb, both of these items will be wet. Quickly changing into dry ones makes all the difference. Also be sure that your boots are not done up too tightly. This can restrict blood flow which will make your feet get colder, faster.
Hands can be a real struggle for some to keep warm during winter activities and I must admit that I am one of them. If you’re nodding your head and thinking “yup- me too” then this is for you. Wear mitts for any activity that doesn’t require a great deal of dexterity. I’m talking big, giant, “keep you warm on the moon” style mitts. Additionally I always crack open some hand warmers in the morning and have them rocketing away in my mitts all day long. This winning combination will all but guarantee the warmth of your hands. But what about sports that do require finger dexterity? I prefer to ice climb with very lightweight dextrous gloves. While they climb much better the tradeoff is warmth and with my susceptibility to cold hands this would guarantee a miserable experience were it not for the aforementioned mitts and heat packs. While climbing I tuck the mitts under my arms inside my coat and transition the heat pack into my light climbing gloves. As soon as I’m finished climbing I reverse things, tucking my gloves under my arms and putting the mitts on with the heat packs. This strategy works very well for intermittent sports like climbing and downhill skiing.
OK so this is all great but what if your feet and hands do get cold? For feet try vigorous movement and leg swinging or take one boot off at a time, wrap the foot in your down coat and massage the life back into it. For hands - well let’s just say that the warmest parts of your body are under your arms and your groin area... put your hands there.
7. A good trail running shoe provides extra traction for slippery surfaces and many offer waterproof features that help keep your feet dry. In areas with deep snow, a pair of light gators will keep the snow out of your shoes. If things are going to be significantly icey, a set of Yaktrax (think tire chains for your running shoes” will allow you to run with confidence regardless of the surface. There have also been some advancements in gear for cycling in winter conditions. Studded tires work amazingly well and in recent years there has been an emergence of the fat tire bike which is designed specifically for mountain biking in the snow... super fun!
8. One of the biggest challenges for training in cold temperatures is avoiding de-hydration. Drinking regularly during these lower temperature workouts almost counterintuitive however is just as necessary as in warmer conditions. It just doesn’t feel that way because you don’t feel hot and if you layer correctly often don’t really sweat noticeably. Filling water bottles with warm fluids will help to prevent them from freezing or being too cold to drink comfortably. For all day excursions be sure to bring a small thermos with tea or hot chocolate in it. This small comfort will work wonders.
9. If it’s particularly cold or if you’re still trying to figure out what works best for you, this is not the day for the big “out and back” challenge. Plan a route ahead of time that integrates a loop course. This means you can avoid ever getting too far away from home in the event you are to get too cold or something were to go wrong during your activity. Having this little bit of insurance built into the system will embolden you to try new strategies as the worst that can happen is that you will layer up on the way past your home base.
10. Avoiding frost bite and hypothermia is the most important consideration when preparing for cold weather activities. In extremely cold temperatures make sure all of your skin is covered and carry an extra layer in case the conditions change during your activity. Just as important of knowing how to make the cold a fun and accessible place to go play is knowing when to stay home. Everyone will be different on this one but as a general guideline I have the following thresholds:
Winter Mountain Biking: -10° Celcius (14° Fahrenheit)
Ice Climbing: -15° Celcius (5° Fahrenheit)
Cross Country Skiing: -15° to -20° Celcius (-4 to 5° Fahrenheit)
Trail Running: -20° Celcius (-4° Fahrenheit)
Downhill Skiing: -25° Celcius (-13° Fahrenheit)
Ski Touring: -30° Celcius (-22° Fahrenheit)
The cold weather can bring a winter wonderland of training possibilities for the active person. Given a little planning and knowledge, along with the right clothing and you will be amazed at how satisfying and effective outdoor workouts can be and how enjoyable that the crisp air can feel. Almost as good as the well-deserved hot chocolate in front of a warm fire afterwards! J
Fraser Quelch is the Head of Programming and Development for TRX. He lives in Banff, Canada where there are more snowy months in the year than not. His winter activities include ice climbing, downhill skiing, cross country skiing, ski touring, “toboggan adventures” and fort building.