Exercising outdoors, especially during cold weather months, is very difficult for many people, but die-hard trainers are willing to risk the unpleasant and inclement weather to continue exercising year-round regardless. It is important to adhere to safety guidelines and to listen to your body’s cues to avoid serious injury and health risks.


A key factor to keep in mind is that in cold weather, the body requires more energy to keep warm, and the preferred fuel source is from fat cells. Thermogenesis occurs when lipids are broken down to release energy to create heat, and it is “brown fat” that provides the fuel for this process. The body also generates heat when muscles contract and triggers shivering to help keep warm (this is known as shivering thermogenesis).

You will expend more calories when exercising in the cold weather, especially if you’re outdoors for an extended period of time, so you may want to consider including more complex carbs when exercising outdoors on cold days. Although fats will provide the main source of energy, carbs will also be needed for fuel, as glycogen stores in the liver will also be recruited if you’re out for an extended period of time in very cold temperatures.

Wind Chill Factor

Wind is another factor that needs to be considered when exercising outdoors, and it’s usually calculated when the temperature drops below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. High wind speeds coupled with very low temperatures can create a potentially dangerous situation if you are not dressed properly and prepared. The National Weather Service of the United States has provided a guide for calculating wind chills. For example, if the temperature is 35° with a wind factor of 20mph, the temperature feels like 24° (a “real feel” drop in temp of 31%); if the temperature is 25° with a wind factor of 20mph, the temperature feels like 11° (a “real feel” drop in temp of 56%). An actual temperature difference of 10° has a much greater impact when the wind is factored in, giving the perception of a much bigger drop in temperature and experience in feeling cold.

Frostbite & Hypothermia

Frostbite is a very real threat when outdoors for extended time in very cold temperatures. As the wind chill chart shows, when temperatures approach 0°, the risk for frostbite can occur within a half hour with minimal wind speed. If the air temperature is below zero, frostbite can happen within 5-10 minutes so it’s not advisable to exercise outdoors in extremely low temperatures.

There are different degrees of frostbite, just like with burns. First degree frostbite is usually characterized by some tingling and numbness that subsides within a short period of time once warmed up. Second degree symptoms usually involve blisters on the surface of the exposed skin that will harden and peel off after about a week. More serious is third degree, which affects areas underneath the skin’s surface, and fourth degree which can damage muscle, bone and tendons. Both third and fourth degree frostbite can cause some permanent damage to exposed areas, so it’s very important to heed the warning signs upon feeling numbness and tingling to get out of the cold to avoid further damage to skin and the musculoskeletal system.

Hypothermia is a drop in body temperature because a person loses heat faster than the body can retain heat. The following are warning signs for hypothermia, and you should seek medical help immediately:

  • Slurred speech
  • Mental confusion
  • Loss of memory
  • Loss of fine motor skills
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Decreased blood pressure

Layer Up

It’s important to note that getting wet in very cold temperature poses a greater risk for both frostbite and hypothermia. Avoid outdoor exercise during precipitation on very cold days (especially if it’s windy). It is essential to dress properly, wear layers, and whisk moisture away from your skin to stay dry and keep heat from dissipating, especially from your head, hands and feet.

Start with a thin moisture wicking fabric; I prefer the Dri-Fit brand made of soft polyester because it’s comfortable and keeps my skin dry. Cotton is not a good choice because it absorbs the moisture and will be wet against your body, making it harder to retain heat. Next layer should be fleece material to keep you insulated (when it’s very cold and I run outside I double up on fleece sweatshirts), and the outer layer should repel wind and water. And always wear good cushioned and moisture absorbing socks, gloves or mittens, and a lined hat. Clothing is a key preventative measure in cold weather.


Even with lower temperatures, it’s important to be well hydrated when exercising. You can dehydrate from wind, breath vapor, and from very dry, low humidity, cold air. If you cramp up while exercising in the cold, it’s largely due to dehydration. You may not feel thirsty, as in the summertime when you’re hot & very sweaty, but you must drink enough to stay properly hydrated.

Electrolyte Synergy, made by Designs for Health, is my favorite electrolyte product. Sodium, Potassium, Magnesium and Chloride are most important to replenish after exercise. This product also includes Vitamin C & Taurine (to help support the cardiovascular system), Quercetin, Rutin, and Citrus Bioflavinoids (polyphenols/plant extracts for additional fluid balance support).  Recommended dosage is 2 teaspoons in 12 oz of water before exercise.

I’m offering 10% off the purchase of Electrolyte Synergy by Designs for Health for new purchasers:

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So if you’re heading outside for a run, cycling, or other outdoor exercise, remember to take the necessary precautions of dressing properly and being well hydrated. Also avoid outdoor exercise on days that the temperature is very low (teens and single digits) or when the temperature and wind chill combine to create frostbite & hypothermia risk. Always use caution and listen to what your body is telling you!