How to Safely Exercise in the Cold Weather

James Logie
Photo by Isaac Wendland on Unsplash

If you live in a climate where you get battered by the cold weather, how do you navigate your regular exercise while still keeping safe — especially if you’re a runner?

I’ve been a personal trainer for over 20 years, and a live in a cold climate so exercise and the cold go hand-in-hand for me.

So if you don’t want to give up your outdoor exercise in the winter, here are a few ways to approach it when you can’t feel your toes.

Is Cold Weather Exercise Dangerous?

You may feel like there is nothing that will hold you back from getting outside for a run or at least a brisk walk. But sometimes the weather has other ideas.

It’s frustrating when the weather is the deciding factor for our exercise, but there are situations when you may want to put it off.

Let’s go right to the source with information from Michael Kennedy, Associate Professor from The University of Alberta.

This is the perfect source for information because if you know anything about Western Canada, you know the temperature can drop lower than my bank account.

Kennedy says that around the -15 Celsius, or 5 degrees Fahrenheit point, you’ll want to pay close attention.

When we hit these temperatures, we may get into respiratory distress territory. They conducted a study that tested athletes running on a treadmill at the following temperatures:

  • 0 celsius (32 Fahrenheit)
  • -5 C (23 Fahrenheit)
  • -10 C (14 Fahrenheit)
  • -15 C (5 Fahrenheit)
  • -20 C (-4 Fahrenheit)

They found that half of the participants started to experience that respiratory stress at -15 C. When you go in even colder weather than that, you can imagine how much worse it gets.

What Issues Come With Extreme Cold Weather Exercise?

The easiest one to point out right away is frostbite. Exposed skin can succumb to frostbite quicker than you realize.

At subzero temperatures, it can take about 30 minutes for your exposed skin to get frostbite. At -15 (5 F), and with a little bit of wind, it can be as quick as 15 minutes.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen what frostbite damage can look like, but for the love of all things holy, don’t look it up. It’s pretty horrific is what I’m trying to say.

Besides the frostbite, some of the other issues with cold-weather exercise can include:

  • tightness of the lungs
  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • loss of breath

The deep breathing that comes from running in the cold air can really do a number on your bronchi and bronchioles.

If you’ve run in extreme cold before, you may notice how much you cough during and after. This can happen from ‘bronchospasm’, which is when the tubes that bring air in and out of your lungs constrict. has touched on this and states how this drying of the airways also happens when runners push high respiratory rates in freezing conditions.

“These conditions will develop contractions or spasms in the smooth muscle that surrounds the airways and also produce extra mucus in the lining of the lung tubes that results in wheezing and/or cough.”

How do You Approach Cold Weather Exercise?

The first thing to point out is how the winter months are when exercise may be the most important. We are stuck inside, get very little sun exposure, and the issues of seasonal affective disorder can rear its ugly head.

Exercise will help to boost your natural serotonin levels and improve mood and well-being.

The American Psychological Association also points out how exercise not only boosts dopamine and serotonin levels but can be “particularly helpful for people who deal with anxiety and panic attacks.”

The obvious option when the weather drops is to move your exercise indoors. If you have access to a gym or home equipment, you’re all set. But what if you don’t have these options?

There is still the ability for at-home, bodyweight workouts. You can put together some circuits that will still be a great way to boost your fitness. You can design your own, or follow along with a YouTube video.

If you are going outside, here are a few things you can do to make it more manageable:

1. Drop the Intensity

If you’re worried about lung issues from the cold weather, just slow things down. You can still stay active without having to put your lungs and breathing at risk. This could be the time for a brisk walk instead of an intense run.

2. Shorten Your Workout

The longer you’re exposed to the cold, the more possibilities there are for some issues to come up. You can cut down on that by reducing your time out in the elements.

Even if you have to cut your run or walk time in half, you were still being active. Mix this with some circuits or core work when you get home to get a well-rounded workout.

3. Make Use of Base Layers

Fortunately, clothing technology has improved so much that you can use lightweight, but effective, clothing. Try to avoid cotton as a base layer because it absorbs your perspiration and can make you feel chillier.

A base layer should stay close to your skin and that will hold the perspiration away from you. You’ve probably have heard about clothing that “wicks away moisture.”

Then, you can add a thermal layer like a long sleeve shirt, followed by an outer shell. You want to stay protected, but not weighed down.

A good rule of thumb is to add ten degrees to whatever the temperature is, because that’s what it will feel like once you get going.

4. Stay Hydrated

Just because you’re not roasting and dripping in sweat the way you do in the summer doesn’t mean you aren’t losing water.

It's easy to forget about hydration in the cold weather, but it’s just as important as ever.

One interesting thing is hypothermia can set in easier when you’re dehydrated. Breathing in that cold dry air also speeds up water loss.

The colder weather also makes you breathe deeper and harder, which also leads to water loss.

Not only can dehydration lead to some physical issues, but it will also affect your performance. So even if you don’t feel thirsty, stay on top of your water intake.

It’s still a good idea to sip your water instead of chugging it, which may lead to cramping.

Wrapping it Up

The cold weather doesn’t have to disrupt your outdoor exercise. But there is a point where you may want to avoid it. Hopefully, those days are few and far between, but it’s not worth causing some damage.

It’s just about being smart and not taking the risk when the temperature drops to dangerous levels

Even if you like to push yourself, sometimes the smartest thing is to take a step back.

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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