Exercising in Cold Weather

Julie Ruane, Nurse Practitioner Division of Sports Medicine

NOVEMBER 01, 2016

Fall in New England is a great time to get outside and get active: leaves are changing colors, the air has a comfortable chill, and decorative gourds seem to smile in encouragement. But there’s a sinister side to the season too, lower temperatures can lead to muscle soreness, sprains and a variety of other injuries. So what’s a dedicated athlete to do? “Fall is the time to focus on injury prevention,” says Julie Ruane, Nurse Practitioner from the Division of Sports Medicine at BIDMC.

“This is the perfect season to get out, exercise and enjoy the mild weather,” says Ruane. “But as comfortable as this time of year can be, fall mornings tend to be relatively chilly. And that presents a unique set of challenges when it comes to exercising.”

One of the biggest challenges for fall athletes is muscle injuries. “The colder the muscle, the tighter the muscle,” says Ruane, “Tight or contracted muscles increase risk for injury and can also lead to joint pains. When a muscle is warm, it has good blood flow and stretches more easily. That’s why warming up, wearing the right gear and staying hydrated are all important.”

Dress appropriately :

“Since cold or tight muscles are at higher risk of getting strained, layering is absolutely important,” says Ruane. “But you should also avoid wearing TOO many layers, as this could lead to increased fluid loss or sweating. Ultimately, you can end up pulling heat from the body. So, it's best to be able to shed your layers if you feel you’re getting too warm.”

For team sports, Ruane recommends wearing long sleeves under a uniform — usually a stretchy, tight-fitting fabric that locks in body warmth — and to wear layers that can be easily removed. She also recommends staying warm during pre-game activities and in between innings by keeping at least one jacket or pullover handy.

Ease In, Stay Loose and Keep Moving :

Cold weather causes muscles to lose heat and contract, causing tightness throughout the body and reducing the range of motion in your joints. This forces muscles to work much harder to complete the same tasks they easily perform in milder weather. To counteract this stress on your muscles and joints, be sure to warm up for a little longer than usual, and be sure to stretch and cool down again at the end of a workout.

“It doesn’t take much for your muscles to tighten up in the colder weather with pauses or periods of rest,” says Ruane. “So, in addition to layering up, try to keep the blood flowing with dynamic activity such as jogging in place or jumping jacks, high knees or butt kicks.

Drink plenty of fluids

Cold weather isn’t an excuse to forget about hydration. Getting plenty of liquids is just as important during in the fall and winter as it is in the summer.

“Even though you might not sweat as much as you would in warmer weather, it’s just as important to drink at least 8-10 glasses of water daily,” says Ruane. “Your body burns through its carbohydrate stores more quickly in the cold weather. Drinking carbs such as a sports beverage can help. Post-exercise replenishing with carb-protein combos, such as warm oatmeal and nuts or hot chili, is also helpful, specifically for muscle recovery.”

As you get out there and enjoy the best the season has to offer, remember that some exercising principles apply all year long: good hydration, proper dress, warm-ups, cool downs, stretching, rest and recovery. And make sure to watch your step, winter is just around the corner.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.