The Art of Warming Up in Cold Weather

by Kelly O'Mara
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The Art of Warming Up in Cold Weather

It’s probably cold where you live right now — possibly very, very cold. Maybe you’re considering working out at the gym or even passing until the ground thaws, but you know that once you get going, you’ll be glad you did. Here’s how to warm up for any cold-weather workout (even if it’s just cold outside, but you’re exercising inside).

THE IDEAL WARMUP

Andrea Fradkin, an associate professor of exercise science at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, has conducted more than 20 research studies investigating different warmup routines. Even a brief warmup of less than 10 minutes, she says, has been shown to improve performance and reduce the risk of injury — as long as it includes easy aerobic activity, sport-specific stretches and sport-specific drills or exercises.

The key ingredient to obtaining these benefits is getting your core temperature slightly elevated, which can obviously be harder in the cold and which makes a good warmup especially important then. “In colder weather, the warmup is even more critical,” says Chris Lundstrom, the head running coach for Team USA Minnesota.

It might be more important, but the basic principles stay the same however cold it is outside, says Matt Phillips, a running coach and sports physical therapist. “Don’t skip it, but don’t go overboard either,” he says.

Regardless of the temperature, you should always start with a low-intensity aerobic activity, says Lundstrom, such as jogging for 15 minutes. You can even do jumping jacks or dynamic stretches, says Fradkin, which is what she often recommends in the warmup routines she’s researched.

Fradkin also recommends progressing to sport-specific stretches and then sport-specific exercises during your warmup. (While there are disputes over the benefits of static versus dynamic stretching, you certainly don’t want to get warm and then get cold again while doing static stretches a in stationary position.) Ultimately, sports-specific drills or exercises should target the muscles you’ll be using in your activity, such as skips, butt kicks or high knees for runners. “The idea behind this component is to start slow and with low intensity and gradually build up to performance level,” says Fradkin.

How long your warmup is depends on how hard your workout is going to be. If it’s very intense, Lundstrom has his athletes do some short bursts of high-intensity activity, such as strides, to prime their body and minds. If you’re just going for an easy jog, then it’s not necessary to warmup as much. But if you’re about to race, then you’ll need to build to a hard effort beforehand.

While Lundstrom cautions against skipping a warmup, especially in the cold, one way to maximize efficiency is to simply gradually progress the intensity of the workout. Start easy before you get faster — and count that as warming up.

The part of the warmup that makes the biggest difference is the aerobic component, says Fradkin. That means, regardless of how much time you have, you want to spend some of it at the start getting your core temperature gradually up. “If you don’t have much time, you can certainly get creative with how you plan your warmup routine,” she says, such as incorporating dynamic stretches into the aerobic activity — getting in both the stretching and the warming at the same time. She also notes that research suggests you don’t really need to warmup for long amounts of time.

TIPS FOR THE EXTREME COLD

In extremely cold conditions, it can be beneficial to warmup indoors first before heading out. However, both Lundstrom and Phillips say to make sure you have dry clothes for when you head out, so you’re not starting out sweaty. “Otherwise, that moisture will cool you rapidly, increasing the risk of hypothermia,” says Lundstrom.

While there are some dangers to working out in the extreme cold, studies suggest that exercise can be done safely in wind chill temperatures as low as -18°F, says Phillips — as long as you’re dressed appropriately. Below that temperature you risk frostbite.

“The general recommendation is a base layer, an insulating layer, and then a wind-breaking layer,” he says. “The head, hands and feet are all areas that need to be kept warm and dry so make sure you do not neglect these.”

But warming up shouldn’t be the biggest problem — it just might take longer. “I have found that as long as you get the body warm before you begin your activity, there is no real issue with the temperature,” says Fradkin. A general rule of thumb, she says, is for every 10°F drop below 30°F you should extend your warmup by five minutes.

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU’RE WARM ENOUGH?

The only way to technically know if you’re fully warmed up is to measure your core body temperature, says Fradkin. Since that’s tough to do in real-world situations, the best indicator is that you have a slightly increased heart rate and breathing and that you’ve broken a light sweat.

“The colder the temperature, the more challenging it is to do this, which is probably why world records are not set in freezing conditions,” says Lundstrom

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