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How to Exercise and Train During this Winter's Extremes

Image of A special tactics airman provides security while an Alaska Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopter lands behind him during an arctic training exercise at Camp Mad Bull, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, on Jan. 10, 2023. Appropriate cold weather gear, nutrition, and training are essential for safety in cold, windy and wet conditions. (Photo by Alejandro Pena, U.S. Air Force). A special tactics airman provides security while an Alaska Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopter lands behind him during an arctic training exercise at Camp Mad Bull, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, on Jan. 10, 2023. Appropriate cold weather gear, nutrition, and training are essential for safety in cold, windy and wet conditions. (Photo by Alejandro Pena, U.S. Air Force)

California has been lashed with storms piling up record amounts of snow in the Sierras and flooding many other parts of the state, while the southwest and northern states have seen bitter cold and dangerous amounts of snow and wind. These weather extremes can affect your ability to stay healthy and safe while exercising, training, or working outdoors during the winter. Here’s what our military experts have to say.

Dress Correctly

Many people struggle to maintain their exercise routines while indoors. Outdoor exercise routines can still be enjoyed in cold weather with the appropriate pre-planning and exercise precautions, said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Chad Hulsopple, assistant professor of family medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and director of the National Capital Consortium’s Sports Medicine Fellowship.

“Icy, snowy, and wet conditions can result in rapid cooling of the body and injuries from slips and falls,” he said. “Avoid overdressing and materials with cotton, which can result in excessive sweating and sweat retention, respectively. The body can lose heat 25 times faster with wet skin,” Hulsopple pointed out.

“Consider at least three loose clothing layers—moisture-wicking base layer, insulating mid-layer, and a breathable wind and waterproof outer layer,” he said. “Multiple layers allow temperature control by removing and adding layers throughout your workout to maintain comfort.”

And don’t forget to protect your entire body. You can lose heat rapidly in your head, neck, and extremities, so wear stocking caps, gloves, and moisture-wicking socks. “Some cold-weather environments might require thicker socks with insulating and moisture-wicking properties,” he said.

Also consider waterproof breathable shoes and gaiters to decrease the likelihood of getting your feet wet. There are commercially available traction cleats for additional grip on snow and ice, Hulsopple noted.

Pay Attention to Hydration and Hunger

Hydration and energy intake are key components of being able to withstand the rigors of outdoor exercise and training in starkly cold, windy conditions, or high altitudes.

“Both of those are really important to ensure your safety and your well-being, and also in making sure you have enough energy to perform in whatever capacity is needed,” said U.S. Navy Lt. Victoria Selkirk, a sports dietician and the combined food service department head at U.S. Navy Medicine and Training Command and U.S. Marine Corps Air Ground Center Twentynine Palms in California.

“Factors like thirst mechanisms are not being triggered in colder temperatures, so it is extremely important to remember to make sure you are drinking preferably warm, non-caffeinated fluid when performing prolonged, arduous activities outdoors in cold weather,” she said.

Energy intake, including the consumption of high-calorie snacks, becomes highly important while operating in cold weather and higher altitude environments.

“The colder climate dramatically increases the rate at which your body burns calories and you need to replace those,” Selkirk said. “The heat your body generates comes from the foods that you eat, so carbohydrates and fat can help with that.”

One way to do that is “continuous chow,” meaning eating small, healthy snacks constantly to maintain a consistent level of energy while working or training. Selkirk suggested roasted almonds, dried cranberries, raisins, dried vegetables, crackers, and energy bars.

Reflection on goggles of snowy scene. U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ryan Walburn wears winter protective gear as he watches an approaching Alaska National Guard UH-60L Black Hawk during a training exercise at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Jan. 10, 2023.. Photo by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Patrick Sullivan

Watch Out for Cold Weather Injuries and Be Heart Smart

Cold weather injuries include hypothermia, frostbite, trench foot, and chilblains. Many of these conditions can occur in temperatures above freezing due to an individual’s skin becoming wet.

Hulsopple said you should take “all precautions and monitor the wind chill index to determine the relative risk of these injuries before venturing outside in cold weather.”

Signs of cold weather injuries include:

  • Tingling or numbness
  • Skin color changes
  • Mental status changes
  • Excessive shivering
  • Poor or uncontrolled body movements

“You need to seek immediate medical assistance and a warm shelter,” Hulsopple said. “Do not stay in the cold weather and avoid re-exposing yourself to cold weather once in a warm environment,” he advised.

As for your heart, “blood vessels, like everything else, constrict when you’re out in the cold, essentially because the heart is concentrating on pumping the blood to your brain and all your organs. That can be problematic,” Selkirk said.

If you’re experiencing chest pain, it may be angina and you should seek medical attention, especially if it spreads to your shoulders, arms, or neck. Many people don’t realize that even things like shoveling snow should be approached with caution.

“Cold also increases the risk of developing blood clots, especially if that’s something you are prone to or if you’re taking any type of anticoagulant medication,” Selkirk added. “That’s something you need to think about and talk with your physician about to make sure you’re not unduly exposing yourself to cold temperatures for a prolonged period because blood clots can lead to heart attacks or strokes,” she said.

Even if you are in excellent shape, your body needs time to adjust to cold exposure. “A sudden temperature change is going to be a shock to your body, so it’s always a good idea to give your body time to adjust gradually, both when going out into the cold and when coming back inside afterwards,” she advised.

Don’t Misunderstand Mother Nature

In wintertime, "hands down, the worst mistake you can make is to underestimate what challenges nature is capable of and overestimate your own abilities," said U.S. Army Master Sgt. Daniel Fields, deputy commandant at Fort Drum in New York.

"Soldiers can spiral pretty quickly into hypothermia from the 'shell-core effect,'" Fields said. The shell core effect takes over when soldiers are on the move in the winter. They use up more energy. They sweat in their winter uniforms. If they don't eat or drink, they can become dehydrated, cold and fatigued.”

"There is decreased blood flow to the extremities," he explained. "A consequence is cold diuresis, where they urinate more and more frequently," thus becoming more and more dehydrated. Diuresis occurs because the body has to filter more blood through the core to keep warm, thus engaging the kidneys in more urine production as they eliminate toxins.

For those dealing with winter's cold temperatures and possibly snow, sleet, or frozen rain, here is Fields' top advice:

  • Embrace the extremes of the environment. Don't hide from it.
  • Seek every available opportunity to acclimate and train in the cold. This only builds confidence and proficiency.
  • Prior to conducting an outdoor winter activity, seek ways to educate yourself about the specific activity.
  • Invest in quality outdoor clothing and equipment. The dividends will be priceless.
  • Understand the effects of the cold (or altitude) on the body.
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Last Updated: July 11, 2023
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