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How to Stay Warm — But Not Too Warm — During Winter Workouts

As temperatures drop sharply in much of the country you may be tempted to bring your workouts inside for the winter. But doing so means losing out on the fresh air and sense of accomplishment you get from exercising outside. All you need is a little preparation to be ready for invigorating winter workouts.

“Working out in the cold can be a really effective way to build a resilience that you can take with you into all areas of your life,” says Tyler Spraul, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and head trainer at Exercise.com. “Bonus points if it's early in the morning and you can use the cold air to wake up and be refreshed ahead of a long work day.”

Here’s how to prepare so you get the most out of working out in the cold.

Control Moisture, Insulate and Protect

When you’re thinking about how to dress a cold day, it’s helpful to think of what you’d want to wear if it was 15 to 20 degrees warmer than the actual temperature, especially if your workouts are strenuous, Spraul says. Layering effectively will help prevent you from overheating and sweating too much, which then can end up chilling you.

Using a modular layering system, you’ll be able to adapt to changing weather conditions and your varying levels of activity, says Susan Benton Russell, co-founder of Ridge Merino, which sells athletic clothing made of wool. First, start with your base layer, such as a good pair of long underwear. “This layer should be warm yet breathable and should transfer or ‘wick’ perspiration away from your skin to keep you dry,” she says. Avoid cotton, as it absorbs water and can make you feel clammy — or, worse, lead to hypothermia, Russell says. Not surprisingly, Russell is a fan of Merino wool for base layers; silk is another good option.

Next, choose your middle layer, which is designed to insulate. This one will vary depending on your activity and weather conditions, Russell says. “This is typically a fleece which is a bit thicker or loftier than the base layer and, depending on conditions and your level of exertion, you may ultimately use this as your outer layer,” she says.

Finally, the outer layer protects you from the elements while still allowing air to circulate, Russell says. “More breathable soft shells can be used in drier conditions, whereas a waterproof layer should be used for more extreme weather involving precipitation,” she says.

Protect Your Head, Hands and Feet

Now that your core is layered, don’t neglect your extremities, says Dr. Benjamin Domb, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine physician. Gloves, hats, mittens and thermal socks are a must as your hands, ears and feet are vulnerable to frostbite, even when you’re exercising, he says. “In addition, a large amount of body heat is lost through your head, so a lightweight hat will help your body retain the heat,” Domb says.

Stay Hydrated

You may not feel like you’re losing a lot of water through sweat, but staying hydrated is as important in cold weather as it is in hot, Domb says. It can be especially easy to lose track of how much you’re sweating if you’ve layered your clothing properly, so drink plenty of water before and during your workout. Recommended amounts vary by age, gender, weight and the intensity of your workout, but aim for at least 12 ounces before and after you exercise, adding more during your workout if it’s long or strenuous.

Protect Your Face

Sun and wind aren’t issues for your skin only in the summer. Sure, more of your skin is covered during winter workouts, but there’s still a risk to your face in cold weather. “Even if it’s cloudy, UV rays can cause skin damage,” Domb says. “Apply a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 before heading outside for a winter workout.”

Keep an eye on the wind as well, Spraul says. “Thirty degrees Fahrenheit and calm is much different than 30 degrees Fahrenheit and 15 mph winds,” he says. Consider a scarf or facemask for comfort and to protect against windburn and frostbite.

Cap It Off with Warm-Up Cup

When your torso is warm — as when it’s properly layered — it’s easier for your body to keep your extremities warm as well. But if the cold is getting the better of you and you need to warm up quickly, a cup of coffee can do the trick — and also provide a post-workout boost to your muscles, according to the American Physiological Society.

That means you’ve got one more reason to bring a Thermos of Community coffee with you on a hike or to put the pot on when you get back home.