Winter in the Pacific Northwest brings with it an abundance of outdoor activities to enjoy. From skiing and snowshoeing to a simple walk or run in cold weather, exercising outdoors can be an enjoyable way to get through the winter. At Life’s Work Physical Therapy, our goal is to ensure your outdoor adventures are both safe and fun. Physical therapy can help prevent injuries such as low back pain, neck pain, knee sprains, Achilles tendonitis and numerous other injuries. Here are some simple things to consider when exercising in cold weather to help avoid injury.

1. Maintain Your Energy

Whenever there is a temperature, intensity or elevation change, the body requires more energy to keep warm and maintain activity level. There is a reason you may feel more tired after a day or skiing or hiking on Mt. Hood in the winter – it requires more energy! Fatigue sets in faster in cold weather without adequate fuel. When exercising in cold weather, it is important to ensure you have enough calories to get you through your activity. 

2. Keep Hydrated

Additionally, the risk of dehydration is similar to other forms of exercise; however, we often don’t feel as thirsty when exercising in the cold. It is important to ensure you are adequately hydrated, even when you don’t feel like drinking water. For every hour of exercise, you should aim to drink 16 ounces of water to combat fluid loss from exercise, sweating and breathing. 

3. Avoid Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a risk of exercising in cold temperatures. Hypothermia occurs when the body’s temperature drops below 95 degrees. Signs include fatigue, loss of coordination and intense shivering. When preparing for cold weather activities, it is important to consider both the outside air temperature and the wind chill. Wearing layers and moisture-wicking clothing can help to prevent hypothermia. Dressing too warmly can be a mistake as exercise generates heat. This results in feeling like it is warmer than it actually is, however sweating will pull heat from the body and cause you to feel chilled. By wearing layers, you ensure you can regulate the amount of clothing you need for your activity level. Choose synthetic material or wool over materials like cotton, which will stay damp. Especially important in the Pacific Northwest is waterproof or water-resistant clothing. Getting wet makes you more susceptible to the cold and will make it much harder for your body to maintain its temperature. 

4. Use the Appropriate Gear

Bright sunny days on the mountain are a wonderful winter experience, however sun exposure can be worse in the snow and at elevation. Remember to wear sunscreen, even when it doesn’t look sunny outside, to protect yourself. Sunglasses can help protect your eyes from glare from the snow. It is also important to wear reflective clothing that is easily visible in the event you are lost or injured. Especially important is making sure you have shoes that have adequate traction for slippery or icy conditions, or traction devices like yaktrax or microspikes worn over your shoes. When skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing, make sure your gear is the right size for you and fits well. And always wear a helmet when skiing or snowboarding. 

5. Warm-up Before Your Workout

Cold muscles are at higher risk of injury, so it is important to warm up prior to a cold weather workout. Avoid static stretches and choose dynamic forms of stretching to warm up your muscles, improve blood flow and get your joints moving. Exercises like arm circles, air squats, lunges and marching in place are good places to start. After your workout, it is safe to do static stretches to loosen up tight and fatigued muscles but always avoid stretching to pain. 

Cold weather exercise can be both safe and fun if you take appropriate precautions. By taking these steps you can ensure you have an enjoyable and injury free day. Perhaps most importantly, whenever you head out to the mountains or Gorge, make sure to give a friend or family member your itinerary and when you expect to return in the event you become lost or injured. As always, safety while exercising is critical.  

Physical therapy is a great way to assess your fitness for activity and fine tune your recreation and fitness program to avoid injury. If you are in the Portland metro area, please reach out to Life’s Work Physical Therapy at 503-295-2585 or with any questions or to schedule an appointment for a full body fitness assessment. If you live outside Portland, Oregon, please read our blog about “How to Find a Good PT.”

Happy winter adventuring!