How to Gear Up for Winter Exercise

man exercising outside in snowWhen they ask me about gear for training in the cold, I’m inclined to tell people to just get after it in whatever they have lying around. I was never one for crazy amounts of intricate training gear, cold weather or otherwise. I just don’t find them all that necessary. However, to be fair, I’m not training in extreme cold like some people. While I grew up in a fishing village in Maine, most of my adult life has taken place in warm or mild climates where it never gets colder than freezing and the gear doesn’t really matter.

But for people who do endure extreme cold (and “extreme cold” is relative) and know they still have an obligation to get outside and train, I’ve put together a list of recommendations.


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Wool Clothing

I’m biased toward natural materials, simply as a rule. Wool has been designed by the hand of natural selection over millions of years to provide effective insulation and protection from the elements. It’s naturally anti-bacterial (doesn’t get as smelly as quickly). It breathes and it wicks moisture, so you don’t sweat as much or, if you do, get bogged down in your own fluids. If the natural lanolin is present, it offers some degree of water resistance.

Wool is bulkier. It can be scratchy, although merino wool and other higher quality wools are not. It’s more expensive. But if you can swing it, wool just feels better.

A Good Warm Hat

I know, I know. The latest evidence shows that “the most body heat is lost through the head” is nonsense, and that’s it the amount of surface area exposed to the elements that determines the amount of body heat lost. Maybe it’s just placebo, but the placebo is incredibly powerful. All I know is that wearing a warm wool winter hat is a surefire method to keep me feeling warm when exercising outdoors in winter. As you’ll read later on, “feeling cold” is a state of mind as much as it’s a state of your physiological temperature regulation.

Smartwool beanies are always good.

This alpaca wool beanie looks pretty solid, too.

Compression Gear

This is about as far from “natural” as you can get but there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that compression gear really does improve exercise recovery:

Compression garments appear to reduce muscle soreness and improve subjective perceptions of recovery, according to a recent study.1

Following a sprint and 3 km run workout meant to simulate a rugby match, players wearing compression clothing experience less muscle soreness 48 hours post workout and improved performance.2

A 2013 meta-analysis concluded that “compression garments are effective in enhancing recovery from muscle damage.”3

And I find that they actually do a nice job of keeping you warm out in cold weather. They’re not going to repel snow or rain, but they’re great for doing workouts out in the yard or in the driveway where you’re not going to be encountering much water or ice.

Pull-up Mittens

There are hundreds of glove and mitten designs that keep your hands warm but mostly immobile. And don’t even think about using your phone while wearing them.

For all we talk about the importance of just “being” and training for its own sake, sometimes you do want to access your phone. Maybe you want to immortalize the moment. Maybe you want to film yourself or take a selfie to motivate your friends and followers to get training in cold weather, too. Or you could just want the ability to answer the phone if something comes up. These mittens have a flap that you quickly drop down to reveal your fingers when you do need to access the phone.

A Light Rain Jacket

If it’s rainy but not freezing, you just need to keep the water out (unless you don’t, and like training in the rain, which I sometimes do)—you don’t need to bundle up. Something light but waterproof is all you need. This is a good one for women and this for men.

Ice-walking Cleats

If you’re walking on ice, these strap-on cleats are invaluable. Very affordable, too.

Snowshoes

Growing up in Maine during wintertime, snowshoeing was often the best way to go explore the wilderness. Sometimes the only way. What I remember most is it forces you into a different pattern of movement. You’re not quite as agile as you are in normal shoes. You have to think about what you’re doing and where you’re going. You have to be deliberate. But it is fantastic fun, a great workout, and it makes you feel like Legolas in Lord of the Rings during that scene where he treads lightly across the top of the snow while all the other members of the fellowship are trudging and laboring waist-deep through it.

I have it on good authority that you should buy good snowshoes, spend a little more than you might be planning. Several of my friends claim the Costco ones broke quickly.

Snowpants

No two ways about it: having snow down your socks sucks. Put on some pants that prevent that. You want to be able to roll around in the snow, tromp through it, and make snow angels without worrying. Otherwise, why play in the snow at all?

These are good for men, these for women.

Winterproof Boots

The problem with most winterproof boots is that they are heavy, thick, and thick-soled with raised heels. It’s like you have casts on—can’t feel anything, all those nerves cut off from engagement with the outside environment, posture thrown off and gait disrupted because you have to account for the inch of heel. Vivo Barefoot makes some great winterproof boots that adhere to your natural foot structure while keeping you warm and dry.

That’s the physical gear, the material stuff you can buy or make. But there’s also psychological and physiological gear that you can assemble and develop to improve your winter exercise experiences.

Accept That You will Feel Cold

Do not accept that you will be cold. You are not your environment. You are more than the ambient temperature. You will feel the cold, but you can withstand it. Know this.

Do not grow inured to the cold. You shouldn’t be numb. It will always be there and you should always feel it. But the trick is to welcome the cold’s embrace and use it to your advantage. Think about it:

When you’re cold, you can go harder for longer. You won’t overheat, like a 90s Corolla going up the hill on a hot summer day.

When it’s cold, everyone else will stay inside. You’ll have the world to yourself.

Training outside in the cold becomes a gift to yourself.

Move Frequently at a Fast Pace

I’ve always said that if you can move your body frequently, you won’t get cold.

Standing around doing nothing in the cold is unbearable. For instance, I love working outdoors on my laptop, but I can’t really do it if I’m cold. Fingers don’t type as fluidly, and that disrupts my thinking (which manifests through my hands). Anytime I’m not in motion I have trouble with the cold. But as long as I’m walking, jogging, doing yardwork, or just moving consistently, I do not suffer the cold.

Sprint

Sprinting is the best set of armor against the cold.

Cold at first, all that wind rushing past you, but once your metabolism revs up and your muscles start burning, you’ll take clothing off. Anytime I want to warm up in cold weather, or if I’m trying to train outside and can’t really bring myself to get going, I’ll just do some sprints and warm right up.

If you can’t do traditional sprinting, you can do sprint alternatives. A close second is a set of 20 burpees (or burpee alternatives).

That’s it: my not-so-definitive guide to winter training gear. If you have anything you’d recommend, drop them down below in the comment section. Thanks for reading everyone!

TAGS:  fitness

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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8 thoughts on “How to Gear Up for Winter Exercise”

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  1. I am 62, and enjoy winter activities such as hiking and cross-country skiing. I find that it is very important that your clothing – other than underwear and/or longjohns – should be loose and roomy. Use layers that you can take off and put on relatively easily. Always pay special attention to your feet and hands. Gloves and boots that are too tight will restrict circulation, and let your hands and feet get cold. If you need tight-fitting footgear for your sport (downhill skiing or skating, for instance), warm up well (burpees? a sprint?) before putting them on!

  2. There are plenty of areas where you can work up a sweat when downhill skiing. It’s seldom all easy cruising. If dressed too warmly, sweaty inner clothing will become unpleasantly clammy and you’ll freeze your butt while sitting on the chairlift. I found out years ago that it’s best to wear less than you think you’ll need, even when it’s extremely cold outside. This is probably true of most outdoor winter activities.

  3. Dry cold is easy to deal with, just pile on the wool, down, and be happy.

    It’s wet cold that gets tricky. Try dressing for driving rain and wind around freezing.–Mistakes can be deadly.

    There are great tips from the British Isles, Iceland, and Canada on how to dress for wet cold. Goose down is generally out, and thick tightly woven wool and storm shells are in. Even then, prepare to often get drenched and be miserable if you are exercising hard.

  4. Quite a few years ago I spent four years in Fairbanks AK while with the US Army. The units there used -20’f as the cutoff for outside physical training. I was a jogger then, and would routinely run 2 to 5 miles several times a week. While the darkness was a bigger danger when running on the roads there was a limit on the time spent at those extreme temps. I found that at temps much below -25’F even when wearing the best clothing you could get, ones core body temp after about an hour, would just keep going down, and no amount of exertion was going to bring it back up. It wasn’t the extremities, but your actual core temp that was the limiter. You could just feel yourself getting colder and colder.

  5. I concur, the Vivo Tracker is a great winter boot that still has some groundfeel.

  6. Thank you for all this info. I was looking for some good quality snow pants for my 17 year old that just did a Mt Rainier hike the other day. Your article came out and I am purchasing the ones you suggested. He has most of the stuff to work out in due to being an all year round athlete, but just recently got into hiking.

  7. I was interested in this article to see if I might gleen any new tips on cold weather dressing as I’ve worked outside (for money) for the past fifteen years. Two things I’ve learned is 1.) cotton kills and 2.) the heat is in the shovel. Lol.
    I will be looking into getting those new snow pants though. Thanks for tackling another interesting topic, Mark. I can always count on you for good solid research.