Fitness: Preparation is key when learning to love to winter workouts

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It took a while, but winter has arrived, with most of the country finally feeling its frigid effects. As much as Canadians pride themselves on taking winter’s wrath in stride, there’s no doubt that snow, ice, sub-zero temperatures, freezing rain and biting wind make outdoor exercise more challenging.

It’s not just that winter demands pulling on more layers, it’s the changing conditions and dicey footing that make outdoor workouts so tricky. Then there’s the unique combination of being sweaty and cold at the same time, which pretty much sums up the worst of winter workouts. But whether you’re hitting the cross-country ski trails, lining up for the ski lift, running into the wind, playing a game of pickup hockey at the local outdoor rink or getting your steps in, here are few tips to make winter workouts more comfortable.

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Choose your layers wisely

There’s a science to winter dressing, which starts with layering against the elements, keeping in mind that high-exertion exercise demands a different combination of layers than outdoor workouts that create less sweat. The main difference between the two is knowing when to keep body heat in and when to let it out.

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Start with a thin, thermal form-fitting layer next to your skin made from a polyester blend that wicks sweat to the next layer. Moving moisture away from your body prevents a clammy feeling that, when combined with the cold, brings with it a lasting chill that only a hot bath will resolve.

Top the base layer with a fleece that can be as thin or thick as the temperature or level of physical exertion demands. At its most technical, fleece is warm but breathable with wicking features in high sweat zones specifically designed to keep cross-country skiers, runners and outdoor-rink rats comfortable. Alpine skiers, on the other hand, will want a thicker fleece layer that retains, not dissipates, body heat.

Getting the outer layer right is tricky. Typically designed to repel water and wind, without well-designed vents and a system to let out all that steamy sweat, you’ll end up wet and cold. During those first few minutes in sub-zero temperatures, retain body heat by tightening wrist cuffs, cinching in the waist and zipping up all the way. As your internal temperature rises, let some of that heat escape, but be prepared to zip up tight again if the wind picks up or the sun disappears.

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Another important feature of your outer layer is pockets for hats and mitts, should you opt to take them off, and at least one inner pocket to store a phone (which tends to freeze up on really cold days). You’ll also want reflective detailing that helps you be seen during early-morning or late-in-the-day workouts.

Hats, mitts and neck warmers for the win

Hats retain a significant amount of body heat, which means it’s an easy way to regulate body temperature. The same goes for mitts and neck warmers. Start with them on and remove as you heat up. Stay away from bulky hats and mitts that are hard to stuff in a pocket. Fleece is your best bet, as it’s warm, breathable and rolls up tight. I prefer hooded gloves, which offer the warmth of mittens but allow for the dexterity to get into my pockets without taking off my mitts.

Watch your step

Icey sidewalks are bad enough, but add a dusting of snow and all of a sudden your winter run or walk has turned into a cautionary shuffle. Add snowbanks or slush puddles to the mix and you’ve got obstacles to manage with every footfall.

Crampons are an easy fix on icy surfaces, but don’t do as well on loose snow. Deep treaded trail shoes offer the best grip on snow and hiking poles can provide added stability for all-weather winter walkers. Don’t be shy to reach out to city officials if your sidewalks are slow to clear in the winter. Safe sidewalks should be a priority for all Canadian cities.

Be safe

Winter workouts aren’t inherently dangerous, but you do need to take a few precautions. Don’t leave the house without a phone. If you haven’t invested in a smartwatch with fall detection, consider it a priority.

Decide what type of conditions warrant staying indoors, which is usually when discomfort takes away from the enjoyment of exercising in the fresh air. For me, blowing snow, freezing rain and temperatures colder than minus-20C is where I draw the line, opting for the treadmill or indoor bike versus a ski or run. On the days when the footing is iffy, I put on my cross-country skis instead of worrying about taking a nasty fall.

Admittedly, there are some days when winter gets the best of us all, but when the sun is shining and our gear is on point, some of the best workouts of the year happen before the snow melts.

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