fitness

Exercising in a winter wonderland

I am not a natural winter-lover. I hated winter when I was a kid. Summer remains my true love. I partially attribute this to being born at the end of June. It was how I was acclimatized from an early age 🙂

I have been told stories of how I used to cry my head off when I had to put my snow pants on and go outside in the winter. As many Torontonians my age will say, winters were harsher back then. We had lots more snow. Or is it just that we were smaller and it seemed like more snow? I do remember a constant pile of snow lining Bathurst St., where I grew up, all winter long. It was MUCH taller than me all winter. Or at least it seemed it. We have had snowy winters in recent years, but there are many winters where we’ve had hardly any.

A photo from 1971 (I wasn’t born yet) of a Toronto blizzard. A person is pushing their car out of a snow bank. This is how I picture winter as a kid in Toronto.

As a teenager, I remember being too cool for hats and other winter accessories and running to the store at lunch with friends, and freezing, because we weren’t dressed properly. Not winter’s fault!

I don’t ski or skate. I am not good at things where my brain has to relinquish control to my feet. Particularly, on uneven surfaces. For this reason, typical winter sports didn’t helped me enjoy winter.

When did I start appreciating winter more? When I started running. I started running many years ago, in September. It was late summer, early fall, and I had just returned from a trip to British Columbia, where my aunt running head of me, while I walked, inspired me to start a running program when I got home. My first “race” was a 10K run in Ajax, a small city east of Toronto, in December. It was aptly called a “Chilly 10” or something like that.

So, my running program forced me to learn how to dress for, and embrace running outside, as the weather became colder and snowier. By the time I finished that first 10K, I was hooked on running and wanted to start training for my first half marathon. And while I hadn’t, yet, developed my aversion to running on treadmills, I preferred running outside. I enjoyed going places. Having a start and finish. Finishing at one of my favourite places for coffee is a delight.

It didn’t take long for me to notice that when I was dressed appropriately, running in the winter was pretty lovely. One of my favourite traditions which started that year, was running on Christmas morning. It’s always so quiet. And often, there is lightly falling snow. It feels so magical. Look at what a little “winter-lover” I became.

Is it Christmas morning? Not yet. This was Sunday morning at the park and those are tracks in the snow from my running shoes.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t choose summer over winter. I prefer summer, followed by spring, early fall and then early winter. I do not enjoy late fall because I find the adjustment to the darker days, harder and sadder, and I know what’s coming. By late winter, the joy in the season is getting old and I am ready for spring. Plus, in early winter, I can relish the idea that the days are starting to get longer, even if it is doing so at a snail’s pace.

My acceptance of winter running has spilled over into other areas of winter activity. When I was still going to the office for work, I walked most days. Even in the winter. People always found this surprising. But as long as it wasn’t exceptionally messy on the sidewalks (which isn’t typical in Toronto these days) and not one of the -30C with the windchill days, I’d much prefer dress for, and walk outside, than pile on to the stuffed streetcar. That’s just me. Although if we ever go back to the office, after this pandemic is over, I doubt I will be alone in this sentiment.

It’s old news that the pandemic has made exercising inside more challenging. In addition to running outside, I have been enjoying my outdoor park workouts with Move fitness club. There is a much smaller group partaking in these workouts these days. It’s not desirable to many. Each to their own.

A picture of our small group, between EMOMs (every minute, on the minute), in the park, last Sunday.
This day was not snowy but it was cold. And, I ‘m doing “pallof presses” which is the kind of thing that is good for you, but that I would never do on my own.

According to this article from Harvard Health, there are advantages to exercising outside, in the winter, including:

  1. “In colder temperatures your heart doesn’t have to work as hard, you sweat less, and expend less energy, all of which means you can exercise more efficiently.”
  2. “Winter workouts help you get exposure to sunlight, which may help ward off seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that some people experience during the winter months.”

The article also talks about things to be cautious about in the winter, including “While cold-weather exercise is safe for most people, if you have certain conditions, such as asthma or heart problems, check with your doctor to review any special precautions you need to take based on your condition or medications.”

Here are some tips for cold weather exercise from the article:

  1. Wear layers (I agree, this is crucial as it keeps you warm and gives you flexibility as you warm up to de-layer).
  2. Protect your head, hands and feet (where heat will escape most easily).
  3. Wear sunscreen on exposed skin (face). Yeah it’s cold but you still risk getting a sunburn, especially around snow.
  4. Stay hydrated.
  5. Choose a safe surface.

A tip I would add is to not expect it to be the same as working out in the summer. You may have to modify your workout. You won’t be sprinting up hills or doing step ups on slippery steps. But there are good alternatives (running on the spot and high knees) and change can be good for you brain, in addition to your body.

In my mind, there are pros and cons to exercising outside right now. They are (not an exhaustive list):

Pros

  • the ability to feel like you have “mettle”, “grit”, “tenaciousness” (good, old-fashioned, bragging rights – which is what Insta was made for, no?)
  • once you are warmed up, you realize “it’s not that bad”
  • it can be beautiful if there is snow, sun, other outdoor elements that you might not appreciate if you were not working out, outdoors
  • in the case of a group workout in the park (spaciously distanced, etc.), you get the camaraderie and incentive derived from others
  • you are working out! movement is good any time of year!
  • there are winter days that are definitely challenging. But slightly cold weather can be easier to work out in than 30 degree celsius summer days.
  • you get to wear cute winter hats and other gear

Cons

  • it’s not summer
  • you may get a little damp from doing things in wet snow
  • you are not snuggled inside with your book, coffee and dogs
  • you will become one of those people who post “post-workout” pics, when your endorphins are pumping, and you can’t help yourself
  • you may have to resignedly admit that some winter days are just as nice, if not nicer, than some summer days
  • you have to do more laundry, because there are more layers that need constant washing

I wholeheartedly assert that people should embrace winter movement, in any way, that they are able. What about you readers? Do you enjoy exercising outside in the the winter?

Nicole P. with her toque and women’s 416 run neck gaiter, on her way to her winter park workout.

5 thoughts on “Exercising in a winter wonderland

  1. Thank you for this. Every winter for the past decade or so I start off resolving that this will be the winter I don’t sit grumpily inside wishing it were summer until finally it is. It feels like such a waste to essentially write off whole months at a time. So it’s really great to see that yes, it is possible, for someone who thinks they don’t like winter to enjoy exercising outdoors in the winter. I am trying again this year. So far so good!

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  2. I love winter exercise–particularly xc skiing. I’m not so much of a snow runner–because of aforementioned cross country skiing. BUT–this a.m. in Montreal I ran with the falling snow. My first time in snow spikes on my shoes! What a gift. And yes–as you say–made me feel gritty and mettle-y!!

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