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Exercising in Cold Weather

For climates that experience the change of seasons, especially the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, winter can sometimes feel like it lasts from October through March. While most people head indoors at the first sign of frost, there are some who still forge ahead into the brisk temperatures to continue with their workouts and exercise regimens. Being prepared with an arsenal of cold-weather gear is vital in the harsh elements.


The best way to be prepared for the low temperatures is to approach the weather systematically. Each cold-weather outfit should have three parts to it: a base layer, a mid layer, and a shell. 

The Base Layer

The base layer is the layer closest to your skin. There are numerous products on the market, from different brands and with different weights of material. If you’re heading into the chilly weather to be physically active, it is important to note that the fit of the base layer sometimes can affect performance. While some will opt for cotton, wool, or a more natural material to be closest to the skin, the best material is a synthetic fabric, such as polyester or microfiber. This material is designed to wick away the moisture of your skin without absorbing it, while still trapping your body heat. Synthetics can be as much as 53 percent lighter than cotton after 60 minutes of exercise, which means you won’t be slowed down by extra weight.

The Mid Layer

The purpose of the mid layer is to provide additional insulation. The key is to provide the best possible conditions for continued wicking away of moisture from the skin, while still trapping the heat. If the gap between layers is too great, this may reduce the transfer of moisture. Some of the options for materials in the mid layer are:
  • Wool provides good insulation, transfers moisture fairly well, and even when it does have moisture, does not feel wet.
  • Fleece a synthetic type of wool that comes in various weights but is lighter than real wool; it also allows for greater flexibility than wool provides.
  • Down has great insulation properties and can be packed down to take up very little room. However, it can be expensive. It also makes a thick mid-layer garment, dries slowly, and loses its insulating properties when wet.
  • Synthetic filling does not insulate as well as some other materials, but is less expensive, absorbs little moisture, and dries very quickly if it does get wet. 
  • Cotton the cheapest alternative for a mid layer, but it provides poor insulation and poor moisture wicking. If you are physically active on a cold day, cotton should be your last choice, because it will not help you stay warm, and it will get wet from your perspiration, and stay wet.

The Shell

The purpose of the shell, the outermost layer, is to block wind or water from coming in, while still allowing moisture from the inside to be wicked away. Because of this, breathability of the shell layer is crucial. However, finding a good balance between breathability and protection can be difficult. Some common options used for a shell layer are plastic raincoats, waterproof breathable hard shells, and water-resistant soft shells.
Plastic raincoats will be the most protective from wind and rain, but the material does not allow for moisture wicking.  Waterproof breathable hard shells protect from the elements, but are still somewhat breathable. Water-resistant soft shells are more breathable, comfortable, thinner, and cheaper, but will not offer complete protection from wind or rain. However, for those who wish to be physically active, the soft shell allows for increased range of motion and less restriction of movement.

The Bottom Line

It is important to approach cold weather activities in a carefully planned and systematic way. Proper layering and use of materials with the best insulation and moisture wicking is the key to your success in the brisk, wintery months. Some might look outside from their warm, toasty homes, shocked to see you running in such cold temperatures. But with the proper gear and right knowledge, you can forge ahead through the most blustery of conditions.

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