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What to Wear for Winter Exercise

Jan 05, 2012

Written by Thomas Altena, Ed.D., FACSM

When I agreed to write this article on winter weather clothing, my mind first recalled my many exercise sessions performed in winter extremes that made me question my sanity at times. My second thought was the scene from A Christmas Story where Ralphie’s little brother, Randy, was immobilized in his red snow suit. In comparison to that memorable movie, current winter-weather exercise clothing has technologically advanced fabrics. Today, manufacturers produce clothes in a variety of natural and synthetic materials that wick moisture, insulate the body and protect skin from cold temperatures, and these clothes often block both wind and precipitation while remaining highly mobile and comfortable.

My experience with exercise in sub-zero temperatures combined with deadly windchills down to -40°F in the intense winter weather comes from my time in the upper Midwest, where I spend the holiday season with family. If you are anything like me, exercise happens in any weather. Before you challenge the elements, it is important to know the current weather conditions and if they may change as your exercise session progresses. Being underprepared or underestimating the elements is unwise, and there are days when the best option is finding an indoor alternative. Keep in mind that definitions of winter weather will vary based on geographical location, personal experience and personal tolerances. When you begin your exercise session, your body should feel cold, but you will warm up quickly and begin to feel more acclimated to the winter weather. Your body will sweat; thus, skin exposure and moisture management are key to remaining warm, safe and comfortable.

Skin exposure can create dangerous—even deadly—circumstances if you are unprepared for cold temperatures and wind chill factors. Keeping the outside “out” is important, and many materials made of both synthetic and natural fibers keep the elements away from your skin.

Winter Weather Materials

A few manufacturers make windproof materials that completely block the wind from penetrating the fabric, which is typically incorporated at the specific locations of jackets, pants, tights and gloves that face the wind. The downside of windproof material is that it does not allow sweat to escape, so plan to accumulate sweat under the shell. A shell like GORE-TEX® is great for winter because the material is waterproof to precipitation yet allows sweat to escape. But GORE-TEX is not windproof. If your choice is to not wear a synthetic material or a windproof fabric, wool or wool blend (50 percent wool) are amazing natural fiber alternatives that provide excellent breathability, mobility, wind prevention and insulation. Unlike synthetic materials that do not accumulate moisture, sweat and precipitation will pass through natural woolblended fabrics and will freeze on the outer part of the fabric. This freezing effect may seem detrimental, but the ice formed on top of the fabric creates a natural wind barrier effective for keeping a person warm. Many of these high-tech fabrics, including hats, socks and gloves, have special washing and drying instructions. Washing these items on delicate or hand-wash cycle and drying them on low heat or line-drying will make sure the fabrics continue to be high performers with longevity for many winter seasons.

Moisture Management

Moisture management might be the single most important factor for keeping the body warm during winter exercise. Even in the coldest of temperatures, the body will produce sweat and, if that moisture is not removed from the skin, feel chilled. I recommend avoiding cotton and cotton blends because they absorb sweat. Instead of cotton, a better choice is base layer, a moisture-wicking synthetic fabric that moves sweat from the skin. Base layer is a blend of nylon, Lycra®, elastane, polyester and acrylic. A good base layer fits snugly against the skin and moves as your body moves because it is skin-tight and elastic. When selecting a base layer, make sure that you explore different fabric thicknesses for different temperatures. As an added bonus, layering two or three base layers can provide added insulation for very cold conditions (approximately 10°F or lower) and will increase moisture management. Running and cycling tights also come in a variety of material thickness, just like base-layer shirts. The Lycra-spandex tights of old are still available, but now tights incorporate windproof front panels or a polyurethane coating that feels like thin neoprene in the front of the legs to prevent wind and water from reaching the skin.

Layering 101

Concerning layers, the goal is to keep the core of your body warm, so upper-body layering is more important than lower-body layering. However, layering tights in the most extreme combinations of cold temperatures and wind chills is recommended, though it may compromise mobility. What you wear under your tights is a personal preference; one of the best options I have discovered is tri-shorts (minimal chamois bike shorts).

Protecting Your Extremities

  • Hands—Gloves with a GORE-TEX lining are a great choice for moisture management, but windproof gloves might be an advantage in a cold wind. I have discovered that these gloves fail after about 90 minutes of exercise, as sweat production exceeds the material’s ability remove moisture. The thin, stretchy knit gloves are a low-cost option for gloves in moderately cold weather. These are easy to layer for variety. Plus, losing one glove won’t break the bank.
  • Feet—If you exercise in ice and packed snow, trail running shoes have an aggressive tread pattern. To improve grip even more, fit your running shoes with crampons.
  • Face—Face covering is important to some people, but a facemask can capture humidity in breathing and impair vision by fogging up sunglasses or prescription lenses. Instead of a facemask, try using petroleum jelly on exposed skin in extreme cold. Petroleum jelly creates a thin barrier between your skin and the elements, but it will increase the risk of sunburn.

As you consider exercising in the cold weather, I’d also recommend that you always carry a cell phone in case of emergency. But remember that sweat ruins cell phones. You can protect your cell phone with simple a zipper-locked plastic bag.

View the full winter 2011 issue of the ACSM Fit Society® Page supported by Liberty Mutual online.

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