Cold: Your Fitness Frenemy

How exercising outside of you temperature comfort zone can beef up your workouts

Plus how to prepare accordingly.

Your environment plays a huge role in your exercise performance and results because exercise is all about adaptation. Your body adapts in order to deal with whatever circumstances it faces on the reg. There are many varieties of adaptations, but today I'm going to focus on how temperature, specifically cold, plays in.

At BAREfit, along with many other minimalist gyms, we have opted to not keep things a balmy 70 degrees this winter. I'd be lying if i didn't partially attribute this to the high cost of heating an uninsulated warehouse built in the 30's (it would easily eclipse our rent), but we knew this going in and could have opted for a space better shielded from the outer environment. So were we just hoping for 50 degree winters from here out or is there something else at play...

Working out in colder (in the winter) or hotter (in the summer) temperatures supercharges your workouts in 2 main ways:

1) You burn more calories!! 

The reason for this is really pretty simple. Your body has to work harder to regulate itself when in temperature above or below the norm, thus it burns more fuel in the same way a car gets worse gas mileage in the winter. Except when your body's concerned, thats a good thing because calories are your body's fuel.  

2) Your body adapts to perform in your present environment.

I'm a born again believer in fully realized functional fitness. By "fully realized" i mean training that moves beyond doing some body weight squats between curl machine sets and affects every facet of exercise. If a person wants to perform well in a given environment, they must adapt to that environment.  For Louisville, KY, that means adapting to cold and nasty in the winter & hot and sweaty in the summer. Exercising in a 65 degree box is not functional because it fails to prepare one for the aforementioned local weather. Case in point my sister who lives in Florida freezes out and is unable to perform in 55 degree weather because she's adapted to perform in 80 degree weather. On the other hand, a 55 degree day in January means sandals and shorts for me.  To a certain point hot/cold is a totally relative factor dependent on whatever your body considers normal temperature.

Now for the Disclaimer

This is not meant to evoke a military inspired "pain is weakness leaving the body" vibe.  Discretion and preparedness is advised when applying this principle. Hypothermia, frost bite, etc. are exposure based conditions.  Obviously, you want to avoid these conditions and doing so is easy. if you know your limits and dress accordingly.

Know Your Limits

Just like anything, weather adaptations take time.  Generally this happens naturally as the seasons change.  Also, listen to your body. Shivering, light headedness, numb fingers/toes, burning lungs, super sensitive skin, these are signs that it's too cold for you. This "too cold" point depends on exposure time, layers worn, and level of adaptation. In the end, you have to just listen to and trust your body.

Dress accordingly

Your clothing is the first and easiest step in enjoying cooler environment workouts.  Layering is key.  Three layers is the gold standard: Base-layer, Mid-layer, and Outer-layer.  Most Base-layers are synthetic (polyester, nylon) or merino wool (my personal favorite), fit snug, and wick (or pull) moisture away from the skin.  This keeps your skin warm and dry as opposed to cotton which literally sucks heat out of you when its wet. Mid-layers are heavier than base-layers yet still breath well.  This would be a fleece, a sweatshirt or even lightly insulated jacket if its really cold. The Outer-layer's main job is to keep heat in and cold out and can range from a windbreaker vest to a heavily insulated shell depending on the environment and activity. With this 3 layer system, you can regulate temperature before, during and post workout by removing and adding layers.

Consider yourself schooled on cool weather exercise. Now its up to you to get out, get your body adapting and dial in your winter wardrobe. Don't let that high of 30 keep you from your fitness goals. Everyone is different so go at your own pace and don't worry about that guy wearing runner shorts in the snow ;)  


Have a favorite winter exercise set up? Share it with us and the BAREfit Community in the comments below.