Here's How to Avoid Injury in Cold-Weather Workouts

Published January 24, 2018

By Dr. Asheesh Gupta

If you’re motivated to start or keep up with a fitness routine this winter, that doesn’t mean you have to be stuck inside. There are plenty of activities – such as running, cycling and winter sports – that will give you the benefit of fresh air and sunshine, even if it’s chilly.

But before you lace up your shoes, it’s important to know how the cold air can affect your muscles, lungs and heart, and how to protect yourself from injuries. Here are a few extra precautions to keep in mind if you plan to exercise outside:

Your muscles tense up in the cold. When muscles lose heat, they contract, causing the length of the muscle to actually shorten. This puts you at a greater risk for strains, sprains and even tears, especially at the beginning of a workout, before you have warmed up.

A thorough warm-up can help prevent injury. It’s important to take your time warming up if you plan to work out in the cold. Stretch the muscles you’ll be using as much as you can. For example, runners should focus on their calves and hamstrings, which are most susceptible to an injury.

Don’t go from 0 to 100. A sudden burst of speed on a run could cause an eccentric contraction, which could easily lead to an injury such as a muscle strain/tear. You want to gradually increase the intensity of your exercise, even after you’ve warmed up carefully.

Layer up. Dress in layers that are sweat-absorbent, so they can dissipate your sweat without getting clammy or making you colder. The Mayo Clinic recommends you start with a thin layer of synthetic material, followed by a layer of fleece or wool for insulation and a waterproof, breathable outer layer. You’ll be able to remove layers as you build up a sweat, but can easily put them back on if you feel a chill. Be sure to protect your hands, feet and ears.

Measure your effort, not the results. Your body requires significantly more effort to work out in cold weather, so don’t expect to match your typical speed, distance or endurance if it’s chilly outside. It may be helpful to wear a fitness tracker to help measure your caloric burn instead of your pace.

Be mindful of the rest of your body – not just your muscles. Cold weather can exacerbate any pulmonary or cardiac issues you may have. It can also worsen exercise-induced asthma, or predispose you to bronchial spasms. To reduce the strain on your heart and lungs, it’s especially important to warm up your body by stretching prior to going outside. And if you already suffer from any of these issues, I’d recommend exercising indoors.

Dr. Asheesh Gupta is a hip preservation surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Nova Orthopedic and Spine care center in Woodbridge and McLean, Va. He specializes in hip arthroscopy and anterior-approach minimally-invasive total hip arthroplasty.  He gained significant sports medicine experience through a fellowship with New York University.  He pursued an additional year of training as a comprehensive hip fellow at the American Hip Institute where he performed hip arthroscopy for femoroacetabular impingement.  He has been a team physician for the New York Rangers, Chicago Sky and UIC Flames. Dr. Gupta received his undergraduate and MPH degrees from the University of Michigan, medical degree from Michigan State University and completed his residency at the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago.