If you’re a seasoned veteran in the gym, you already know that you need to do some kind of warmup before lifting iron or pounding the treadmill. The movements get more blood flowing to your muscles so they respond quicker and become more flexible and less prone to injury when doing an intense workout. Ideally, your warmup should imitate the exercises you plan on performing in the main workout, and ramp up slowly to your preferred intensity. For example, when warming up for a run, simply start with a walk and then transition into a slow jog.
But when temperatures drop and winter rolls in, and you’re heading outside for a run or a romp in an outdoor gym, do the frosty temps mean you need to warm up for longer?
Remember, your warmup has two main purposes: to decrease risk for injury and enhance performance. “A warmup prepares the body for exercise by increasing the temperature of muscles and connective tissue, which makes them more supple and elastic,” says Stephen D. Ball, Ph.D., professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri. “Nerve conduction is also improved, which aids in fluid movement—all of these factors reduce risk of injury. The warmup also prepares the cardiovascular and metabolic systems to deliver blood and oxygen to the working tissues.”
Also, warming up before practice—specifically 20 minutes of strength, balance, plyometric, and agility warmup—reduces injury risk, according to a 2011 study from Northwestern University on almost 1,500 high school athletes. Research has also shown that warming up can improve your on-field execution—a meta-analysis of 32 studies done before 2010 showed that warming up before sports can boost performance by 79%.
Point is: Because warming up literally increases your muscles’ internal temperature before strenuous activity, you should definitely warm up for longer when it’s cold outside, says Ball. He recommends doubling your normal warmup, and starting out much more slowly because it is tougher for your body to exercise in lower temperatures. Also, says Ball, if exercising in the cold, dress in layers, know the warming signs of frostbite, and be aware of the wind chill.
One interesting point: You don’t need to warm up inside (unless you really hate the cold and want to limit your exposure as much as possible, although one then wonders why you’re outside at all). People with asthma or heart conditions should speak with their doctor before exercising in extreme temps.
Some other general tips for warming up, during the winter or not, include performing the aerobic part of your warm up first. “The warm up traditionally consists of two components—aerobic and flexibility,” says Ball. “The biggest mistake I see in novice exercisers is that they stretch first before performing the aerobic portion of the warmup. You shouldn’t stretch a cold muscle since that may cause more harm than good.”
And another factor related to warming up that most people neglect is the cooldown period after your workout. “The cooldown reduces blood pooling in your muscles and promotes recovery by removing metabolic waste products,” says Ball. “Ever notice that Michael Phelps swims at a slow pace after his races versus just floating there?” After a run, bookend your warmup with a walk for three to five minutes; when you’re done lifting, try a few minutes of lunges on legs day or some static stretching to help your pumped up muscles relax.