Across much of the United States, when winter descends and blankets our locales in snow, ice, and chilly temperatures, there are few more welcome respites than the health club. At the gym, it’s possible to stay fit, find community, and even warm up. It’s an appealing alternative to staying in without having to face the season’s uncomfortable elements.
But as the old Scandinavian saying goes, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”
With proper forethought, those uncomfortable elements can elevate your fitness, testing your hard-won workout gains and delivering new challenges to complement your indoor exercise routine.
Whether you head for the mountains, into the woods, onto frozen lakes or rivers, or to your local park, natural winter playgrounds await.
Let these athletes and adventurers lead you out of your indoor comfort zone and into the outdoors. Guided by benefits, beginner tips, adventure ratings, and more, you’ll soon be on your way to greater wellness in the great wide open.
Ryan Krol, NASM, a Life Time personal trainer, running coach, and competitive trail runner, helped us devise this handy scale — which takes into account not only the outdoor elements and risk involved but also the learning curve — to help you decide whether your new outdoor pursuit is within your wheelhouse.
- Think going outside to fetch the newspaper or take out the trash.
- “Yes, now I’m starting to get moving.”
- Your heart is beginning to really pump.
- You’re challenged, and navigating new and sometimes risky terrain.
- “Hmm, the gym doesn’t sound so bad right now . . .”
- Chances are you’re entering into uncharted territory; stay well equipped.
- The adrenaline is soaring; wear a helmet and be prepared for obstacles.
- “When I get through this, I can’t wait to Instagram it. People will be shocked!”
- Highly experienced guides or partners and safety-tested gear are a must.
- Yikes! Think skiing a World Cup downhill course.
If You Like the Elliptical, Try Snowshoeing
Why? “If you can walk, you can snowshoe,” says Mark Elmore, sports director at the U.S. Snowshoe Association. First practiced around 6,000 years ago in what is now Central Asia, snowshoeing simply involves putting one foot in front of the other — with each foot strapped into a nifty piece of equipment that allows you to move easily across the snow.
As Elmore explains, it’s an inexpensive sport you can do anywhere you find the white stuff, without lift tickets or a long drive to a ski area. Plus, snowshoeing is an activity that allows athletes of all ages to venture into uncharted territory for glimpses of animal tracks and wildlife.
“The benefits are endless,” says Elmore. “Snowshoeing is a full-body workout that provides great cardiovascular benefits, increases your core strength, really works those small, tough-to-train stabilizer muscles, and helps reduce stress by getting you outside in the fresh air and the full beauty of nature in winter.”
Once you learn to walk in snowshoes, you can try running, boosting your endurance levels while also strengthening your glutes, hamstrings, and calf muscles. You’ll improve your balance and your confidence and be able to access beautiful remote locations. (Find tips to advance your snowshoeing at “How to Up Your Snowshoeing Game”.)
Start by: Pacing yourself. Snowshoeing is similar to the elliptical machine in the way it works the hip flexors, but it can be awkward to go from predictable steps to unpredictable strides on uneven terrain. Rent high-quality equipment from a reputable shop that will allow you to test out the snowshoes for comfort and a snug fit — this will let you focus on the view ahead instead of any issues underfoot.
Dressing in breathable layers to adapt to the body heat you’ll generate. “The quickest way not to enjoy yourself is to overdress and get all sweaty, and then quickly chilled off when you stop for a moment,” advises Elmore, who adds that a small backpack can store layers as well as essentials such as water (in a thermos) and trail mix (energy bars can freeze) to keep you hydrated and fueled. “And a good pair of sunglasses is essential on any outing.”
Adventure rating: 4 to 6
Balance it out: After the adventure, practice pigeon pose in a warm room to help loosen your hip muscles.
If You Like Barre, Try Ice Skating
Why? From romantic movie scenes at New York’s Rockefeller Center to magical meanderings along Ottawa’s fabled Rideau Canal, ice skating outdoors has long captured our imaginations. Who hasn’t wanted to jump and twirl like Michelle Kwan or Johnny Weir?
“Gliding is a fantastic feeling, and many liken it to the sensation of flying,” says Erika Lehman, the marketing director for U.S. Figure Skating. “It’s a unique blend of balance, coordination, and endurance. You’ll work up a sweat and activate many muscle groups in one skating session.”
The balancing movements performed in a barre class, says Lehman, lend stability on the ice and help skaters adjust to the slippery surface. “Flexibility maneuvers practiced indoors will help with ice skating as well,” she says, “as skating involves a lot of deep knee bends and extensions, even at the beginner levels.”
Plus, outdoor skating rinks are perfect for dates, a night out with a small group of friends, a daytime escape with the family, or just plain people-watching. You’ll experience sights and sounds found nowhere else, and you’ll bring improved coordination, core strength, and balance back to your indoor regimen.
Start by: Practicing falling down and getting back up while wearing your skates before getting on the ice, advises Lehman.
“This will help you familiarize yourself with the movements needed to stand back up and get used to the balance on the blade.” The safest way to fall is to the side; bending your knees in a squat position will help reduce the impact.
Out on the ice, says Lehman, keep your gaze up. “Your head weighs a lot and looking down at the ice will bring your weight forward,” she says. “Have fun and move at your own pace! Whether you’re moving fast or taking your time with precise movements, you’re engaging numerous muscle groups and getting a great workout.”
Adventure rating: 2 to 4, depending on whether you’re skating on an outdoor rink or a larger frozen surface, such as a lake or canal.
Balance it out: Off the ice, try a series of basic yoga poses, such as tree (for balance), warrior 1 (for hip mobility and quad strength), triangle (for ankle strength), and hero (to reduce foot cramping). (Find tips to improve your skating at “4 Ways to Improve Your Ice-Skating Technique”.)
If You Like the SkiErg, Try Cross-Country Skiing
Why? Cross-country skiing is a fun, efficient way to move through winter conditions while staying warm and getting a great workout.
“Cross-country skiing is low-impact and one of the safest activities you can participate in,” says Drew Barney, the head coach for the West Yellowstone Nordic Ski Team in Montana and an organizer of the Yellowstone Ski Festival. “It’s also one of the best sports for cardio and a full-body workout, plus a great way to improve your balance and agility skills along with power and endurance. It’s very dynamic.”
If you’ve been working out indoors on a SkiErg, you know the basic motion for poling yourself forward and have most likely developed the upper-body muscles to make a smooth transition outdoors. That’s a step ahead of many runners, hikers, and cyclists, says Barney, “who have decent leg strength but often neglect their upper bodies.”
That said, gliding on two skinny, slippery skis with only your toes attached requires some practice. To work on balance, spend time simply standing on one foot, and then doing so with your eyes closed — without moving your body. “You cannot overdo this practice,” says Barney. “A Norwegian coach told me he would go scouting for new recruits at ballet schools.”
Cross-country skiers get hooked on the sport not just for the physical perks but also the mental ones, which contribute to an overall sense of well-being. The sparkling snow on freshly groomed trails; the freedom found by gliding through meadows and woods with a mesmerizing kick-and-glide or skating motion; the laughter with friends and family after a tumble or two — it all adds up to an extraordinary winter experience.
Start by: Renting “classic” cross-country equipment from a local shop. Classic is the traditional form of cross-country skiing and requires slightly more stable gear for propelling yourself forward on parallel tracks.
Skate-skiing mimics the more lateral push of ice skating; you’ll go faster but you’ll also be exerting a lot more effort.
Practicing proper body position is also great preparation for a satisfying day on the trails. “Picture walking along, talking to friends, and getting ready to start a run,” says Barney. “Then start the run, but on skis, and repeat. This movement will shift the hips and upper torso forward at the ankles. You will want to live in that position while skiing — it’s important not to bend at the waist.”
Being patient with yourself. When Barney teaches clinics at the annual Yellowstone Festival, it’s around day three that the aha! moments hit new skiers. (More experienced skiers can find tips to up their game at “Hit Your Glide”.)
Adventure rating: 4 to 6
Balance it out: Hit a hot tub on the way home to soothe any sore muscles.
If You Like HIIT Classes, Try Downhill Skiing
Why? “There’s nothing better than feeling the wind in your face, the cold on your skin, and the beauty surrounding you as you fly down the mountains,” says Doug Lewis, a two-time Olympian and director of the ELITEAM.com fitness camps.
“And the thrill is the same whether you’re a beginner or an Olympian. The feeling I get when I push my limits at 85 miles per hour is the same feeling you get when you push your own limits just over the edge — an adrenaline-filled smile!”
The euphoria you feel when you’ve finished 50 burpees in a HIIT class? It increases exponentially when you’re ripping sweet arcs down the slopes, with a steaming cup of hot cocoa or coffee awaiting you at the base lodge.
The sometimes unpredictable conditions and terrain require quick movements and adaptability, making skiing a welcome fitness challenge for those who are looking for more excitement. At the same time, the stop-start nature of the sport suits newer skiers well, because they can enjoy the physical challenge — and adrenaline rush — without having to sustain continuous high levels of intensity.
“Since ski runs usually take between one and four minutes, you know you will have the cardio efficiency to feel energetic and powerful all the way to the lift line,” says Lewis. “Plus, the movements you are using in the gym are a lot of the same movements you’ll use on the mountain: deep squats, lots of core, and full range of motion.”
Like cross-country skiing, downhill also demands plenty of balance, so if you’re not already doing one-legged movements in your routine, adding them will help prepare you for the “uneven, ever-changing platform made of ice and snow with other people randomly flying by,” suggests Lewis.
How’s that for a HIIT rush?
Start by: Working with a well-established ski shop whose experts will ensure that your equipment (including a helmet) matches your experience level. Answer the ability-level questionnaire honestly, so that your skis release from your bindings if you get into a tricky spot.
And don’t be afraid to ski the bunny slope repeatedly until you get the hang of the terrain; you’ll be much happier when you graduate to the upper lifts. “Get out early when you are fresh and the snow is best,” says Lewis. “Stop every two hours to take in some food and liquid, and then quit early to enjoy a beverage and relive your day!”
(Find advice for enhancing your skiing at “4 Drills to Up Your Downhill-Skiing Game”.)
Adventure rating: 7 to 9
Balance it out: Back home, roll out your calves, quadriceps, and lower back with a foam roller.
Dressing for Cold Weather
The right clothing can make or break an active outdoor experience. Because your body temperature rises during vigorous exercise — not to mention when you’re excited — experts recommend dressing as if it were 20 degrees warmer outside than it actually is.
But this suggestion is merely a starting point as you consider your gear. Depending on the temperature, even 20 degrees warmer may still be very cold. And your effort may be consistently vigorous, or may be full of fits and starts, causing your body to repeatedly cool down and warm back up.
And everybody is different. Trial and error, with backup plans for safety, will serve you well in the long run. These tips can help you stay comfortable in the cold:
- Keep your head and hands covered and take precautions to protect your feet with wool socks and lined boots.
- Choose moisture-wicking fabrics, such as wool, mohair, or synthetics.
- Avoid cotton at all costs. It traps moisture when you sweat, putting you at risk of losing body heat and also resulting in chafing or blisters.
- Dress in layers that are easy to adjust. Arm warmers, neck gaiters, and headbands that can be pulled up and down are prudent choices.
This article originally appeared as “Inside Out 2: Cold Pursuits” in the November 2020 issue of Experience Life.