It’s Winter – Take Off Your Coat


I grew up skiing and know that my body thrives from being outside in the winter. You can do it, too!

In between listening to David Bowie songs today (he passed away last night, leaving a large hole in my musical life), I actually had time to listen to a couple of podcasts.  One of those was Katy Bowman’s Nutritious Movement episode about movement in winter (here’s the transcript, and links to the audio are here as well).

The challenge, of course, is that it’s perfectly natural when it gets cold to hunker down and avoid being out in the elements when it’s wet, snowy, and all together nasty out.  The winter is a time of something less than abundance, especially for hunter-gatherers, and it makes sense to sit in the cave and not expend any more energy than is necessary.

That is the prevailing hypothesis, but as we are wont to do as modern humans, we take that to the extreme with regard to winter.

It’s important to remember that even if our ancestors did hide out in a cave (or even had a cave to rely on – it was probably some sort of temporary shelter that they’d built), it likely wasn’t at 65 degrees or warmer all the time.  I recall during a tour of Mammoth Cave as a kid, the ranger explaining to us that the cave temperature sometimes got as low as 51 degrees Fahrenheit, and often as high as 52 (the point being that the temperature was pretty constant) – not what most of us would consider normal indoor temps.  And if they wanted to eat, they were going outside to find something to eat – because that’s where the food was.

Being exposed to the elements was part of who we were as humans.  It’s one of the reasons that fire was so important to us, obviously, but it also created a number of important effects on our bodies.

  • It helps us fight disease (you’ll hear a lot of people talk about how, when you feel cold symptoms, you should take a cold shower or plunge).
  • It can help with male fertility.
  • It can help with weight loss.
  • It can boost mood.

There’s little doubt that cold is natural to our lives, and as much as it can be uncomfortable, it’s also something that we are evolved to handle and even thrive from.  This goes back to the idea of “reverse acclimitization” that I’ve introduced in the past; where something that we’ve evolved to handle may also be beneficial to us – our bodies expecting the force to which we’ve acclimitized.

So how do we get out of the need for heat?  A little bit at a time.

In my years as a regular bicycle commuter, non-car-owner, and frequent outdoor enthusiast, I’ve come up with a few things that we can do to get our bodies to become accustomed to the cold.

Get out of the house more often.

There’s little doubt that more frequent exposure to the elements makes us more “immune” to the quick changes between them.  And being exposed to the elements over time, spending time outside during all the seasons, is the best way to do that.  Just as being outside a lot in the summer makes us more capable of handling heat, being outside during the winter has the same effect on helping us handle cold.

Train in the cold

Don’t hide in the gym this time of year.  Get out of the house and do your workout.

Don’t be dumb about it, though – wear gloves and at least earmuffs, because extremities will have more problems in the cold until we get our internal heat up.  But if you’re looking for what to wear, I’m going to go back to the advice I gave people for cold-weather bike commuting: if you’re a little bit cold before you take off on your bike, then by the time you get going you’ll be fine.

In cold, dry, winter weather, I’d recommend sweat-wicking tights or long underwear underneath some sort of windbreaking fabric.  I generally do an UnderArmour t-shirt (long or short-sleeved) under a fleece sweatshirt, with a light windbreaker; my pair of REI Mobility tights (which they don’t make any more, but there are plenty of companies making wicking tights now) under some windbreaker pants, warm socks with my winter-weight running shoes, a face gaiter (I use this one from Triple Aught Design) and gloves and earmuffs or a watch cap of some kind.  I warm up quickly and then when I’m cooling down, I can open the jacket, shuck the hat or gloves, etc. and cool down nicely.

The other item you might need for running in the cold is a pair of Yaktrax.  These are those cleats that fit on your shoes to keep yourself from slipping on the ice and snow – and they work great.  They’re inexpensive and can last a long time.

We’re lucky in this day and age to have so many great options for cold-weather gear – the outdoor retailers have been very good to us.  Take advantage.

Take a cold shower or cold water plunge

Here’s the one that I’m still working on – I would be a complete hypocrite if I said that this one was easy.  My high school swim coach called me out my senior year for always being the last one in the water, because I hated the initial cold feeling.  But there’s not a doubt in my mind that it was good for me.  I rarely got sick when I was swimming competitively because of always being in the cool water.

The link above about the benefits of cold talks about some tips for cold water immersion and making it easier.  I’m working on this myself, as I said, so if I come up with any of my own I shall do so.

Trust your body – and your kids’ bodies

Nothing makes less sense to the modern mind than taking clothes off in the winter, and we work hard to impress upon our kids that they need to bundle up for the cold.  But Katy Bowman’s podcast above talks about how our kids may be more in tune with the cold that their bodies can handle up to a certain age.  They haven’t had the modern mantras about cold smashed into them yet – and they’ll be more instinctual about what their bodies are feeling, which can be good.

Now, I’m NOT talking about older kids who ridiculously reject wearing coats in the winter because they’re not cool (no pun intended), I’m talking about younger kids who don’t think they need the coat  you’re trying to pry them into.  Give yourself and them layers to wear and let them handle how much of it they wear.  You may end up carrying some of it till you get more in tune with your bodies, but that’s okay.  With layers you can stuff one or two into a backpack or whatever and you’ll be just fine.

Find an outdoor sport you like

I stand by my assertion to southerners and people who’ve come to Columbus from warmer climes that a big key to enjoying winter is simply to find something you enjoy doing in it.  If you think about winter as a time to have fun, you’ll lose some of that fear.  Downhill and cross-country skiing, sledding, skating, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and more are all great things you can do outside that you can’t do any other time of year.  Find one that works for you and give it a shot!

So that’s it.  I’m going out for a walk right now – in the 16 degrees Fahrenheit weather.  I’m wearing a shirt, sweater, and I’ll have my pea coat, with gloves and my 180s Ear Warmers.

I’ll be fine.  You will too, give it a try!