Be Ready for Cold Weather Exercise

By Dubuque Physical Therapy Team

October 22, 2021

Written by John Donovan, PT, DPT

One of the blessings we’ve had here in the Midwest this summer was consistent warm weather lasting late into the fall with weekend after weekend of sunny skies beckoning us to the outdoors for exercise and healthy recreational activities. It seems  now that we are in mid-October however, autumn has finally arrived. While we’ll hopefully still have a few weeks of comfortable fall weather to enjoy the colorful scenery here in the Mississippi River Valley, it’s time to start thinking about how to maintain all the healthy outdoor exercise habits you made this summer as the seasons change. 

I’ve talked with several friends and fellow exercisers who have already made the transition to exercising in the dark each morning. Everyone has their own strategy for waking up without the summer sunrise. I’ve heard it all, from extra alarms to coffee pot timers and even loud music. I can’t say that I can recommend all of these, but I do have some pointers for you once you’re out of bed. 


Exercising Outdoors When it is Dark

First, make sure you’re going to be safe in the dark.

  1. The first step is to make sure your gear has some element of reflectivity on it. Many shirts, jackets, shoes and hats now come with these, but you can also buy a reflective vest to wear over your outfit.
  2. The second thing I’ll recommend is a headlamp. Even on the well lit streets, no street lamp is going to be better than a headlamp for visibility. This is as important for your ability to see the ground in front of you as it is for the early morning traffic to see you. Of course, if you’re cycling you should have a front facing headlight instead, but you should also have a rear facing tail light.
  3. For the evening exercisers out there, sunset times are a bit earlier every day but you’ll still have a few weeks to get some workouts in before you’ll be finishing in the dark. Mark your training calendars for November 7th when we’ll move back to central standard time and lose that evening hour of daylight. At that point, we’re all in headlamp season!

Ok, so you’ve got your safety gear all set up and ready to go for the next morning.

Next step: check the weather.

This won’t matter too much in the early fall, but as the morning and evening temperatures continue to drop, make sure that you have the proper layers in your arsenal. If you plan on exercising outside well into winter, make sure you have enough layers and gear to fully cover all skin surfaces. 

Motivational Tip: get your outfit and gear ready to go the night before. This can make getting out of bed just a bit easier. Even if you’re planning on working out after the workday, your gear will be ready to go and getting out the door for your workout will be that much smoother. 

Nice. You’ve got all of your gear ready to go. Now, let’s talk about how to get your body ready.

Drink Water

During the summer, it’s pretty easy to drink water. As the temperatures cool off, however, we have to be a little more deliberate about our fluid intake. Not only does the more comfortable weather decrease our perceived need for water, the drier fall and winter air will actually dehydrate you as well. Most of us have heard of the advice to drink 8 cups of water per day. While this is a great amount to shoot for, we actually need more than this. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, men really need closer to 15 cups and women need a little over 12 cups of water daily. Additionally, your fluid needs might even be greater based on your body size and how much you are exercising. Hill repeats? Long hike? Extra loops on the mountain bike? Better plan on taking in more fluids. 

On top of making it easier to forget to drink your water, the colder weather ushers in a season of warm, sweet drinks. Sorry, your fall themed latte full of caffeine is not ideal for your hydration levels. This is not to say that you shouldn’t treat yourself every now and then, but make sure you are on top of your water consumption when you do stop by your local coffee shop.

Warm Up

So your cool weather gear is all set to go and you’re well hydrated. The final and perhaps most important step is to get your body ready for the exercise you are about to do: warm up. The best warm up routine for you might vary a little from what your workout partners or teammates may do (afterall, everyone’s body is unique!). If you would like assistance in developing a routine that is specific to your needs, reach out to your physical therapist or personal trainer. Otherwise, you want to perform a collection of exercises that roughly fit these criteria: 

Your warm up should include: 

  1. Exercises should have at least a little specificity to the sport or activity you will be performing.
  2. Exercises should be primarily dynamic movement as opposed to static stretches.
  3. Exercises should start easy and increase in intensity (or speed, amount of movement, etc.) as you progress through your routine.


Your routine can certainly take some time to go through and you can even consider this to be part of your workout. However, you don’t want your warm up to be a burden in getting out the door. If you can get through it in about 5 minutes while still getting your heart rate up a little bit, you’ve accomplished your goal and you are ready to go!


Your sport or activity may have additional equipment preparations to consider, but for the most part, be safe, stay hydrated, warm up, and have fun exercising outside the remainder of this fall and into the winter!