I may be a longtime resident of New York, but I’ll never stop being a Californian. Even after living here for so long, winter is still a complete surprise to me, each and every season. Cold weather makes running and cycling outdoors tricky. If there’s even a hint of sunlight, I just assume it’ll be short-sleeve weather. On my way out the door, I’ve made more mid-stoop U-turns for additional clothing than I care to admit.
With a little adaptation, though, I’ve acquired a certain affection for winter. This year, global warming (or just typically variable maritime mid-Atlantic conditions) kept the cold at bay until January. Then, I had a real pang of regret when a business trip took me out-of-town during the one week when New York City trees finally decided to pack it in and dump the leaves. We still have no white stuff—just some good cold air, and memories of a 70-degree Saturday only a few weeks ago that I find hard to forget.
Anyway, now that the cold weather is finally upon us, here’s what I do to try and get in some productive outdoor time during the winter months. Is this pro-level coaching advice? Heck no, by all means, find (and pay for) a professional if that’s what you’re after. This is just one shivering Cali-boy’s way of not going all The Shining between December and March.
Weather.com  is your friend. While the coffee is still brewing, and before I’ve knocked the sleep from my eyes, I’m already booting up the PC. Radio weather is geared for drivers, and what’s happening just thirty miles away on Long Island or up the Hudson may have nothing to do with Brooklyn. Yesterday’s forecast doesn’t matter. Hour-by-hour temperature and wind displays, and animated Doppler radar maps, help me make reasonable plans for an outing. I pay keen attention to the hour-by-hour progression of temperatures. A crack-of-dawn start always feels studly, but if it’s going to be a full ten degrees warmer at 10:00 a.m.—then I’m riding at 10:00 a.m. Sunset may not be until 5:10 p.m., with full dark hitting half-an-hour later, but there’s no way I’m going to be on the road past 4:15 p.m. or so. The temperature drops like crazy when the sun is just beginning to get low.
Your friends are your good friends—by all means buddy-up, and listen to your body and your buddies. Communicate about clothing options, likely weather conditions, and your meeting time. Pick a rendezvous point that offers a place for people to get out of the weather, or make it a no-waiting-for-latecomers appointment.
Get motivated, sure, but don’t put yourself into cold weather exercise situations if you’re not fed, dressed, well-equipped, and mentally ready to go. If you’re hurt, hungry, too cold, or losing concentration, bail. You’re not doing any favor to the group if you suffer in silence and only announce you need help after you’re already in serious trouble. If you wait too long, instead of being able to say an orderly “good-bye-and-see-you-next-time,” you won’t be able to talk for your teeth chattering, and everyone else will be like, “Omigod, Jeff’s lips are blue, are any of you guys physicians?”
Ridiculously expensive sports clothing is sometimes much, much better quality than the cheap stuff. Is a cycling jacket that costs more than my Barneys business suit really worth it? (Okay, basement-warehouse-sale Barneys, but Barneys, nonetheless.) In a word, yes. If you’re still hitting the road looking like Stallone in the first Rocky, give some thought to investing in key items that mean the difference between enjoying fitness and suffering for no reason. All that stuff—about wicking base layers, insulating and adjustable middle layers, proper outer shells, and protecting your extremities—is true. Do some research, and set a budget, but do make an investment in quality gear. It doesn’t have to match, doesn’t have to be new, and doesn’t have to look cool—as nice as all of that is. Really good sports clothing can often make the difference between a good workout and packing it in all too soon, spending the rest of the afternoon watching DVDs, drinking hot chocolate, and trying to get the tingles out of your toes.
Eat, drink, and don’t tarry. Your mom was right, breakfast is key. For cold weather workouts, be well-fed. Your body is going to plow through calories keeping warm. Eat something substantial, and include some good carbs and protein. You just took great care of your outside by putting on proper clothing—now take care of your insides with thoughtful nutrition. Pack snacks, stay hydrated, and don’t sit around once you’re primed to work out.
Warm up and gently stretch a bit indoors, but save your real warm-up for outside. I just can’t hit the pavement cold. Some folks can, but what works for me is splitting the difference. If I get fully warmed up indoors, and then plunge into the cold weather, the temperature difference is too shocking to my muscles. Conversely, if the most I’ve done before I leave my apartment is brush my teeth and get dressed (a mildly aerobic activity, I admit, for cyclists at this time of year), I’m way too cold at first. I like to feel just slightly cold as I start exercising outdoors.
During my workout, I stay close to home and plan potential bail-outs. No pride/no shame. Okay, go ahead and work hard to stay on your training plan, but please, be reasonable. It’s freakin’ colder than a well-digger’s ass in Montana out there, and you’ve got a long winter to get through. If you’re running or cycling, pick a route that stays local, make a mental note of several pit stops where you can get some relief if you have to, and don’t expect to do the same mileage you do in June. Weigh the value of muscling through a workout in deteriorating weather conditions against the risk of injuring yourself, or just giving yourself a case of aversion therapy that will darken your attitude toward workouts in general. Just because all the other kids think an eighty-mile loop through snowy foothills will be fine and you’ll probably make it home before the storm hits, doesn’t mean you have to go and strand yourself with a flat on some lonely highway out there.
Having said all this, I remain true to my roots. My favorite winter workout is the one where it’s a balmy 80 degrees. I know a nice little stretch of road in North County San Diego just inland enough to avoid the coastal fog and just hilly enough to be challenging. If you can’t shake the winter blues in spite of your best efforts, remember that round-trip airfare, a rental car, and a house gift for whoever lets you crash on their sofa might cost a little less than another fancy cycling jacket. And while we’re there, if we want to see some snow, we’ll do an out-and-back up Mt. Palomar. Plenty of snow on top, even if it is a bit hot in the valley.