There’s nothing like gearing yourself up for a run, only to realize that you’ve hit a sudden downpour. Do you still go for it, or do you camp out indoors? Is running in the cold rain bad for you? There are many weird ways that weather can affect your workout. Knowing a little bit about how intense temperatures or precipitation will impact your body as you exercise is important because, even though exercise is great for the body in general, if you’re not careful about how you work up a sweat in certain weather conditions, you can seriously risk your health.
Weather can affect your exercise routine in different ways. Perhaps most obvious is the way it can impact motivation: A beautiful day says, “Come out here and move your body!”, while a hideous (or even mildly gloomy) one says, “Go hide in your bed and don’t come out until spring.” (Seriously, it doesn’t take much. The following weather conditions are enough to make me stay home and Netflix: Excess heat, excess cold, wind, precipitation of any kind, the threat of precipitation of any kind, and higher-than-average humidity. I am… not stoic.)
Those of you who are not as easily dissuaded from working out as I am will find that although you can certainly get a great workout under most conditions, the weather can affect your body — how you sweat, how you process oxygen, how muscles work — in some unexpected ways. Unless you’re experiencing a full-on weather disaster (like a tornado or tropical storm, in which case, STAY INSIDE), you can usually adapt your workout to whatever climate you’re in. You just need to take the precautions that will allow you to stay safe and healthy as you exercise. In hot weather, drink lots of water, wear plenty of sunscreen, and don’t overdo it. In cold weather, wear lots of removable layers, stay away from icy areas, and remember to hydrate.
Read on to see how weather might be affecting your body:
1. The heart works harder in the heat.
According to Tawnee Prazak, an exercise scientist and triathalon coach, when you’re in a very hot environment, your body directs blood flow toward the skin, which helps cool you down. That means that there is less blood flowing to the heart, which in turn means that your heart has to work harder to pump the amount of blood you need to the rest of the body. Because of this increased workload, you’ll feel more tired after a shorter period of exercising than you would in a cooler environment.
2. Humidity makes it harder for your body to cool itself.
When it’s humid — meaning that there’s a lot of water in the air — it’s more difficult than usual for your body to cool down. That’s because the way the body cools itself is through releasing moisture in the form of sweat. The sweat evaporates, and that process of evaporation (rather than the sweat itself) cools the body. When you are in a very humid environment, the air already has a lot of moisture in it, so it’s harder for the sweat on your skin to evaporate. You may sweat and sweat and sweat, but because that sweat isn’t evaporating, you won’t feel any cooler.
3. Heat cramps are a thing.
When exercising in a hot environment, you can develop painful muscle spasms known as “heat cramps,” often occurring in the calves, arms, back, or abs. Although the exact cause of these cramps isn’t known, doctors have linked it to the loss of fluids and electrolytes due to sweating. (That’s one of many reasons that it’s important to stay well hydrated when you’re working out in the heat). If you develop heat cramps, stop exercising and cool down — you don’t want to risk developing a more severe heat-related condition, such as…
4. Heat stroke.
Heat stroke is an extreme — and very dangerous — reaction to heat. Heat stroke occurs when your body overheats, reaching 104 degrees Fahrenheit or above, and it can be caused by strenuous activity (such as intense exercise), coupled with high temperatures and dehydration. You’re at increased risk if you’re not used to hot weather (so if you’re from a cool climate, it would be a potentially bad idea for you to go to Arizona in August to run a marathon). Heat stroke can cause organ damage — including brain damage — and death, so if you or people you’re with start exhibiting other negative responses to heat (such as heat cramps or fainting), it’s important to get cool and hydrated. Heat stroke is not something you want to mess with.
5. Exercising in the cold can make your heart stronger. (But only if you’ve already got a healthy heart!)
Cold weather can make your arteries grow tighter, so that your heart has to work harder than usual to pump the blood your body needs. For people with cardiovascular problems, this increased workload on the heart can be dangerous; if you suffer from a heart condition, you should talk to your doctor before working out in low temperatures. But for people with healthy cardiovascular systems, this increased stress on that system in winter can help them strengthen their hearts (which are, after all, muscles).
6. Your runny nose keeps you warm.
If you frequently exercise in cold weather, you’re probably already familiar with cold-induced rhinorrhea, also known as “skier’s nose” or as “that horribly runny nose you get when you workout in the cold.” The snot running down your face may be embarrassing, but it’s part of a normal biological process that works to keep your lungs safe and warm. Dr. Andrew Lane, director of the Johns Hopkins Sinus Center, explained it on NPR:
One of the main functions of the nose is to warm and humidify the air that we breathe so that when it reaches your lungs, it's nice and conditioned. And in order to do this, the nose has to add some moisture to it.
When it's very cold out, the air is usually dry as well, and the nose is really working overtime to add some fluid. And there are reflexes that are in place that allow the nose to increase its fluid production. And if it really makes a lot of fluid, then it starts to run out of the end of your nose.
7. Cold weather workouts can boost your mood.
Exercising in the cold weather can go a long way toward combatting the winter blues. Dr. Kevin Plancher, head of Plancher Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine in New York City, explained to Women’s Health, “All exercise can increase your levels of those feel-good hormones, endorphins. But because your body has to work harder in the cold, your endorphin production is boosted even more, leading to a happier state of mind.” Women’s Health also points out that a workout outside — even when the air is cold — can give you some much-needed sun exposure in the dark winter months, which will boost your mood as well. (Just be sure to wear sunscreen, even in the snow!)
8. Chilly weather can make your muscles more sore than usual.
According to orthopedic physical therapist Vivian Eisenstadt for CNN, “Cold weather causes muscles to lose more heat and contract, causing tightness throughout the body. Joints get tighter, muscles can lose their range of motion and nerves can more easily be pinched.” Ouch. To prevent muscle soreness after cold workouts, be sure to warm up thoroughly before you exercise, so that your muscles are relaxed and limber. If it’s between 35 and 45 degrees outside, CNN suggests warming up for 10 minutes; for every 10 degrees lower that you go, add another 5 minutes to your warm up.