Monday, December 20, 2010

Winter Workouts

Winter has again descended upon the Midwest with its icy, snowy fury. It is a beautiful yet bone-chilling time, with winter winds whipping across the prairies and lakes at a ridiculous number of miles per hour.

Some days are worse than others, of course, and winter brings lots of opportunities to sneak in workouts that aren't even really seen as workouts. Sledding, hiking in the snow, and skiing are all vigorous activities. The extra calories your body burns just being outside, combined with the activities, make these fun activities extremely effective workouts.

Even with that being said, though, there is no doubt that winter comes with its own challenges. There are fun, active days, yes. Then there are the other days. Days when even the dogs don't want to go outside to relieve themselves, the streets are too slick to walk on, the temperature is too low for the kids to safely sled more than five minutes.

Days of sitting on the couch inside. Days of comfort foods like hot chocolate and thick cream-of-anything soup. Days of work days that either are or seem to be longer, since they start and end in darkness. Days of growing rear ends and bellies!

So how do we overcome the winter blahs? How do we break the cycle of working so hard to get in shape over the summer only to grow soft over the winter, again?

This is a question I have asked myself each year, and one I will probably ask myself every winter for the rest of my life. Its also one where there are a lot of different opinions, and many good ideas available as answers.

The three most common answers seem to be as follows:

1. Bring your favorite outdoor activity inside, and make it interesting enough to stick with it.

Admittedly, depending on your favorite activity, this could be a substantial investment. Cycling enthusiasts use everything from stationary bikes to literally bringing their outdoor bike inside and hooking it up to a trainer or rollers. Walkers have the treadmill, runners have better treadmills, and swimmers have the gym. Better off swimmers even have indoor swimming pools that work similar to treadmills. Talk about investment!

These things alone are not enough though. Most people quickly find that although they mimic the outdoor activity, they are not as challenging, mentally or physically.

You can combat this effect to some degree by adding some bells and whistles, such as DVDs that simulate outdoor conditions, like Spinnervals or Runnervals, heart-rate monitors and iFit workouts to be sure you keep up the fitness levels you would normally sustain outside. Also, there are some really great phone apps out there as well that will keep time for you and work you through intervals of your choosing.

2. Dress warmer and do it outside anyway.

Obviously, this one relies on the fact that it is possible to do your preferred workout outside safely in the winter. Runners, walkers, and some cyclists fall into this category. If you go this route, a few precautions should be observed.

Dress warmer should really be dress appropriately. Stay close to home and at least have a general idea of what conditions signal hypothermia and frostbite. Wear fabric that is made to keep you warm, yet wick your body sweat away from you to keep you dry. Shoes should be switched out to more appropriate winter gear, to be warm enough and also to provide proper traction. Cyclists may consider more appropriate winter tires. Winter also usually means more darkness, so visibility should be a top concern. Consider wearing reflective clothing, and bike lights are required in all fifty states after dark.

Buddies are excellent for winter workouts. Someone to keep pace with and also to keep your mind off the cold can be a valuable asset for the long winter months. Check with the local gyms or bike shops for groups or individuals who share your routine.

3. Switch to a completely different base activity.

Many people truly believe that this is one of the healthiest options. The epitome of cross-training, this option allows you to focus on the areas that may have been neglected during the other months of the year.

Walkers could try indoor stationary bikes, which work different leg muscles than their regular activities, yet burn just as many calories and are just as intensive aerobically. Runners could do step routines, which is still an impact, aerobic exercise but works similar muscles to cycling rather than running. Cyclists could focus on mid- to upper body strength training, as these areas are often neglected during the cycling season, and round it off with a nice treadmill walking routine to build bone strength.

Balance your new activity with your goals in your old activity. If you are a swimmer, you need strength training and aerobics to keep in line with your goals. If you are a cyclist, you need to tone your upper body without bulking so much that the added weight will deter from your speed when you return in the spring. Runners should still have some routines that add impact, to keep up with the bone strength they need when they return.

In the spring, you should plan for a light load at first to ease you back in to your preferred activity. Although you may initially feel like you have fallen behind, you will quickly bounce back and the current theory is you will actually then surpass your prior fitness levels. This is due to the cross-training and alternatively resting your usual routine to avoid burnouts and plateaus.

...The three ideas actually sound really good, don't they? In theory, any one of those could carry us through a healthy winter and leave us raring to go come springtime.

Myself, I bounce back and forth among the top ideas. I do a little cross-training, I do a little outdoors, and unfortunately, I do a little sitting around. Yet this year, as every year before, I am determined to break through the winter blahs and remain physically fit.

Fitness is a journey, after all, and it will be interesting to see how my winter journey held up when spring finally arrives.