The Rumor: Winter workouts can lead to sore muscles and injuries

Each year, after my first outdoor workout after the temperature drops, my legs are achy the following day. I’m not particularly out of shape. In fact, I exercise daily and these pains can’t be attributed to pushing myself too hard or trying new exercises. Instead, each November, like clockwork, the muscles in my legs tighten, strain and remain that way for several days. Many people I meet at the gym share similar stories. None of us has arthritis or other conditions that should trigger this pain, and we often wonder what’s wrong.

The Verdict: Cold weather can cause tighter muscles and joints

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, according to Los Angeles-based orthopedic physical therapist Vivian Eisenstadt

Thanks to the effects of colder temps, muscles are forced to work much harder to complete the same tasks they complete easily in milder weather. This causes more damage to the muscle tissue and can result in increased soreness. To counteract the damage, be sure to warm up for a little longer than usual.

“It is normal to feel muscle soreness for a few days after exercise, especially if it is a different type of activity or at a more intense level than your body is used to,” says Amy McDowell, a physical therapist and Pilates instructor from ARC Physical Therapy, in Chicago. “If you feel more sore in the winter after the same level of exercise than you do the rest of the year, it could be that your body needs a longer warm-up period.”

Try beginning your workout with light cardio exercises, like brisk walking. This will raise your core temperature and ensure that oxygen and blood are flowing throughout your body. A basic rule of thumb is that you should warm up for 10 minutes when the temperature is between 35 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. For each 10-degree temperature drop below 35, extend your warm-up by five minutes.

Brandon Mentore, a health coach based in Philadelphia, recommends a combination of exercises and stretches for an effective warm-up. Some bodyweight exercises -- like push-ups, dips, squats, lunges and bicycle crunches -- are ideal for getting your blood flowing after your warm-up walk, Mentore says. Then, after those exercises, stretch only the tightest muscle groups in your body; for most people, these groups include the hamstrings, quadriceps, chest and shoulders.

Follow your warm-up with a cool-down that takes about the same amount of time. However, in addition to stretching the body’s tightest muscle groups, also focus on other areas like the back, arms and calves. “This will prevent muscle soreness and enhance your overall performance during the winter,” Mentore says. 

Instead of giving up on winter exercise, modify the way you work out to feel and look your best throughout the winter months. Bonus? The healthy habits you pick up can be incorporated into your warm-weather workouts.