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Get Outside this winter – Top tips to get maximum benefit from winter exercise

29 September 2015

by Bonita Norris

According to OS Champion Bonita Norris, winter is the best time of year to exercise and Get Outside.
Having become the youngest woman from the UK to climb Everest, at just 22, the English adventurer knows a thing or two about working out in cold conditions.

“I much prefer training for expeditions in the winter. With the cooler temperatures I find I can really take my engine up a notch,” says Bonita.

“It’s also a chance to keep my wellbeing in check; I particularly like the fact that the sun sets much earlier- around the time I go out running. For me, the start of winter training means running at sunset – it's just the best time of year to get outdoors and see amazing autumnal colours."

Bonita’s tips to get maximum benefit from winter exercise

Get outside: I find it easier to exercise outdoors in winter as it’s less hot and humid, I really can't bear training hard when it's hot. However, in winter I take much more time on my warm up as you're more at risk of injury.

Another great thing about winter is that less people visit public spaces like local parks, beaches and national parks, which is fantastic if, like me, you get outside to appreciate the peace and tranquillity of our Great British landscapes.

As for getting/staying fit, I've learned to love training in the winter. As my Himalayan trips have been in March time, my training for these has been during the coldest months of the year. I taught myself to think of the cold as a positive thing and would purposely get outside and run on the coldest nights of the year. I can remember once thinking "I actually can run in minus five!" It was a revelation.

On the subject of running kit, my motto is ‘Be bold – start cold’. I'm a bit of a masochist and don’t wear much kit- this started when I was preparing myself mentally for cold starts on Mt Everest. I don't wear any extra layers, long sleeves, gloves or a hat. You’ll find me in a reflective vest and leggings, even when there’s a frost on the ground. But, kit is about personal preference: I'd be lying if I said I haven't come back from winter runs with frozen arms and hands, unable to put the key in the door or untie my shoes laces (and also feeling quite smug by that!). It's best to work out your own system rather than do what someone else says works for them.

If it's really, really cold and staying in seems much more inviting, I say to myself "just step outside the door and run to the end of the road. It will be over in five minutes." Once I get to the end of the road I always decide to keep on going- it's getting out of the door that's the hardest bit.

But take extra layers if you’re running to a point more than half an hour away from home. I tend to run in a loop around where I live so that if I get injured I can cut my run short and head back in a few minutes. I had a spectacular fall once when the toggles of my trainers caught together. I landed flat on the pavement and apart from being quite shaken, had hurt my knee and hand. I walked back but got absolutely frozen in only a few minutes! Back-up clothes, a phone and money for a taxi are essential on icy or wet nights if you plan to run far.

I go rock climbing probably once a month, and getting my clothing right for rock climbing in winter makes a huge difference. A day spent climbing is not like normal outdoors exercise. There are long bouts of sitting around between climbs and belaying or spotting your climbing partner, followed by short bursts of climbing, which puts lots of stress through tendons- not good if you've got cold while sitting around.

When I'm resting between climbs I'll be wearing two or three down jackets, gloves and hand warmers. I'll also have super thick socks on to keep my feet warm. Putting on climbing shoes with cold feet is really unpleasant. I wear the minus 50° mittens I wore on my Everest summit day to keep my fingers warm, and get a lot of jealous looks from other climbers for those. I then run and jump around for 10 minutes before I tie into the rope, and the moment I'm ready to climb I whip off all the extra layers and go up in just a base layer, as I know I'll start getting hot really fast as soon as I'm off the ground.

If you’re going to start hill walking this winter I’d always recommend getting up really early and getting back early – this is what I was taught- start in the dark, finish in daylight, not the other way around. You're less energised at the end of the day, and if you get caught out in the dark when you're tired, you could have an epic on your hands. In winter, it's good to start before dawn - you get to appreciate the amazing sunrises from whatever hill you're climbing.

If you're going to buy a new winter kit this year, try to buy something bright and colourful. Black or dark navy/dark purple jackets are harder to spot against a winter landscape and this could make a huge difference in an emergency.

I love taking a hot flask when climbing or hill walking. Never underestimate the impact a cup of hot tea can have on you mentally and physically when you’re cold and a bit tired! It’s one of the best feelings in the world and can be a lifesaver, too.

Get a buddy: Always try to partner up in winter for morale and safety. I run with my aunty, which I love and it means we can still go trail running or out later in the evenings if we need to.

Join a club: There are so many different clubs you can join where you can meet people to get outside with. Or sign up for an organised activity, the British Mountaineering Council and Ordnance Survey have lots of ideas on their website for winter activity courses across the UK.

Get your bearings: Winter navigation skills are a must for anyone venturing into the hills during winter. One New Year’s Eve my group got lost in the Cairngorms in a near white-out. It was nearly midnight by the time we found ourselves back at the car. We were tired after a long day and took a wrong bearing, it's easily done if you're not used to navigating in winter conditions.

My advice would be to use more than one navigation method – have a back-up. Always take a spare GPS and keep the batteries warm by having them close to your skin (ladies I put mine in my sports bra!). Always take a paper map if you're going to be using a phone to navigate in case it loses charge. And make sure you can take a bearing with a compass and follow it successfully. Refresh your map-reading skills for every eventuality, not least because the British weather can change so quickly.

Winter is beautiful and the best time of year to exercise. Some popular places are crazy busy in summer, but if you make the effort you can be rewarded with peace and quiet and a very different-looking place. And it feels like it’s all yours.


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