7 Keys to Safe and Productive Natural Movement Training in Winter
By John Sifferman, MovNat Master Trainer and New England Native for 25+ years
I don’t know why I choose to live in a place where the air literally hurts my face for at least four months of the year, but I’ve been here for most of my life. Here in New England, snow is common in Wintertime. Temperatures are usually below freezing. And there always seems to be a few weeks when it is REALLY cold – dropping below zero Fahrenheit (i.e. -17 Celsius), with wind chills much lower. Winter here is always beautiful, sometimes fun, and occasionally treacherous.
The days are shorter, too. While I’m a big fan of all four seasons, the Winter months can be a little depressing, if I’m being honest. But one thing I’ve found that helps to beat the Winter blues is my practice of Natural Movement. Yes, it can be tempting to hibernate during these less comfortable months, but I feel a lot better when I keep moving year-round, especially when I do so outdoors.
Today, I’d like to share a few things I’ve found that make all the difference when approaching MovNat in the cold, snowy, winter months.
1) Your perception of the cold will affect your experience of the cold.
This may sound trivial, but how you think about the cold weather conditions in Winter will affect how cold, wet, and miserable you feel. If you are dreading the weather conditions and getting fixated on the idea that you’ll be uncomfortable, then that’s going to be exactly what you’ll experience. And it will be difficult to claw your way out of that negative mindset.
Nowadays, I can push a button on my thermostat to make the air in my home warmer or cooler. I can do the same thing in my car. I also have hot or cold water available at the turn of a lever. Comfort has become so normalized, and I’d argue idolized, that it’s easy to forget our ancestors lived in much harsher conditions than we do. And yet, our biology hasn’t changed. Our bodies are quite capable of handling less-than-comfortable conditions. In fact, our bodies greatly benefit from exposure to natural and varied environmental conditions. We all know intuitively that sunlight, fresh air, and movement does the body good. Well, to an extent, it’s the same with cold. We actually get stronger and more resilient from experiencing natural environmental conditions than we do from insulating ourselves from them (more on that below).
Obviously, there are exceptions to this and very real dangers from too much exposure. So, proper safety precautions need to be taken. But attitude plays a vital role. So, when confronting uncomfortable conditions like cold temperatures, it’s important to monitor and even direct your thoughts, perhaps thinking or even saying to yourself:
“I am strong.”
“My body can handle this.”
“My ancestors lived in conditions like this without modern comforts & conveniences.”
Another factor that helps me with my attitude and mindset is seeing the changing seasons and environmental conditions as an opportunity to hone my movement skills in a challenging, natural environment.
Because I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but cold, snowy conditions definitely affect your movement performance! At least, they do for this humble student of MovNat.
So, instead of thinking of cold, dark, wet, snowy conditions as a hindrance or inconvenience, I flip it around and make it a challenge to overcome.
As the late Zig Ziglar wisely noted, “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.”
2) The right clothing can keep you comfortable, improve your movement, and increase your tolerable limits.
Do you know why the ancient Spartans trained in the nude? Because they didn’t have Under Armour.
All kidding aside, in sub-freezing temperatures, having the right clothing can make a huge difference and largely determines how long you can stay out in the elements safely and comfortably. You can absolutely be a macho man and go out shirtless and barefoot in the snow. And if you’d like to, then all the power to you. But in all seriousness, hypothermia, frostbite, and other medical issues can quickly become an emergency if proper precautions aren’t taken. And I know two people who have lost toes because they pushed it a little too far on Winter barefoot runs. Just sayin’.
During wintry conditions, the main priorities of your attire should be keeping you dry and warm enough.
The weather conditions, your chosen activities, and how long you’ll be outdoors will determine what’s best to wear. But in general, I like to dress in layers. In a best-case scenario, your base layers that touch your skin should be moisture-wicking fabrics. Think synthetic/polyester or wool blends; not cotton. On top of that, you can wear an insulating layer like fleece. Sometimes, I’ll wear a cotton layer or cotton blend if I know it’s going to be dry or if I won’t be out too long. Finally, if it’s wet, you may also want a waterproof or water-resistant outer layer (aka a “shell”). Hats, gloves/mittens, socks, and footwear make a big difference, too. And if it’s very cold, you might need another base layer for more insulation.
You may have noticed your clothing choices affect how you move. Wearing a lot of clothes tends to slow you down, limit your range of motion, and fatigue you more. The same is true of stiff, heavy, or otherwise restrictive footwear.
Personally, if I’m not going far (e.g. backyard or neighborhood practice session), then I’ll generally wear the minimum amount of clothing to keep me safe and relatively comfortable. If I’m going out further into nature and away from civilization, where safety becomes a greater concern, I prefer to err on the being over-prepared side. Accidents happen, and if I have to stay overnight in sub-freezing temperatures due to an illness, injury, or accident, I’d rather not die of exposure simply because I insisted on wearing nothing but my MovNat x Venum shorts…as cool as they may be.
Of course, there’s a lot more that could be said about clothing. A little research and a few well-chosen items can go a long way to make your Natural Movement practice safer and more comfortable.
3) What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger (up to a certain point).
One of the coolest things about being human is that we actually get stronger and more resilient from proper dosing of stress. Through a phenomenon known as hormesis, stress – at the right dose and under favorable conditions – leads to getting stronger and better able to handle stressors in the future. In this way, cold doesn’t just break us down; it can build us up, too.
So, over time and through regular exposure to changing environmental conditions (like cold, wintry weather), you will gradually get accustomed to being uncomfortable and become more resilient as a result.
So, if you get cold easily or just feel uncomfortable in the winter months, you have the power to change that to an extent. Simply by embracing a little bit of discomfort (e.g. allowing yourself to be cold), you can eventually become more comfortable amidst uncomfortable conditions. The key is that we stay in the “sweet spot” for optimal adaptations (i.e. not too much or too little stress), which is obviously, quite subjective. So, when in doubt, take your time and err on the side of caution.
The best way to do this is to make a habit of going outside as often as you can so that as the season changes and temperatures drop, both your mindset and physiology will adapt as you get used to the changing conditions.
You could also accelerate the process by taking cool or cold showers. Or, try an ice bath, cold plunge, or even snow bathing. Whatever you decide, gradual exposure is the key. So, go easy the first few times. I would encourage Type-A over-achiever types like myself to progress slowly into new territory, taking proper safety precautions. Going slow and steady is a more natural approach anyway.
A Note on Safety
While it’s true that our bodies are quite resilient and able to adapt tremendously to various temperatures and climates, and while there are certainly variations when it comes to individual tolerances of the cold, the body also has limits.
Hypothermia and frostbite can become very real concerns fast, especially when you combine cold with windy and wet conditions; which would be further complicated if you’re far from civilization and have no way to get help (e.g. no cell phone service). Furthermore, people with specific health issues or medical conditions are much more susceptible to illness or injury associated with exposure to the elements. Folks who suffer from heart disease, asthma, and some other health issues should be extremely careful when introducing cold-related training for the first time. So, please check with your doctor first, to be safe.
Note: a quick refresher on the medical disclaimer wouldn’t hurt either!
Also, it doesn’t take much snow/ice to create dangerous conditions where a slip or fall is more likely. I still remember falling hard on my tailbone while hiking a small mountain with my son when he was just a toddler. It wasn’t even that steep, but one foot slipped on a patch of ice, and I landed hard. I was uninjured, but it could have been a lot worse. So, try to make a habit of scanning the area, even testing out certain spots before you really commit to that big jump or vault.
Finally, it’s one thing to step outside and move around your back yard for a few minutes. It’s quite another to plan a day of outdoor recreation in remote locations. So, if you’re heading off the grid or plan to be out for a long time in extreme weather conditions, take the normal safety precautions:
- Tell someone where you’re going and what your plan is.
- Don’t go out alone.
- Bring basic safety equipment.
You know, the normal emergency preparedness stuff.
4) Warm up inside first.
If you’re cold-averse, then moving around a little bit indoors before you step out is a good way to reduce the “shock” of sub-freezing temperatures. Sometimes, I’ll do a ground movement warmup indoors before heading out for a run. It preps the heart, muscles, joints, and connective tissues, increasing your body temperature in the process. Just make sure you don’t get so warm you start sweating, which could actually make you feel a lot colder once you’re outside.
5) Stay hydrated
Sometimes, we don’t feel thirsty as much when we’re out in cold weather. We may not even know that we’re dehydrated. And yet, our bodies still lose water through sweating, even if we don’t feel hot.
So, don’t wait until you feel thirsty to drink water. Stay hydrated before, during, and after your MovNat sessions. If it’s very cold, a warm or hot drink can help.
6) Adjust your expectations for safe, effective, and efficient movement performance.
Maybe you can jump a decent distance when conditions are optimal (e.g. warm, dry, sunny, flat, birds singing, butterflies everywhere, etc.). But when there’s snow or ice on the ground, your safe maximum distance for jumping will be shorter – maybe much shorter. Similarly, if you’re used to climbing trees, hopping across rocks, or balancing on logs when it’s warm, dry, and pleasant, you’ll quickly learn it’s much more difficult when there’s a layer of snow or ice on everything. Even a little dampness can drastically affect performance!
So, there may be some movements that are easy for you in ideal conditions, but nearly impossible with one new environmental variable (e.g. landing on sloping rocks with a layer of ice on them). So, anytime conditions are different from what you’re accustomed to, be sure to scan your environment for hazards and practice carefully, especially when you begin.
Likewise, if you’re wearing more clothing than usual, this may also impact your movement performance. Maybe you can do a full range of motion Deep Squat in a pair of MovNat Shorts or Leggings. But you might not be able to do that when you’re wearing boots and multiple layers. While clothing does help protect us from the elements, it can also hinder optimal movement performance (or, to be fair, enhance it in some cases!). Yes, there are clothing options that strive to limit these tradeoffs, but I’ve found it’s always a tricky balance between warmth and mobility. In general, the more protective the clothing is, the more it will restrict our movement. So, prioritize accordingly.
7) You can do MovNat literally anywhere. So, it’s okay to train indoors, at home or the gym.
There’s no rule that says you must do MovNat outdoors in a picturesque, tropical nature paradise year-round. And many people couldn’t if they wanted to. While moving naturally in a Winter paradise may be a romantic notion, it’s simply not practical, safe, or desirable for a lot of people. And that’s okay.
This is the beauty of the MovNat system. It can be done anywhere, including in your pajamas, at home, in front of your fireplace if that’s what you want.
MovNat works in both tiny and roomy spaces alike. You can use all kinds of equipment or none at all.
No matter what environment you’re in, you can move naturally. With just a little open space, you can practice ground movement, crawling, get ups, jumping, and many other locomotive movements. Add an object or two, and you can lift, carry, throw and catch in a variety of ways. If you’ve got a pull up bar or anywhere else you can hang, all kinds of climbing options become available. You can balance in place or spend a few bucks on a 2×4 board to practice in your living room. Training with a partner opens up all kinds of additional possibilities. The options are endless – even with very little space and very limited training tools to work with.
So, if the idea of getting all bundled up to brave the elements just doesn’t appeal to you, you can get many of the benefits of Natural Movement without stepping one foot outdoors. And you’ll be much better off for it, especially when you are ready to get back out there after Winter ends.
That said, just between the two of us, I think it’s WAY better outside!
Note: MovNat produced some excellent home training e-courses, which can all be done with minimal space and equipment.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”
…and bad attitudes.
For me, when the winter blues set in, getting out the door is the biggest challenge. But once I’m outside moving around, I feel great. And I’m always glad I made the effort.
So, just get out there already. I think you’ll be glad you did.
About the Author
John Sifferman is a Health-First Fitness Coach & MovNat Master Trainer. He is the founder of Physical Living and author of The Pull-Up Solution. You can connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
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