How to spring back into outdoor exercise

Ready to ditch the gym? Here's how to move your workout outside.

woman exercising outside

Fitness woman doing russian twist core exercise

There's no sweaty gym equipment in the wilderness.Deposit Photos

Spring has arrived, and that means winter coats go back in closets, windows open, and we can finally leave the stinky sweat and guttural grunting of the gym behind. But before you limber up to run, bike, and contort yourself in the park and on the trails, make sure you’re ready for the great outdoors.

Indoors vs. outdoors

If you’re thinking about your health, getting on a treadmill or dropping in on a spin class is a good idea any time of the year. But gyms are controlled environments, and that makes for a different workout, both physically and mentally.

“It's easy to zone out by watching a show or listening to music on the treadmill,” says Christine Luff, author of Run for Good: How to Create a Lifelong Running Habit. “But running outside requires you to pay attention a lot more and always be aware of your surroundings. You need to be aware of cars, bikes, dogs, other runners, cracks in the sidewalk, branches or rocks on the trails, and numerous other potential hazards.”

The differences go beyond sudden agility tests. A 2014 study of 12 male cyclists found that despite conditions being relatively equal, and the participants exerting what they viewed as the same amount of effort, outdoor biking got their hearts beating faster. On the flip side, a 2015 study that put 13 experienced long-distance runners on a treadmill found they used less energy running at the same pace on a track. The study suggested this was due to the runners having to adjust to the treadmill after training heavily on tracks.

Your workout environment affects your mental health as well. While exercise in a natural area like the woods or a park can improve your self-esteem and overall mood, working out in a group can help decrease stress. Think about what you most enjoy about your exercise routine, on an emotional level, before deciding to ditch your yoga class for downward dog on your own in the park.

Ease into it

Preparing for outdoor exercise starts indoors with a well-executed plan.

“Don't get so excited about the return of nice running weather that you do too much too soon,” Luff says. “Be sure that you ease back into it, or you'll risk an overuse injury.”

Two weeks to a month before you plan to head outside, start pushing yourself a little more on the machines. Gradually increase the amount of incline on your treadmill or the amount of resistance on your rowing machine as you go about your weekly routine. It even helps to work out for a few minutes longer than you normally do. Plan to slowly add difficulty and time as you go so you’re ready when the sun starts shining. This will get you used to the more demanding terrain of roads and trails and keep you from getting too sore.

At the same time, consider adding a stretching routine to your exercise plan. Stretching isn't required, but it can help you warm up and cool down. And if you need to stretch before your outdoor workout anyway, getting back in the habit now will save you time, and potentially injury, later.

Stay safe

Before you hit the trail, make sure the trail won't hit back. If you're running or cycling, walk or drive a new outdoor route the day before to avoid any surprises, such as poorly maintained sidewalks or heavy traffic. When you head out for real, wear reflective clothing and lights, day or night, to ensure you're visible. If you need a podcast or music to go the distance, use open-ear or bone-conduction headphones so you can still hear your surroundings.

You should also carry a small first aid kit to deal with minor bumps and bruises and have some way of reaching friends and family in case of an emergency. Even a bike path in the middle of a city can be a lonely place if you’re waiting for somebody with a phone to come along.

If you’re using a machine, such as a bike, be sure you’ve given it any maintenance it needs, especially if it’s been tucked away in a garage all winter. Your equipment might need some first aid too, so keep tools and materials to make repairs with you as well.

Bring water, especially on warmer days, and dress for the weather. Wet and windy weather can be a hypothermia risk, even if the temperature is well above freezing. And if you're going swimming or boating, wear proper safety gear and never head out without a buddy keeping an eye on you.

Get out and go

As the days get nicer, begin transitioning from indoors to outdoors—there’s no need to instantly switch from gym to woods.

“Don’t beat yourself up and put pressure on yourself to return to your previous fitness level quickly,” Luff says. “Just enjoy running in beautiful weather as you work on building up your fitness level gradually and safely.”

Start by heading out once a week and gradually add more fresh-air days to your schedule. Remember that you’re not always going to be able to get outside, so if you need to go to the gym, don’t let it bother you. One useful approach is to combine exercise and errands, if possible. If you need to go to the store, run or bike there instead of driving.

Keep practical concerns in mind, such as budgeting more time for outdoor exercise than you spend at the gym. Remember, you’ll be going places, and you may get delayed or go farther than you intend. If you’d rather not be alone, look for a social aspect to help motivate you. Joining exercise clubs and working out with friends can help you get out of the gym and introduce you to new people.

Running and cycling are some of the most common outdoor exercises, but you shouldn't feel limited to cardio. Strength training with resistance bands and other portable equipment, bodyweight exercises, and yoga can all be done outside.

These exercises build muscles and strengthen joints, which helps reduce injury, and adding some variety can keep your workout exciting. Consider combining different types of exercises, too, perhaps by doing strength exercises at the start and end of your routine. After all, there’s only so much spring and summer to enjoy, so breathe that fresh air while you can.