How to Plan an Outdoor Workout

Make Your Workout More Effective With Simple Steps

Heading into nature for an outdoor workout can be as simple as lacing up your favorite pair of running shoes and hitting the road. It can also be as involved as organizing a multi-station strength training routine at a park for a group of family and friends.

Regardless of how simple or complex you decide to go, creating a fun and effective outdoor fitness workout comes down to proper planning. Here are a few actions you can take to better prepare before heading outside for your next exercise routine.

Decide What Exercises You Want to Do

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The first step in creating an outdoor workout is to decide what you want to do for exercise, then come up with a specific plan for how to do it. The trick is that you need to have your game plan set before you step out the door. A wishy-washy plan to add a few bodyweight exercises to your jog will inevitably end up with a sub-par routine.

It may help to write it down so you can remember it once you are ready. For instance, if you want to add bodyweight exercises to a running routine, write out which exercises you're going to do. Also plan how many sets and reps, as well as how you're going to add them to your routine.

Almost any style of workout can be modified for an outdoor format. You can do cardio, yoga, strength training, circuit work, high-intensity interval training, balance training, or any combination thereof.

A complete outdoor workout might look like this:

  • 5-minute gradual jog to warm up
  • 5-minute jog at your desired pace (decide the pace before you start)
  • 20 squats
  • 5-minute jog at your desired pace
  • 15 pushups
  • 5-minute jog at your desired pace
  • 10 walking lunges (per leg)
  • 5-minute walk to cool down

If you want to do yoga, don't just randomly choose poses once you're outside. Instead, pick an audio or video workout you can follow, or input your flow into your phone so you'll have your practice planned in advance.

Even an exercise as simple as walking or jogging can be improved substantially if you pre-plan your workout. Without a plan and a goal, you'll almost always do less than you're capable of.

Select a Location

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Once you know what type of workout you will do and the exercises you want to perform, you can find the best location. It's similar to finding a gym that has all of your desired equipment.

If you want a calming place to stretch or do yoga, for instance, pick a place that is away from playgrounds and the hustle and bustle of busy kids. Instead, seek out a flat, grassy area near a quiet trail. Or, if you want to do bodyweight circuit training, look for a location that has a flat surface for squats and pushups, benches or picnic tables for step-ups and dips, and a jungle gym for pull-ups or hanging leg lifts.

You might even select a few locations that, when strung together, satisfy your needs. Also, don't underestimate the importance of space, shade, and access to park or playground amenities.

If you don't like to carry water with you, look for parks or paths that offer water fountains. This allows you to stay hydrated while working to improve your fitness level.

Pick Your Equipment

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Body weight workouts of all varieties are an excellent option for outdoor workouts, but they do limit the number of exercises you can perform and the amount of resistance you can use. In time, you may want to use equipment beyond what's readily available at most parks or playgrounds.

Maybe you want an exercise ball to help with your post-run stretches or a light pair of hand weights to further enhance your upper-body routine. Plan out the equipment you need, as well as how you are going to get it to your outdoor workout location.

If you plan to drive to the outdoor area, you can take pretty much anything that fits in your car. If you will walk or bicycle there, choose lightweight equipment you can carry with you, such as resistance bands, jump ropes, and suspension trainers.

For example, you can throw a suspension trainer and jump rope in a backpack to have with you on your jog or bike ride, or you can loop a resistance band around your body, sash-style from shoulder to hip, allowing you to keep your hands free without adding much bulk or weight. With a little forethought and ingenuity, you can carry your own portable gym everywhere you go.

Check the Weather

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A good workout can go bad at the drop of a hat if bad weather blows through. So, even if you look outside and see perfect weather, always check the forecast before you head out.

You can do this by watching your local news or checking your favorite weather app. Some apps give you an hourly play-by-play of what to expect, allowing you to better plan your outdoor fitness workout.

Beyond temperature, look for allergy alerts, smog or UV warnings, wind chill, humidity levels, and heat indexes. All of these factors can affect how you feel while exercising.

Gathering this additional information also helps you make sound decisions about other factors. This includes what clothing to wear, whether you need SPF protection, or if it's even wise to exercise outside.

Dress Appropriately

exercise clothes

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What you should wear when exercising outside varies drastically depending on the weather. Here are a few quick guidelines for staying comfortable and safe:

  • If it's hot outsidewear light-colored, lightweight, wicking fabrics designed to lift and pull sweat and heat away from your body, keeping you comfortable and dry.
  • If it's cold outside, dress in multiple layers so you can add or remove layers throughout your workout. Choose quick-dry, wicking fabrics. Use headbands, hats, gaiters, and gloves to stay nice and warm.
  • If it's raining, don't underestimate the importance of waterproof apparel. Even in warm weather, select a lightweight rain jacket and water-resistant or water-proof shoes. You'll enjoy your workout much more if you're not contending with soggy socks and water-logged clothing. Also, think about wearing a hat with a brim to keep the rain out of your eyes.
  • Whether it's hot, cold, rainy, or sunny, daytime workouts require protection from the sun's UV rays. Go ahead and slather on sunscreen to protect your exposed skin, but don't stop there. Wear sunglasses and a hat every time you head outside, and if your workouts last longer than the 80 minutes covered by most sport sunscreens, consider wearing UPF-protective apparel to cover your arms and legs. Finally, keep an SPF-rated chapstick on hand to apply as needed.

Prepare for Unexpected Issues

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Exercise always carries an element of risk, and outdoor workouts are no different. While there's no need to feel overly concerned about hitting the trails or going to the park, you need to be conscientious of potential dangers.

You could twist your ankle while running on a trail, come face-to-face with an unleashed dog, or get lost in an unfamiliar area of town. By planning wisely, you can navigate risks, injuries, or other unsafe situations more effectively.

Here are a few quick tips:

  • Always carry your phone. Aside from the obvious benefit of being able to call for help if you need it, your phone offers other features like GPS tracking and mapping, perfect if you end up lost. Even if your phone doesn't get service where you are, if you were to get lost or injured, rescuers could use your phone to help ping your location.
  • Carry cash too. Keeping a few bucks on you ensures that you can stop at a quickie mart if you need a bottle of water or to buy a candy bar if your blood sugar gets low.
  • Tell a friend before you go. Communicating your whereabouts to a loved one is critical. Even if you're just heading to a local park, tell someone where you're going and when you plan to be back. If you're going to explore a new route, take it a step further and tell a friend you'll check in with them when you're done. If they don't hear from you, they'll know when and where to start looking.
  • Take a dog (if you have one). Dogs need exercise too, so take your four-legged friend with you when you work out outdoors. In addition to exercise being a good way to bond with your pet, the presence of a dog can help deter strangers from bothering you. Bonus points if your dog is big and strong.

Don't Forget to Enjoy Yourself

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One of the best parts about exercising outside is getting to enjoy Mother Nature. Don't let yourself get so wrapped up in your workout that you forget to stop and look around.

Breathe in the fresh air and notice the trees, flowers, and waterways. Allow yourself to feel grateful for your surroundings and your ability to move. The more you enjoy your outdoor workout, the easier it is to stick to your exercise plan.

By Laura Williams, MSEd, ASCM-CEP
Laura Williams is a fitness expert and advocate with certifications from the American Council on Exercise and the American College of Sports Medicine.