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6 Outdoor Workout Hazards - and How to Prevent Them

Spending time with nature has its benefits -- fresh air, vitamin D from the sun, and a nice change of scenery to help you unwind. But taking your workout from the gym to the great outdoors has its downsides too. Here's what you need to know before heading out for a sweat.

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Alexa Miller
James Michelfelder
Laura Doss
Alexa Miller
Alexa Miller
Simon Potter/Cultura/Corbis
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Getting Lost

Stepping off the treadmill or elliptical means your workout can take you to unfamiliar places. Before you make a trek, make sure you know exactly where you're going. Stop by your nearest REI or local outfitter to find trails and maps. Download apps like National Geographic Park Maps and Maprika, which allow you to track your steps and find trails, even without cell reception. Going in the water? "Swim parallel to shore for a frame of reference and learn to sight an object on the shore," recommends Jeremy Oyen, REI Expert and Curriculum and Training Coordinator for REI Outdoor Programs and Outreach. Doing so also provides a quicker way out of the water in case you run into any other issues (or creatures, for that matter).

National Geographic Park Maps, $3.99 on iTunes

Maprika for iPhone and Android

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Sunburn

"Always wear sunscreen" is a piece of advice we'll never stop dishing out. Use about a shot glass' worth from head to toe and reapply every two hours or more often if you're really working up a sweat. And remember: toweling off your sweat can mean wiping off SPF, too. To avoid this, top off with a hat to protect your scalp and shield your eyes from the sun.

Find our favorite sunscreens here

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Heat and Dehydration

Yes, warmer temps will mean sweating more, but it's important to know when it's simply too hot to be outside. Before you head out on a run, spin, or hike, check forecasts so you can plan accordingly. Remember to stay hydrated and bring a water bottle so you won't have to worry about finding water fountains on your route. Humidity also plays a large role. "High humidity prevents sweat from evaporating, which prevents the body from getting cooler," says Debi Pillarella, ACE-certified master trainer and expert. The Heat Stress Index, used by forecasters and ACE-certified fitness professionals to coach clients about safe outdoor training, shows that 50 percent humidity makes a 90-degree day feel more like 96 degrees. To avoid heat exhaustion, sunburn, and heat stroke, pay attention to this scale. "When the heat stress index rises above 90 degrees, you may want to consider rescheduling your workout early in the morning or much later in the day," Pillarella recommends.

Check out the Heat Stress Index here

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Pollution

We like to get a dose of fresh air while we get some endorphins, but unfortunately, that's not always the case. Daily pollution from car exhaust, construction dust, factory fumes, and bits of ozone can not only hurt your lung capacity, but it can also lead to asthma and an increased risk for lung cancer. Early mornings and later in the day are times when pollution levels are lowest, and if the Air Quality Index is really high, it might be better for your lungs and health to stay indoors.

Check the Air Quality Index for your area

Sign up for EPA e-mails

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Dangerous Wildlife and Allergens

You might run into more than your gym buddy on your next excursion. If you're hiking or mountain biking, check a guidebook or your local outfitter for tips on which areas to avoid, and make sure to stay in well-groomed areas of the trail. Familiarize yourself with common plants like poison oak and ivy. If you don't recognize something, it's probably best to stay away. Spot a suspicious foot print? Download an app like Scats and Tracks to help you differentiate friendly creatures from potential predators. And for anything else that comes your way, we like the Army Survival guide, which covers everything from identifying medicinal plants to building your own shelter.

Scats and Tracks for iPhone

Scats and Tracks for Android

Army Survival for iPhone

Army Survival for Android

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Overexertion

Taking your workout outdoors means you're battling with sun, wind, temperature changes, and many other factors in Mother Nature's obstacle course. "It may take a few workouts for your body to acclimate to your new exercise venue, so you may have to lower your usual intensity to allow your body to adjust to the elements," suggests Pillarella. Oyen recommends that hikers carry these essentials, even for a hike that would take up half a day:

Navigation
Sun protection
First aid supplies
Matches or a lighter
A pocketknife or multi-tool
Snacks and water
Reflective emergency blanket (in case you need shelter)
Flashlight or headlight with batteries

For swimmers, "conditions like wind, waves, and water temperature will affect your strength and stamina," Oyen says, "so you should plan a shorter distance on your first time. It's also good to go with a group instead of swimming alone."

Swimmers and surfers can check forecasts and water conditions before diving in the water at Surfline.com.

Originally published on FitnessMagazine.com, April 2013.

Check out our beginner's guide to hiking to get started

Surfline

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