"SHOOT," I said, peering out the window. "No golf today." It was Veteran's Day, and huge white snow globs had taken over the city while I slept. Flakes were still falling everywhere, and then the phone rang.

"Hallo," I grumped, Pooh-Bear style.

"Not to worry!" said my golfing buddy cheerfully. "We'll just have to use our orange balls."

She was kidding.

But except in the most blustery, blizzardy conditions, Washingtonians don't stop playing summer sports just because it's winter. They lace up their Etonics and run on crunchy Rock Creek Park trails. Or they take bats and gloves to indoor stadiums for softball, of all things.

"No playing ball indoors!" our parents used to yell. But in Washington you can swim indoors, and without breaking any lamps you can play indoor soccer, track, basketball, lacrosse, tennis, and yes, softball. Not to mention ping-pong, bowling, darts and (shopping) "mall walks." There are treadmills for runners; wind trainers, rollers and stationary bikes for cyclists; and rowing machines for anyone.

If the word "invigorating" is in your vocabulary, you're more likely to brave the great outdoors. Here things get a little trickier. You'll have to put on lots of clothes (called layering) so you can take them off if you get too hot. You'll have to be careful not to fall on the ice, get run over by a car, freeze to death, or drown. You won't have to worry about fashion. Unless you're a bicycle messenger, in which case it's imperative that you look like Darth Vader, there's no dress code for running, cycling or hiking in this city. The streets and woods of Washington are nice in that way, a welcome contrast to the snobby stylishness of ski slopes.

So what you look like isn't important, but what you're wearing is. Regardless of your sport, your bottom layer on cold days should include polypropylene, a light, warm material that draws moisture (sweat or rain) away from the skin. Polypro, as it it is known to the in-crowd, has recently been stitched into innumerable shapes, including hats, gloves, socks and underwear. "At first there were only polypro turtlenecks, and you'd sweat like a pig in there," remarks Mary Anne Walkup, a 40-year-old instructor with Washington Women Outdoors, "Now there are snugglies, tank tops, T-shirts -- so you can fine-tune according to the weather."

Wilderness guides get practically religious about it. "People fight me on this," says Al Schneider, a guide for Wilderness Walks. "They say, 'I don't have any of that polyprowhatever stuff, and I'm not going to get it.' I say fine, but I won't take people into the wilderness unprepared. Then they come back and say, 'I hate to admit it, but you were right. Polypropylene is incredible.' "

You don't have to understand or, worse yet, purchase new-age fabrics such as Gamex or Game-mate, Ceraflex or Coolmax. Still, we have come a long way since the days of yellow rain slickers and three layers of sweaters. Lycra (stretchy and warm) makes a good second layer, or bottom layer on warmer days. For the top layer, jackets made of Gore-tex (light, waterproof and too expensive) are luxurious, though nylon windbreakers also suffice. Wool (warm even when wet) is an old friend that should not be forgotten.

Cotton, on the other hand, should be. The trouble with cotton is, it gets wet when you sweat (or run into precipitation). Wetness is chilling, and chilling is the first stage of hypothermia. Subsequent stages can include blurred vision, disorientation, loss of coordination, loss of consciousness and even death.

Another essential regardless of sport is a hat. Think of it like the lid on a pot: it keeps heat from escaping. Mittens act like two extra lids to trap the heat of the hands. What else you wear -- and what safety precautions you take -- will depend on the weather and your particular sport.

Runners manage to run no matter what. Phil Fenty, a well-known Washingtonian who co-owns the Adams Morgan Fleet Feet, is one of those nuts you'll see high-stepping through your neighborhood when you're working up a sweat shoveling snow. He and his cronies even ran that day in 1985 when Reagan got re-inaugurated and all the festivities were moved indoors. "If there's a gale outside, I can't wait to get out," says Fenty, who at 47 competes in marathons and ultra (100-mile) marathons. "California would bore me."

Fenty runs in a polypropylene turtleneck and Lycra tights, topped by a cotton long-sleeved T-shirt (cotton is okay as a middle layer) and nylon windbreaker, plus a hat, wool socks, and regular well-treaded running shoes. When the temperature drops below twenty degrees, he wears polypro tights as well.

Fenty's advice to runners: Shorten your stride to get better footing, take a warm shower immediately after the workout (it helps him get the icicles out of his beard), and most important: Begin facing the wind. "That way, when you're coming home tired, the wind will be at your back," says Fenty. "The temptation is to let the wind push you on your way out. I've frozen a couple of times making that mistake."

Runners should also stretch before and after workouts, and take time to warm up by walking or jogging slowly before running, since cold muscles are damaged more easily than warm ones. Logging fewer miles is a good idea too. You'll use up more energy (i.e. calories) in the cold and will tire more easily.

Like runners, cyclists generate heat as they warm up, but they have a wind chill factor to contend with, plus slippery streets and drivers whose vision is hampered by winter haze. Mary Anne Walkup cycles in the winter only when the sun is high and wears a reflective vest so motorists can see her. Bike lights can also help attract attention, day or night. For a good grip on the brakes, Walkup wears painter's gloves ("white so you can see them and cotton so I can wipe my nose on them.") Another concern is ventilation, so she wears buttoned or zippered shirts and jackets to let off steam. She wears wool socks and gloves or, for variety, wool socks on both feet and hands.

Cyclists' toes, noses, ears, knees and fingers are particularly vulnerable. Leg warmers can protect knees, and some cycling tights have built-in knee pads. Ross Ruske, the bicycle coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency, keeps his legs warm with three layers: polypropylene, then wool, then windproof nylon tights. For his 32-mile daily commute he also dons ear muffs or a balaclava (face mask) to protect chin, ears, and face, plus sport goggles to ward off snow glare.

"It gets depressing, pulling on all those layers, then taking them off at work," notes Ruske. "But if you go out every day, then more than half the time it's nice out. And the cold days aren't really so bad."

Wet days, on the other hand, can be awful. "Freezing rain is the worst," Ruske admits. "You can get hypothermia but you can also lose control. Your hands and feet get numb, so you might feel like you're pulling the brakes but you're really not." Ruske will sometimes get off his bike and walk 100 yards or so until the circulation in his feet returns. Hiking boots and double socks provide extra warmth, but if caught unprepared he has been known to scavenge plastic Federal Express envelopes off the sidewalks and construct galoshes out of them. He also has a Bikes-on-Rail pass so he and his bike can hop on the Metro after work if a storm comes up during the day.

For added safety, Ruske takes back roads wherever possible and rides an all-terrain bike with fat winter tires; he even puts steel studs in the tires, a trick he learned from motorcycle racers. The tiny sheet-metal screws, which act like chains on a car, come in handy on weekends, when he likes to pretend he's a skier and cycle down snowy mountains.

If these people are starting to sound extreme, it's because they are. For a balanced perspective I talked with Ellen Braun, the 27-year-old sprint cyclist from Arlington who this summer earned the title of National Kilo Champion. In the winter Braun reduces her training schedule from 250 to a mere 170 miles per week, plus weight training.

"For me, winter is a time to be relaxed, have fun, not be a grind," she reports. "If it's snowing out, I might go visit a friend in Maryland who has an extra mountain bike and go riding in the hills with her. I try to think about possibilities rather than limitations."

If the mercury sinks below 28 degrees, Braun lifts weights, pedals indoors on rollers, or plays racquetball. "I don't take unnecessary risks," she says. "If your water bottle freezes, you know it's too cold."

Ellen wears two layers of tights; three shirts under a bright orange Gore-tex jacket; a hat; nylon booties over her cycling shoes; and knit gloves with leather palms for good grip. "I get the cheap Woolworth gloves that I don't mind blowing my nose in."

If you're a sailor, rower, paddler or windsurfer, you're probably gazing wistfully at the Potomac. There's nothing more beautiful than being in a small boat, listening to snowflakes ptt-ptt-ptt on the water. But boat houses in the Washington area drydock their boats in January and February. Hulls can crack in the ice, and hypothermia can set in very quickly if you capsize. If you have your own boat and insist on going out, go in threes, so if one boat tips, one boat can rescue the dumped paddlers and the third can go for help.

"Canoeing in the winter gets weird," summarizes Walkup, a former canoe racer. "Sailing is downright crazy. Windsurfing, now that's for bozo brains."

Birding and hiking, on the other hand, make sense. But one must still be smart about warmth and safety. Boots should be leather and waterproofed; gaiters (nylon leg warmers) can help keep snow out of boots and therefore feet. Birdwatchers by definition stand around a lot, so they need down jackets or the equivalent (Polyguard or pile), and wool or polypro gloves rather than mittens for delicate focusing tasks.

Hiking is intermittently strenuous (less strenuous and a lot colder when you stop to ooh and ahh over wildlife), so hikers should wear removable layers rather than big, down jackets. Proper clothing is more important to hikers than to runners or cyclists. "We're city people -- we're used to having houses nearby, and ambulances and hospitals at our disposal," says Al Schneider. "In the woods you don't have any of that." There aren't any cafes in the woods either, so it's important to bring food and water with you. Dehydration and low blood sugar become more dangerous when the body is cold.

To get out of the cold without going indoors, try spelunking. Oblivious to winter storms, caves stay a constant temperature the year-round -- in the mid-fifties in this area -- so "they're great places to warm up in the winter," says Tom Kaye, a member of the spelunking club called D.C. Grotto. Just remember your flashlight.

As for me, I find that a combination of indoor and outdoor activities suits my needs for nature and nurture. A few nights a week, I play water polo at Capitol East Natatorium. Weekends I golf, since golf courses are open year-round, weather permitting. (Weather not permitting, but club owners permitting, some courses such as Rock Creek Park double as cross-country ski trails.)

And because I do find winter weather invigorating, I cycle, wearing bright, ugly, mismatched, warm, cycling clothes. The more ridiculous I look, I figure, the more likely I am to be noticed and therefore not mowed down by motorists.FOR MORE INFORMATION

If you believe in weather forecasts, call the National Weather Service at 936-1212 for daily and longer-range forecasts. For boating, call the Chesapeake Bay weather information: 899-3210.

Each jurisdiction's department of recreation offers winter programs such as badminton, basketball, football, frisbee, racquetball, roller skating, soccer, squash, swimming, tennis or volleyball. Also check the list below for other organizations that offer opportunities to play.

D.C. Department of Recreation: 673-6787

Alexandria Department of Recreation: 780-3383

Arlington Department of Recreation: 558-2165

Fairfax Department of Recreation: 588-2475

Montgomery Department of Recreation: 468-4164

Prince George's Department of Recreation: 699-2407

Charles County Parks & Recreation: 870-3388 (toll-free)

Calvert County Department of Recreation: 535-1600

Howard County Department of Recreation: 301/992-2480

Frederick County Parks & Recreation: 301/694-9000

Carroll County Parks: 301/848-4500

Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation: 301/621-9552

Loudoun County Parks: 703/430-9480

Prince William County Park Authority: 703/670-9118

Rockville Recreation Department: 424-8000

Gaithersburg Department of Recreation: 926-1100

Greenbelt Department of Recreation: 474-6878

Takoma Park Department of Recreation: 270-4048

Fairfax City Recreation Department: 385-7858

Falls Church Recreation Department: 241-5077

Herndon Recreation Department: 435-6868

Vienna Community Center: 938-8000


Sports Network, Margate, Va.: 631-0037


Potomac Overlook Regional Park, Arlington: 528-5406

Long Branch Nature Center, Arlington: 845-7640

Northern Virginia Chapter of the Virginia Society of Ornithology: P.O. Box 5424, Arlington, VA 22205 (newsletters for $12 per year)


C&O Canal Association, McLean: 356-1809


Washington Area Bicyclist Association, D.C.: 944-8567


Audubon Naturalist Society, Chevy Chase, Md.: 652-9188

American Heart Association (mall walks), Alexandria: 941-8500

American Hiking Society, D.C.: 385-3252

Appalachian Mountain Club, Bethesda: 530-4669

Capital Club, D.C.: 966-1459

Center Club, Hyattsville: 779-6678 or 474-1349

C&O Canal Association, McLean: 356-1809

Inner Quest, Leesburg: 478-1078

Mountain Club of Maryland, Baltimore: 301/377-6266

Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, D.C.: 638-5306

Potomac Backpackers, Silver Spring: 587-0331

Sierra Club, D.C.: 547-2326, 547-5551

Volksmarches, Fairfax: 978-1878

Wanderbirds, D.C.: 462-8191

Wilderness Walks, Gaithersburg: 972-1582


Sports Network, Margate, Va.: 631-0037


Inner Quest, Leesburg: 478-1078

Quantico Orienteering Club: 703/471-5854, 301/552-2857


Striders International (indoors), D.C.: 332-6445

Fleet Feet (outdrs), D.C.: 387-3888


Corner Kick, Gaithersburg: 840-5425

Champion Indoor Sports, Falls Church: 578-3500

Sports Network, Margate, Va.: 631-0037


Indoor Softball Stadiums, Alexandria: 461-3777

Champion Indoor Sports, Falls Church: 578-3500 (baseball and softball)

Collegiate Indoor Sports, Rockville: 762-0881


D.C. Grotto, Alexandria: 379-8794

Inner Quest, Leesburg: 478-1078


Champion Indoor Sports, Falls Church: 578-3500

Government Services Facilities (East Potomac Tennis Bubble, Rock Creek Park, 16th Street): 331-8080.

Washington Tennis Association, D.C.: 722-0067


Champion Indoor Sports, Falls Church: 578-3500 Sports Network, Margate, Va.: 631-0037.


These publications regularly list local sports activities:

City Paper Footnotes (free at sporting goods stores) Spokes (new local cycling mag available at sports stores) The Washington Blade The Washington Post Health section (Tuesdays) The Washington Post Weekend section (Fridays) Washington Running Report