After a long, hard term at university, I’m finally back writing! I hope everyone has been training hard over the winter period to help you to peak your performance levels this coming season. However, with the headlines saying that we’ve still got the “Worst winter in 100 years” to come, exercising in the cold weather brings some unique challenges. Taking a few precautions to enable you to stay comfortable, safe, and still perform at an optimal level is key. What you eat and drink before and during cold-weather exercise will help you reach your optimum performance whilst staying comfortable.
As the temperature drops and the snow begins to fall, ensuring that you are obtaining proper nutrition will help to regulate your body temperature, keeping you warm, and provide enough fuel for your working muscles. In warmer weather, it is easier to sweat to regulate your temperature and remove the excess heat, but in cold weather you need to generate this heat to keep your muscles warm and reduce risk of injury. Your metabolism increases as you burn more calories from your food to keep warm and also to moisten the cold air you are breathing in. Therefore, you need to continuously fuel your body in order to maintain this internal warmth.
During winter training, it is important to consciously consume fluids to replace the water vapour that gets exhaled via breathing. When you breathe in cold dry air, your body warms and humidifies that air. As you exhale, you lose significant amounts of water. You can see this vapour (“steam”) when you breathe. Therefore, hydration is of the utmost importance! Add to this the decreased desire to drink (as the body’s natural thirst mechanism is reduced in cold weather) and hydration becomes one of the most important factors.
Warm foods are ideal for training in the winter months but are not always practical when constantly on the go. The problem with cold foods is that they can cool the body down even more. The ideal would be to consume a complex carbohydrate meal 2 hours prior to exercise. Foods such as soups, chilli, wholemeal bread, bagels, pasta with tomato sauce, baked beans, cereals, peanut butter, lean meat, and low-fat cheese are good choices. It is important to keep variety in your diet.
It is also important to have continuous snacks to replace the carbohydrate stores that are being used for exercise and warming. If this energy is constantly getting used but not replaced then you will quickly feel tired and very cold. Plan ahead and ensure that you always have a snack at hand. For example, energy bars, occasional chocolate bars, trail mix, bananas, and sandwiches are good options to keep handy. Plan to eat a small snack every 30-45 minutes (100-200 calories).
It is also wise to stay away from drinks with high caffeine content as caffeine dilates the blood vessels and increases heat loss.
Vitamin D deficiency is endemic in the general population and especially true in northern countries like the UK. Athletes who train indoors (or outdoors, as the days are shorter and the sun is rare!) in the winter months are all at risk of inadequate vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is mainly synthesised in the body from exposure to sunlight, as there are very few foods that provide adequate dietary amounts. Vitamin D’s primary function is the regulation of calcium transport and metabolism. Since calcium transport is an integral part of muscle contraction and relaxation, vitamin D is extremely important for proper muscle function. Studies have shown that vitamin D levels in athletes are lowest in the winter months and that insufficient levels may increase risk of frequent illness. One study found that for athletes who took a vitamin D supplement, there was a significant increase in their 10m sprint times and vertical-jump. This has led to further studies using large athletic groups being warranted.
Follow these simple tips to stay warm this winter, and fuel your body accordingly. Catch some sun rays whenever you can, and you’ll be thanking yourself at competition time.
Halliday, T.M., Peterson, N.J., Thomas, J.J., Kleppinger, K., Hollis, B.W., Larson-Meyer, D.E. (2011) Vitamin D status relative to diet, lifestyle, injury, and illness in college athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 43(2): 335 – 43.
Close, G.L., Russell, J., Cobley, J.N., Owens, D.J., Wilson, G., Gregson, W., Fraser, W.D., Morton, J.P. (2013) Assessment of vitamin D concentration in non-supplemented professional athletes and healthy adults during the winter months in the UK: implications for skeletal muscle function. J Sports Sci. 31(4): 344 – 53.