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Training and competing in the cold is more than just bundling up in some extra layers. There are some extra challenges to keep in mind, including nutritional practices, in order to stay healthy and get the most out of your workouts or performance. This holds true for athletes competing in winter sports and for whom the cold, even snow and ice are part and parcel of their sport; or for summer sports athletes who have cold wintery conditions to train through because of their home location. Here are some key tips to keep in mind when training or racing in the cold or at altitude:
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Cold weather means additional fueling requirements: The metabolic cost of working out in the cold is greater than that at more moderate temperatures. Our bodies need to work hard to maintain core temperature and to humidify the air we breathe. Plus it is often just harder work moving around in extra layers of clothing, not to mention moving in soft snow or navigating icy, wintery conditions. As conditions worsen, wind chill comes into play – being wet (either through snow, rain, or sweat from overdressing for the intensity of exercise) exacerbates heat losses further. Smaller framed or very lean athletes and children are particularly susceptible to heat loss with their greater surface area to mass ratio.
- The resultant increase in energy expenditure can be as much as 10-15% in the cold. For many this is actually reflected in an increase in hunger and appetite and indeed can be easy to overcompensate – after all cold weather and comfort food seem to go hand in hand and most of us tend to gain weight during the winter months. However for some other athletes hard in training, appetite can just as easily be suppressed (intense exercise suppresses appetite at least in the short term) and they need to work hard at consuming adequate calories for the demands of their training routines and fitness goals.
- Take home tip: Take a spare snack - Extra energy is being burnt through in the effort to stay warm. Don’t be caught short!
The cold affects substrate usage: Shivering is a physiological response to the cold- your body’s way of attempting to stay warm and maintain core body temperature. Shivering can increase body heat production 4-5 fold and is fueled primarily by carbohydrates stored as muscle glycogen as well as blood sugars (proteins and fats appear to be less efficient at fueling this primary response). Metabolism of carbohydrates is upped as much as 6 times of that during rest during shivering meaning that athletes who are exposed to the cold are burning through carbohydrate stores more quickly. Shivering also has the effect of decreasing muscular coordination, this impacting negatively on performance.
You’re more likely to shiver if the cold comes as a shock – either a sudden change in temperature, if you have travelled to the cold or have been caught short without appropriate clothing. But for those more acclimated to the conditions, and who have undergone repeated bouts of exercise in the cold (such as you would expect with someone who lives and trains through a cold winter), fat metabolism is actually boosted and reliance on carbohydrates for heat production decreases. This increase in mobilization of fatty acids means that fats can become a primary energy source for body heat production in the cold. Indeed some limited research indicates that a combination of exercising in the cold can enhance weight loss efforts if diet is also controlled.
- Take home tip: Stay warm – dress appropriately and use your nutrition to help you stay warm rather than skip a workout. Try hot drinks either before, during or after a workout and eat small frequent snacks to fire metabolism and generate body heat while out in the cold.
Hydration is an often overlooked yet key component for athletes health and performance in the cold: Cold weather has the tendency to reduce our drive to drink. And yet fluid requirements are actually higher in the cold compared to more temperate conditions. Cold, dry air leads to greater respiratory water loss and at the same time increases urinary output. The fact we are not actively or obviously sweating as we do in hot humid conditions means we also lose that visual and tactile reminder to keep up our fluids. Cold drinks can also be unappealing when the mercury drops, further decreasing the desire to drink. Altitude (which often coincides with cold winter weather conditions and winter sports) also compounds water losses through respiration, meaning athletes can quickly become dehydrated.
- Take home tip: Stay hydrated –Try and go with fluids that are enjoyable. During intense workouts cool fluids are probably still the most palatable but at other times and for post workout recovery try warm or hot drinks and soups.
Vitamin D deficiency is a common by-product of winter: Winter for some means less time out in the sunshine. This can have a huge effect on levels of Vitamin D, a fat soluble vitamin that acts as a hormone in the body. Vitamin D is essential for absorption of calcium and maintaining bone health but it is also needed for a functional immune system, and deficiencies are linked with an array of health issues. Sunshine is the best source of Vitamin D but dietary sources include egg yolks, fatty fish and fortified dairy foods. It is worth athletes having a yearly or seasonal blood test to check on levels and consider supplementation if necessary.
- Take home tip: Soak up some sunshine when you can!
Snow (and very cold weather conditions) often means elevation: Altitude has many physiological effects, and athletes need to be aware of nutritional strategies to help reduce the impact that elevation can have on both health and performance. With increasing elevation, the atmospheric pressure of oxygen drops, making it more difficult for oxygen to be delivered to body cells, including working muscles. This hypoxic state is the cause of altitude sickness, symptoms of which include headaches, nausea, decreased appetite, lack of energy and feeling generally ‘flat’. Any athlete who has travelled to altitude has no doubt experienced this to some degree and the effects can start around 6000ft above sea level. Everyone is affected differently by altitude, but thankfully after a few days adaptations occur and most people begin to feel (and perform) better. Altitude can lead to weight loss (due to depressed appetite coupled with increased energy needs) – something that hard training and/or very lean athletes should be cautious of. Carbohydrates are also important as an efficient energy source at altitude. Adequate fuel for training and recovery is going to assist an athlete not only in maximizing training adaptations, but give support to the immune system and help the athlete stay healthy. Focus on including nutrient dense carbohydrate rich foods such as fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains and quality dairy foods.
- Take home tip: Don’t underestimate the effects of altitude. If arriving at altitude take some time to adapt before unleashing the training efforts; fuel adequately (remembering that appetite might be low) and stay well hydrated.
Iron needs are increased when living or training at altitude: With decreased oxygenation of the blood, hematological adaptations occur to try and compensate and ensure adequate oxygen delivery. For this to occur though, an athlete must have adequate iron stores. Iron deficiency is a very common problem amongst winter sports athletes as well as those living at altitude.
- Take home tip: Focus on including iron rich foods in your diet regularly and consider having a blood test before you travel to altitude or at regular intervals if living at a high elevation. Some athletes may require additional iron supplementation but this should be monitored by a doctor.
For summer sport athletes, the winter is often a period of reduced training or ‘off-season’: This can be a challenging time to stay focused and the temptations of comforting, rich dishes, combined with a lack of immediacy on the race-front, can lead to unintentional or less than ideal weight gain. In these instances turn to nourishing and satisfying foods that provide warming comfort and yet aren’t heavy – soups, stews, warm drinks, roasted vegetables are all great options. Continuing some activity, even if it a little less structured than during competition season, or turning to a completely different winter sport activity is a good way to maintain fitness, keep motivated, even address some weaknesses or imbalances and have active fun.
- Take home tip: Eat smart – Be mindful of your energy needs throughout the cold. Even though energy needs are higher it can be easy to overdo things. Be mindful of over-stoking that fire.
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