by Christopher J. Tucker, MD
With the changing of the seasons and the accompanying drop in the temperature outside, many athletes flock to the ski slopes, the ice rink, and the mountainside seeking outdoor adventure and fitness. Exercising in cold weather presents several unique nutritional challenges. Taking a few simple precautions can help maximize performance and keep athletes healthy and allow them to safely achieve their fitness goals.
What changes when the temperature drops?
When exercising in cold weather, your core body temperature tends to drop. In warm weather, it is generally easier to regulate body temperature, as excess body heat is removed through sweating. In addition, the body needs to warm and humidify the cold, dry air that you breathe, which requires even more energy (up to 23 percent of calories burned in cold weather exercise go towards warming inspired air). The caloric requirements of the athlete in cold weather are higher than what would be required during a similar level and duration of activity in warmer temperatures. This is due to food being used to fuel the body’s increased metabolism in addition to providing energy for the exercise itself.
Can I drink less water?
One of the biggest nutritional mistakes that athletes make is to drink too little water when exercising in cold weather. Cold diminishes the body’s thirst mechanism and athletes need to make a conscious effort to consume enough fluids. This is necessary to keep up with the demand of both exercise, as well as fluid lost when warming the body and humidifying inspired air. When exhaling during heavy breathing considerable water is lost during respiration. Dehydration leads to decreased performance, and physical endurance. It is commonly cited as the root cause of many outdoor winter sporting accidents and misadventures.
What should I eat?
Proper nutrition begins with planning ahead. Ideally, athletes should consume complex carbohydrates two hours prior to exercise. Warm foods are ideal as they can help to contribute to heat preservation. Foods such as soups, chili, pasta, baked potatoes, breads, bagels with peanut butter, or lean meats are excellent pre-exercise sources of fuel. It is also important to continue to replace carbohydrate stores being burned during exercise, to prevent fatigue and contribute to body heat. It is a good rule of thumb to bring along easily digestible snacks such as energy bars and gels, trail mix, sandwiches, or fruit.
For more great tips like this, check out In Motion, an official wellness publication by The American Orthopedic Society For Sports Medicine in conjunction with AOSMI.