How to Fuel Up For Cold Weather Exercise: 10 Must-Know Facts

woman skiing downhill

Exercise is an excellent way to warm up in the winter! Aerobic workout can increase your metabolism by 7 to 10 times above the resting level. This warmth helps you survive in a cold environment.

If you’re a winter athlete, you want to pay careful attention to your diet. Lack of fluids and the right food can take the fun out of your outdoor activities. Here, tips to stay at the top of your game.

Staying Hydrated in Winter

Some need-to-know facts about getting enough fluids during the cold-weather months:

1.) Cold blunts the thirst mechanism; you’ll feel less thirsty despite significant sweating and may not “think to drink.” Winter athletes (especially those skiing at high altitude) need to consciously consume fluids to replace the water vapor 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 vapor (“steam”) when you breathe.

2.) Dehydration hurts performance. Failing to drink enough fluids is a major mistake made by winter athletes. A study comparing hydration of athletes who skied or played football or soccer, reported the skiers had the highest rate of chronic dehydration. Before a competition, 11 of the 12 alpine skiers showed up dehydrated. (Some winter athletes purposefully skimp on fluids to minimize the need to stop for a bathroom break, but this affects how well they do.)

female skier drinking water outdoors

Exercising women need at least 8 – 12 glasses of water a day during the winter months.

3.) Room temperature water is best. Don’t drink icy water (i.e., from a water bottle kept on your bike or outside pocket of your backpack), unless you’re hot. Cold water can cool you off and give you the chills. A better bet: an insulated water bottle or a bottle filled with a hot sports drink then covered with a wool sock to help retain the heat.

4. Layering up helps you sweat less. Sweaty clothing drains body heat. As the weather becomes “tropical” inside your exercise outfit, strip down layer by layer. You’ll stay drier and warmer. Simply taking off a hat is cooling; 30 to 40 percent of body heat gets lost through the head.

What to Eat to Stay Warm

You need adequate pre-exercise fuel to generate body heat—why you want to eat the proper foods before you ski, run outdoors, or embark on any outside activity in extreme cold.

5.) Eating not only provides fuel but also increases heat production (warmth). Your body wants fuel to “stoke the furnace” so it can generate heat. (It takes about 30 to 60 minutes after you eat for your body to generate about 10 percent more heat than when you have an empty stomach.)

energy bar

Always carry a snack (or two)—like an energy bar—with you when you're outdoors exercising.

That’s why it’s important to always carry emergency food (such as an energy bar) with you in case you slip on the ice or experience some incident that leaves you static in a frigid environment. Winter campers, for example, commonly keep a supply of dried fruit, chocolate, or cookies within reach, in case they wake up cold at 3:00 a.m.

6.) A drop in body temperature actually stimulates the appetite and you experience hunger. That’s why if you become chilled during winter exercise (or even when swimming, for that matter), you’ll likely find yourself searching for food.

Also note that changes in brain chemicals (particularly in those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD) increase carbohydrate cravings and the desire to eat more. To limit winter weight gain, stay active! Exercise helps manage health, weight, and the winter blues.

bowl of oatmeal with dried fruit and nuts

One of the best foods for winter athletes? Oatmeal with nuts and a little dried fruit.

7.) The best winter recovery foods are those that chase away chills, replenish depleted glycogen stores, and rehydrate your body. Best bets: warm carbohydrates with a little protein, such as hot cocoa made with milk, oatmeal with nuts, lentil soup, chili, and pasta with meatballs. The warm food, added to the thermogenic effect of eating, contributes to rapid recovery. Eating cold foods and frozen fluids, on the other hand, can chill your body.

8.) Your body uses a considerable amount of energy to warm and humidify the air you breathe when you exercise in the cold. For example, if you were to burn 600 calories while cross-country skiing for an hour in 0° F weather, you might use about 150 of those calories to warm the air.  (In summer, you would have dissipated that heat via sweat.)

woman running in the snow

Always layer up when running or doing any outdoor exercise in the winter.

9.) If you wear heavy clothes, you’ll burn a few more calories carrying the extra weight of skis, boots, heavy parka, snow shoes, etc. (The Army actually allows 10 percent more calories for heavily clad troops who exercise in the cold.) If you’re a runner, however, think twice before chowing down: the weight of your extra clothing is minimal.

10.) Shivering is an involuntary muscle tensing that generates heat.

When you first become slightly chilled (such as when watching a football game), you’ll find yourself doing an isometric type of muscle tensing that can increase your metabolic rate two to four times.

As you get further chilled, you’ll find yourself hopping from foot to foot and jumping around. This is Nature’s way to get you to generate heat and warm your body.

• If you become so cold that you start to shiver, these vigorous muscular contractions generate lots of heat—up to 400 calories per hour. Such intense shivering quickly depletes your muscle glycogen stores and drains your energy. This is when you’ll be glad you have emergency food with you!

Copyright:  Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD, December 2011

Nancy Clark, MS RD offers nutrition consultations to casual exercisers and competitive athletes at her private practice located at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill MA (617-795-1875). Her popular Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for runners, cyclists, and soccer players are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. See also www.sportsnutritionworkshop.com.

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Nancy Clark MS RD CSSDAbout Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD
Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in the Boston area (617-795-1875). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Food Guide for Marathoners, and Cyclist's Food Guide all offer additional information. The books are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com and sportsnutritionworkshop.com.