Eating for Cold-Weather Exercise

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Exercising in the cold weather brings some unique challenges for athletes who participate in winter sports. Anyone who exercises in cold weather needs to take a few precautions in order to stay comfortable, safe, and still perform at an optimal level when temperatures drop.

The major concerns of cold-weather athletes and exercisers include:

But what you eat and drink before and during cold-weather exercise can also help you perform your best and stay comfortable and safe. Proper nutrition helps regulate your core temperature, keeps your body warm and provides enough fuel for your working muscles. In warm weather, it's easy to sweat to regulate your temperature and remove excess heat, but in cold weather, you need to generate more heat to stay warm.

In cold weather, your body temperature normally drops. Your metabolism increases to warm and humidify the air you breathe and you tend to burn slightly more calories to stay warm. Breathing in cold, dry air forces your body to warm and humidify that air and with each exhalation, you lose significant amounts of water.

Winter athletes need more fluids to replace the water that gets lost via respiration but have a decreased desire to drink (the thirst mechanism is reduced in cold weather). So one of the biggest nutritional needs during winter exercise is proper hydration. Dehydration is one of the main reasons for reduced performance in the cold.

When it comes to eating during cold-weather exercise, warm foods are ideal, but not very practical. The problem with cold foods and fluids is that they can chill the body. In summer, this cooling effect is helpful during exercise, but in winter hot foods are the better choice.

Ideal foods are complex carbohydrates consumed 4-6 hours prior to exercise. Soups, chili, bread, bagels, pasta with tomato sauce, baked potatoes, cereals, peanut butter, lean meat, and low-fat cheese are good choices.

Then consume a light carbohydrate snack 30 to 60 minutes prior to working out. It should consist of 50 grams of carbohydrates and 5 to 10 grams of protein. Examples include an apple or banana with nut butter, yogurt and fruit, or toast with jam and peanut butter.

It's also important to eat continually to replace carbohydrate stores that are being used for exercise and warming. If you don't replace this energy you will likely feel more fatigued and chilled. This is especially important for children. Children get hungrier more often and fatigue quicker. Plan ahead and bring energy bars, chocolate bars, trail mix, bananas, sandwiches or something that you like and will eat.

Recommendations for Cold Weather Nutrition

  • Drink plenty of water
  • Eat a variety of high carbohydrate foods
  • Plan to eat a small snack (100-200 calories) every 30 to 45 minutes
  • Eat warm or hot food when possible
  • Decrease caffeine consumption
  • Don't drink alcohol. Alcohol dilates the blood vessels and increases heat loss.

And finally, it's important for winter athletes to have an emergency food source with them. This is beyond what you plan to eat. Hide an extra energy bar somewhere just in case.

1 Source
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  1. Kerksick, C.M., Wilborn, C.D., Roberts, M.D. et al. ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review update: research & recommendationsJ Int Soc Sports Nutr 15, 38 (2018).

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.