How to train in cold weather and maximise your exercise performance

Training in the cold

As the nights continue to draw in and the cold to deepen, those late evening or early morning training sessions you once completed in nothing but a pair of shorts and vest seem but a distant memory. Now dragging yourself from a warm bed or cosy armchair is a battle in itself, let alone facing the wind and rain on the streets. But if you don’t want all the hard work you put in during those summer months to turn into a set of love handles during the winter, you must at some point brave the elements. Fortunately Peter Reaburn, Head of the School of Health and Human Performance at Australia’s Central Queensland University has some sensible advice on how you can beat the cold and maximise your exercise performance – although you may well ask what the Australians know about cold weather!

Peter suggests that to successfully beat the cold you should first understand how the body reacts to it – so here’s the science: humans gain heat through metabolism, gain or lose it via radiation, conduction or convection, and lose it via evaporation. When you go out for your run you want your heat stores to be in slightly positive balance – just enough warmth to remain comfortable and keep your muscles working optimally. The problem is that when you are in a cold environment (particularly water) your body will tend to lose a lot of heat through conduction, convection and radiation. The bottom line is that your body temperature will start to drop, you will start to shiver (so using up essential muscle carbohydrate) and your blood vessels will start to close down, redirecting blood deep into the body where it is needed for the essential organs. So how do you go about beating the cold?

There are a couple of factors that might work in your favour: first, if you have been training hard during the summer months, your aerobic capacity should be in good shape, and research shows that the more aerobically fit you are the more energy you can produce to offset heat loss; secondly, you can now justify your love handles – to yourself as well as your partner – as a form of insulation, much like the stuff you have in the walls of your house. Evidence shows that tall lean people have a low heat-generating muscle mass and are at greater risk from the cold. Even if these factors are not working for you, there are still some things you can do:

1. Make sure you wear plenty of layers during training. Any close-fitting material that is next to the skin should be made from a porous material that allows sweat to escape. The middle layer is the insulator and the outside layer should stop the wind and rain getting in.

2. You may feel daft, but beanie hats, headbands, leg warmers and gloves are all essential cold weather training gear. If you’re asthmatic you may want a scarf or face mask to warm and humidify the air before it enters your lungs.

3 Make sure you complete a good warm-up; it will need to be longer and more intense than in warmer weather and you will need to wear some heavier clothing that you can take off just before you start the session.

4. Make sure you keep your fluid intake up: it’s no use avoiding hypothermia if you then fall foul of dehydration. However, research shows that athletes drink less in the cold weather.

5. After your session, wrap up warm then get out of the cold and back inside as soon as possible.

Following these simple steps should make your winter workout more enjoyable and effective. And don’t forget, it will soon be summer!

Sports Coach, vol 24 (2) pp8-9

Nick Grantham

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