5 Things Athletes Need to Know About Exercising in Cold Weather

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Working out in cold temperatures can test the willpower of the strongest athletes. Some of us tolerate freezing temps better than others, but everyone can agree that training in cold environments is an overall unpleasant experience. Here are five must-know bits of information that will help you get the most out of exercising in cold weather.

1. Our Calorie Expenditure Increases

Although extreme heat makes us feel more fatigued, we actually burn more calories in the extreme cold. Our calorie expenditure increases in cold weather for several reasons:

  • Our metabolic rate increases to keep ourselves warm.
  • Brown fat cell activity in our bodies ramps up to maintain our fat stores.
  • Shivering, chattering teeth and other involuntary physical reactions to cold temperatures burn calories.

These factors can add hundreds of calories to your daily output, so you have to adjust your diet and exercise routines accordingly. It all depends on your fitness goals.

If you’re trying to lose weight, the weather is on your side. Losing weight is easier while training in cold environments because you’re burning more calories. Consider adding another 10-15 minutes of exercise so you have more diet flexibility. 

If you’re trying to gain muscle, you should increase your lean protein intake during the winter months. Muscle recovery and protein synthesis are more difficult due to the harsh weather and your body’s higher metabolic rate, so you need to compensate with more protein.

No matter your fitness goals, you should eat a calorie-dense snack before working out in cold weather to meet your heightened energy requirements. Your meals throughout the day should also become more frequent to keep your energy levels consistent.

2. Dehydration Isn’t As Obvious

Cold temperatures deceive us in many ways. One of the deadliest deceptions is the stifling of dehydration symptoms. We don’t feel thirsty as easily during the winter because our constricting blood vessels release a hormone called vasopressin, which lessens the sensation of thirst. Despite this feeling, we still have the same hydration requirements in cold temperatures.

The onset of dehydration also accelerates in the cold. When we inhale cold air, our bodies warm up the air and exhale vapor. In other words, breathing in the cold directly causes fluid loss. You need to increase your fluid intake while training in cold environments to keep yourself properly hydrated. Keep drinking throughout the workout, even if you don’t feel thirsty.

Cold weather also masks other symptoms of dehydration, such as dry lips and dizziness. You could easily dismiss these symptoms as natural results of exercising in cold temperatures. Don’t take any chances. 16 ounces of water for every hour of physical activity is a good rule of thumb. Consistent fluid intake increases your blood circulation and keeps you warm.

3. We’re Still Cold, Even If We Don’t Feel Cold

Here’s another deception that cold weather pulls on athletes. You might not feel cold after starting your workout, but your extremities are still freezing. Exposed skin can develop frostbite in just 30 minutes when wind chills come into play. Hypothermia is a real possibility. These are the symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia you need to look out for:

  • Numb or tingling skin
  • Skin discoloration
  • Uncontrollable shivering
  • Loss of coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness

If the temperature is below freezing, you must protect your hands, feet and ears. Wear a thick pair of thermal socks and waterproof shoes. Cover your ears with a hat or headband. Many fleece training gloves work on touchscreens these days, so you don’t have to worry about taking them off to change your music or answer a text.

Layering is another effective way to keep yourself warm. Your bottom layer should be a moisture-absorbing polyester fabric. The middle layer should be a heavy fabric like wool to insulate your body heat. The outer layer should be an element-proof material that blocks out wind and precipitation. You can take layers off as needed, but you need a warm starting point.

4. New Injury Risks Emerge

Exercising in cold temperatures entails several unique risks. Ice and snow are legitimate injury risks even for the most surefooted individuals. Partially melted ice is a hidden threat because it blends in with the ground and might look like a harmless puddle. These ground conditions have caused thousands of injuries in the workplace and at home.

If you’re exercising near a busy street, you have to be more cautious about traffic. A slippery patch of black ice could send a vehicle flying off the road. Physical contact is also more painful in cold weather because our exposed skin is brittle and sensitive. If your workout includes a group activity, interactions with peers might be uncomfortable.

Due to these hazards, training in cold environments is not a good idea for a few demographics. Children, old folks and people recovering from injuries should resume their training at home for their own well-being. Only exercise in cold outdoor settings if you’re confident in your physical abilities and have intimate knowledge of the local terrain.

5. The Sun is Brighter Than Ever

Believe it or not, but the sun is brighter during the winter than in other seasons. Earth is closest to the sun in January, making the sun feel brighter, if not warmer. That means you are equally susceptible to sunburn even if you don’t feel your skin heating up. With no protection, your skin can start burning after just 11 minutes of exposure.

Snow on the ground can reflect sunlight onto your skin and into your eyes, causing burns and snow blindness. Wind chills also make your skin more raw and sensitive to sunlight. A lot of harsh elements are working against you when exercising in cold temperatures.

If your outdoor workouts exceed more than 30 minutes, you should apply a layer of sunscreen and wear suitable clothing. Consider buying a good pair of sport sunglasses to block out the sun’s bright glare and prevent snow blindness. Some people also cover their faces with balaclavas or thermal face masks to avoid those breathtaking wind chills. 

Don’t Let Cold Weather Stop Your Fitness Journey

Exercising in cold temperatures isn’t ideal. Many new health hazards and obstacles emerge that could impede your performance. However, that doesn’t mean cold weather needs to stop your fitness journey. You have the knowledge and resources to beat the cold. Adjust your eating and drinking habits and invest in the necessary exercise gear to keep your journey on track.

Beth, the Managing Editor at Body+Mind, is well-respected in the fitness and nutrition spaces. In her spare time, Beth enjoys going for runs and cooking.

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