“The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.” ~Hamlet
Cold weather has always made me think of this line from Hamlet. Coldness “biting” is such an apt metaphor for those winter days when we would rather stay under the covers than head outside to get our move on. But, there are good reasons to head outside in the cold weather – assuming we have made the right preparations. As the saying goes, there is no bad weather, just bad gear choices. Even though you may be able to get most of your training done indoors, there are still good reasons to go outside and get cold weather training in.
Training in the cold provides benefits for our immune system, with some studies reporting as much as 20-30% reduction in flu and cold risk.
Outdoor training is a mood booster. With so much of our time spent indoors during the winter, getting outside for fresh air fights the winter gloomies. Indoor training will still release feel-good endorphins, but research finds that outdoor training can have additional mood-enhancing effects.
You can get an extra cardio bang for your buck as the heart and lungs work harder to hit the same target, which has been found to have an improvement for muscle’s aerobic function. One study from the University of Arizona found that cold weather training can have a positive impact on both VO2max and long distance run speed.
Other studies, such as one from the University of Colorado found that cold weather training burns more calories, and in particular may be especially well suited for fat burning.
Lastly, winter training opens us up to new adventures, exploring snow laden forests, or trails that are too overgrown in the summer months (not to mention full of bugs!). Maybe you’ll get into cyclocross, fat biking, or gravel biking – great activities for the winter chill!
Of course, it’s not all good news. Cold weather training brings challenges that require us to adapt.
When we train in cold weather, we need to ensure we can maintain body heat to prevent some of the worst effects, such as hypothermia. When the conditions are damp or wet, this can be even more challenging to do as heat loss occurs 3 to 5 times more quickly in wet conditions when compared with dryer conditions at the same temps.
Frostbite is a real threat, especially in wet or snowy conditions. Several years ago my husband John ran a winter 50k race, and the trail was covered in new snow. As he was one of the front runners, he was breaking trail the entire time, and his feet got wet and cold. He came home with a case of frostbite on his toes, and while the case was mild, his toe is still susceptible to the cold years later. You can see the image of his toe. We had to cut the front of cycling shoe out so he could ride.
Another common challenge in the cold relates to respiratory issues. Even if you don’t have asthma, the cold can trigger breathing issues.
So, let’s talk about what you can do to mitigate these challenges and get the best of the deep freeze without losing your tootsies.
Tips to Mitigate these Challenges
- Get in a proper warm up
While it is never good advice to just head out the door and go, a warm up is even more important in cold weather. A proper warm up will ensure you will get a quality performance, but more importantly, reduce injury risk, especially as might occur with cold muscles and tendons.
Do your winter warm up indoors, but without all of your outdoor clothing on as you don’t want to be super sweaty once you head outside. Allow for about 10-15 minutes of dynamic movements and stretches, such as walking lunges, leg swings, torso rotations, toe swipes, marching in place, skips, high knee walks, and the like.
- What to wear
When you are deciding what to wear, make sure you dress to the conditions (temperature and level of wetness), as well as to the workout both in terms of intensity and duration.
The best rule in winter training is to assemble your outfit in layers. Depending on the conditions you may not need all of the layers I’m about to cover so you can adjust as per the conditions and your workout. Don’t dress such that you are warm to start. You should feel a little cold at the start because as the workout goes on, you will warm. Prevent over-sweating!
Layer 1 is a base layer that is sweat wicking and should be form fitting. Popular materials for sweat wicking are typically polyester or wool (for added warmth on bitter days).
Layer 2 should provide more insulation to help you retain heat, so this may include a fleece lined shirt, or a thicker technical shirt. This will be a looser fit than layer 1.
Layer 3 should be a weather blocker for wind, rain, or snow. It should be water resistant or water proof. I strongly recommend that you splurge on HIGH QUALITY for this layer. It can save you – literally – if you get into bad conditions. Gore-tex or similar products are worth the money. I also recommend considering a pair of water proof pants which you can pull over your tights. They can be really helpful for long days.
Make sure each of these layers have zippers, so you can zip up or zip down to control sweat. You do not want to be soaked in sweat in cold weather!
Add to these layers:
- Head covering – either a headband (for your ears) or a beanie (we have some for sale on our No Limits swag store)
- A buff or mask to reduce the impact of cold air on our respiratory system
- Quality socks – wool or wool blend (my favorite brands are Darn Tough and Icebreaker. Smart wool is good as well.)
- Plastic bags over your socks and/or duct tape over the top of your shoes – can add an extra layer to protect from getting soaked
- Trail sneakers – even if you only run road because trail sneakers tend to have more water resistant uppers than standard road shoes
- Bootie covers for cycling
- Snow gaiters (to keep snow from going into your sneakers)
- Spikes for icy conditions – such as the Kahtoola nanospikes or exospikes.
- Gloves – I like the type of convertible finger gloves that have a mitten overlay so you can tuck your fingers in on especially cold days or at the start of a run when you may be colder.
- Eye coverings – on sunny days go with sunglasses. But, if it is gray out, you may still want a clear pair to keep your eyes watering from the wind.
- Put extra dry stuff in your hydration pack for longer runs
- Continue to hydrate and fuel
You may not feel as thirsty as you do in the summer, but you still need to hydrate. It is important to note that your thirst mechanism may not be reliable in the cold, especially for longer distances. Also adding to dehydration risk is frequent urination that sometimes happens in cold conditions, known as cold-induced diuresis.
If you wear a hydration vest with a bladder or soft bottles, put it between Layer 2 and Layer 3 of clothing. This will prevent the straw from freezing or the nozzles on bottles from freezing shut. You can also make sure to fill your hydration with lukewarm water.
If you have a longer sessions, consider a stop mid-day to get a warm drink and some calories out of the cold.
- Light Yourself Up
Winter days are short, so many of us find ourselves outside in the dark. Even if training during daylight hours, they can be low light and gray. The lights are as much about you being able to see as they are about making sure motorists can see you. Add to that a brightly colored jacket and/or tights, headlamp and a small flashlight, and you are good to go!
- Planning & Strategy
Wind is one of the things that makes a cold day feel near impossible. So, work with it and not against it. Start your run into the wind so you finish with a tailwind (will feel warmer and you get a bonus push to the finish).
Understand that cold impacts pace. We accept this about heat, but not so much with cold. But, we can be slower in colder temps, or have a higher HR to hit the same pace or power. We may be spending anywhere from 10 to 40% MORE energy in cold weather, due to the extra clothing, snow or ice, as well as involuntary muscle contractions (such as shivering).
Be mindful of the workouts you do outside. For example, if you have an interval based workout, you may find yourself sweating during the work interval, and shivering during the rest interval. So, it may be wise to have an outer layer you can easily take on and off, or zipper up and down to control sweat rate and core temp. Don’t stop moving during the intervals, as your muscles can tense up, thereby increasing injury risk.
- Post Training
Get out of your cold and wet clothes as quickly as possible. So, if you traveled somewhere to do your session, bring a change of clothes with you. Otherwise, your core temp can drop and you’ll be fighting the shivers.
Have something warm ready to go to eat or drink after. For example, how about using hot chocolate as a base to make a recovery drink? Or some warm soup that you can store in a thermos.
Dry your shoes by putting newspaper in them and putting near heat source so they are ready to go tomorrow.
With careful preparation, you can make it through winter training – and maybe even learn to enjoy its invigorating effects!