No one likes working out when the temperature plunges. For those who brave it, though, the benefits include burning off more calories. Just follow these rules outlined in The Times
When temperatures plummet, so, inevitably, does our enthusiasm for outdoor exercise. Our commitment to cycling, walking or running is seriously tested when the days are dreary and damp and the evenings dark. When researchers from the University of Michigan questioned 502 people about their inclination for exercise, they found that participants were at least three times more likely to delay or cancel an outdoor workout if it was cold and wet compared with days when it was hot. No surprises there, but with strategic planning and precautionary measures, winter workouts can feel like less of a burden. Here’s how to make them more tolerable.
Take on carbs and vitamin C
If you are training for a marathon or triathlon, there are strategies that may help to reduce your susceptibility to winter infections. One is to keep up your healthy carb intake — wholegrains, cereals, pulses and vegetables — after a long run or cycle. Carbohydrates maintain blood sugar levels, and researchers from the Queensland University of Technology in Australia reported in the Journal of Applied Physiology that “having stable blood sugar levels reduces the body’s stress response”, which, in turn, boosts immunity.
Elsewhere, Finnish researchers found that 6-8g of vitamin C a day in supplement form can be more helpful for exercisers than the general population. (The NHS, however, says that a dose of more than 1g a day could be harmful.) In a series of studies involving more than 11,000 people, scientists at the University of Helsinki gave groups of volunteers a dose of vitamin C, then assessed its impact on their health. Participants included schoolchildren, marathon runners, competitive swimmers and soldiers, with results showing that extra vitamin C halved the risk of colds in people who do intense exercise. Among the exercisers, those who caught a cold and took the supplement shook off their illness twice as quickly as those who did not take the vitamin.
When temperatures fall the urge to pee increases — doctors call this cold diuresis — largely as a result of constricting blood vessels increasing blood pressure. This, coupled with what Loughborough University researchers labelled a “blunted thirst response” in a study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, means we are less inclined to take on fluids and risk dehydration. “You will need relatively less fluid on a cold day than a scorching day,” says John Brewer, professor of applied sports science at St Mary’s University, London, and the author of Run Smart , “but don’t fall into the trap of neglecting hydration.” A chilled drink may lower your body temperature, so opt for room temperature fluids, Brewer says.
The golden rule for all winter activities is to layer up. Start with a base layer of sweat-wicking synthetic material or a merino wool, wool-synthetic blend, but avoid cotton because it absorbs sweat and feels clammy and cold. Wear a middle layer of fleece or wool for insulation and a breathable outer shell made from a wind and water-resistant material. “Wearing extra layers helps to create a personal ‘microclimate’ of warmth, even on the coldest days, and this tricks the body into acclimation,” Brewer says. It’s a myth that up to 75 per cent of heat lost from the body is through the head and that a hat is the most important item of clothing. In reality, the head represents only about 10 per cent of the body’s surface area and while covering it will reduce some heat loss, it’s not as dramatic as many of us think. “Making sure larger peripheral parts of the body, such as the arms and legs, are warm is essential,” Brewer says, “but when you are running, hat and gloves are rarely necessary after a couple of miles, although you will need thermal and wind-resistant gloves on a bike.”
Warm yourself up
Tom Goom, a physiotherapist and spokesman for the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, says that there is surprisingly little scientific evidence that muscle pulls are more common in cold weather or that the cold increases muscular pain, “although anecdotally patients tell us that it does”. However, it’s wise to warm up well so that your body is mentally and physically prepared for heading outdoors. “Wearing the right clothes is probably more important than where you warm up,” Goom says. Warm up inside or outside with five to ten minutes of the activity you will be doing or similar — march on the spot if you are running, or run or cycle at a lower intensity.
The sharp intake of breath
Cold air is often dry and can irritate the airways of people with asthma, but can also make breathing harder for the rest of us. Research by Asthma UK has found that 3 million people find that cold air can trigger an asthma attack.
“As temperatures plunge, asthma symptoms like coughing and wheezing are even more likely during exercise when cold, dry air can irritate already sensitive airways,” says Emma Rubach, the head of health advice at Asthma UK. She recommends wearing a buff or scarf when you head out. “Try to make sure your chest and throat are covered and loosely wrap a scarf around your nose. This helps to warm up the air before you breathe it in, so it’s less likely to set off your symptoms.”
Try to breathe through your nose rather than your mouth because your nose is designed to warm the air as you breathe it in. If your breathing really suffers, tone down the intensity of your exercise. “Consider doing less vigorous exercise outside such as a power walk or slower jog instead of a run,” Rubach says. “And always warm up well for at least ten minutes before you start an outdoor session.”
Burn more fat
Exposure to cold temperatures is known to trigger the body’s brown fat stores into action — and this special kind of fat burns rather than stores calories. A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Human Biology found that participants used up to 34 per cent more calories when hiking in cold weather than in warmer temperatures. On average, men burnt 4,787 calories a day (women 3,880) hiking in winter. Hiking the same distance in spring used 3,822 calories in men and 3,801 in women.
By law bikes must be fitted with a white front light and a red back light as well as red rear reflectors and amber pedal reflectors. “Walkers and runners, however, should carry torches or wear a head torch to make them more visible to motorists and so that they can see where they are going,” says Rebecca Needham, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents’ road safety officer. Look for torches with about 300 lumens (a measure of brightness), a good beam distance (at least 75m) and a lightweight and long-lasting battery. Use over short distances to get used to the narrow beam of light from a head torch — it causes a sort of tunnel vision that can make some people feel nauseous; the light also alters their perspective and sense of balance when they are running.
Wear high-visibility clothing
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents recommends that walkers, runners and cyclists wear brightly coloured or fluorescent clothing during the day, adding reflective clothing or accessories in the dark. “Fluorescent clothing is great for being more visible on dull days, but it won’t help you get seen at night,” Needham says. “We recommend people wear clothing with reflective piping or strips that are picked up by street and car lights at night.” Fabrics that use millions of tiny reflective glass beads for high visibility (such as those used at provizsports.com) are the best buy. “Reflection works best on body parts that move the most such as the legs and arms,” Needham says. “The more you can do to be seen, the better.”
Buy tougher tyres
Winter weather means bike tyres are more likely to get a puncture. It’s worth investing in a set that offer some protection, says Matt Gilliver, a workshop manager for Evans Cycles. “When it’s wet, a lot of road detritus is washed to the side, right where cyclists ride, and that’s part of the reason there’s a rise in punctures. Tyres made of a rubber compound and that sometimes have a layer of Kevlar woven into the canvas beneath the rubber will deflect flints and thorns from puncturing an inner tube.” Try the Continental Gator Hardshell range (continental-tires.com).
There are many benefits to a winter workout and one is that scientists give the green light to a mug of hot chocolate as a recovery drink. Cow’s milk is isotonic (meaning it has a similar concentration to body fluids) and helps to rehydrate, but it also provides calcium, potassium and vitamin D as well as the amino acids needed to boost the synthesis of muscle protein. Natural milk sugars and sugar in the chocolate powder help to replace the carbohydrates used in exercise. A review of 12 studies published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition this year reported that chocolate milk provides “similar or superior results when compared to a placebo or other recovery drinks”. Serving it warm brings more benefits — a 2003 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry reported that hot cocoa contains more antioxidants than tea or cold chocolate milk; heating the cocoa seems to release more immune-boosting nutrients.
And if you really can’t face going outside…
There’s plenty you can do in the comfort of your lounge. “Try a high-intensity circuit involving exercises that focus on the ‘powerhouse’ muscles such as the glutes,” says Dalton Wong, the founder of Twenty Two Training and trainer to the actresses Jennifer Lawrence and Olivia Colman. “Exercises like squats, lunges (in all directions), press-ups, mountain climbers and burpees place high energy demands on your body and will really burn calories fast.” Do each exercise for a minute, allowing only a few seconds’ recovery between sets. Repeat the circuit three or four times and three or four times a week. “Investing in some simple and cheap home workout equipment such as resistance bands, kettlebells and dumbbells will mean you never have an excuse not to work out.”
SHOULD YOU EXERCISE WITH A COLD?
Studies suggest that you can halve the odds of catching a cold if you are active and fit. But you are not guaranteed immunity and if your workout regimen is intense, you may be more susceptible to a bout of the sniffles. Should you stop exercising if you do catch a cold? Guidelines from the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences suggest avoiding strenuous exercise on day one of “above the collar” symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections, including sore throat, coughing, runny or congested nose. If you don’t have a high temperature or feel too rough and there is no worsening of these symptoms you can do some light exercise (heart rate less than 120 beats a minute) for about half an hour (indoors during winter) after days two or three of a cold. “But if you feel shivery or achy, your nose is permanently streaming and you need to take paracetamol to keep symptoms under control, you should rest until things improve,” says Dr Juliet McGrattan, a GP and the author of Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide To Health.