Does the simple mention of running in the snow give you shivers? Are the only miles you log from December to March done on the treadmill while watching The People’s Court on the gym TV? Well then, this article isn’t for you. This post is for the people who love the crunch of fresh powder under their feet, the smack of a sub-freezing wind and eyebrow icicles.
Behold, the winter runner!
I love winter running for a variety of reasons. There are less people clogging the road and trails, it keeps the winter weight off and results in better springtime race performance. However, it’s important to remember that just as there are strategies to beating the heat through the summer, there are some important aspects to cold weather running that can make training safer and more effective.
This post is first in a three-part series on winter running tips. In this part I’ll go over the highlights of winter nutrition and hydration. Later, I’ll cover what to wear for comfortable outdoor running and then finally, and most importantly, I’ll touch on how to stay safe when the temperature really dips low.
Three questions about winter hydration and nutrition
I get these three a lot about this time of the year. People are winding down from fall marathon training/racing and starting to look for the next thing. Many want to do a spring marathon and need to train through the winter. They’ve got a solid nutrition/hydration plan for the hot months, but have not idea how to adjust to the cold.
1: Do I burn more calories when exercising in the cold?
The answer here is yes… and no. The cold itself does not really effect a runner’s calorie consumption. One study showed that subjects burned 13% more energy when exercising scantily clad versus when they were dressed appropriately for the climate. Perhaps a handy way to lose weight, but why would you want to suffer like that?
Shivering burns mega calories – about 400 per hour! – but unless you’re going to stand outside for an hour wearing your racing shorts in a blizzard, this isn’t going to effect you.
What does make a difference is the amount of gear you’re wearing. If you’ve got on tights, three base layers, a hat, gloves and heavy trail shoes, the combined weight will add up to some additional calorie burn. However, to put that in perspective, according to “The Soldier’s Guide: The Complete Guide to U.S. Army Traditions, Training, Duties, and Responsibilities” the U.S. Army only allows 10% more calories per day for soldiers operating in cold climates. This is for men and women with heavy clothes, heavy packs and heavy weapons. A scarf and your extra Gu packet doesn’t really stack up.
Of course, if you’re running in the snow, the added resistance will up your hourly calorie count similarly to the way running over rocky or muddy terrain would. That means, ironically, that the non-winter runner’s trek through the snow to get to the treadmill at the gym is probably a better workout than the treadmill run itself!
What does this mean for me? Unless you live out west or run a lot of winter trails, your caloric burn isn’t going to be dramatically higher than the rest of the year.
2: But if I’m not really burning that many more calories, why am I always hungrier in the winter?
Eating food is like throwing a log on a fire so, when your body feels cold, it triggers your appetite. Eating sets off a process called thermogenisis which, much like the shivering of cold muscles, increases body temperature. This the main factor in why we’re often hungrier in the winter.
What does this mean for me? This is important to take note of if one of your goals to to lose or at least maintain your current weight. You might not be as hungry as you think. You might just be cold! Drinking warm soup might be a better choice than that big bowl of chili.
3: When it’s cold I don’t sweat as much. Do I need to worry about staying hydrated?
Yes! This is probably the most common mistake winter runners make and there’s a trifecta of reasons this happens.
First, cold kills your body’s natural thirst mechanism. So, if you’ve trained yourself to follow the summer time hydration rule of “drink when thirsty”, you may find yourself naturally running low on fluids. You can compensate for this by coming up with a “sip schedule” or set intervals of drinking from a sports bottle. Additionally, monitoring your weight before and after long winter runs or just keeping an general eye on the color if your urine (yeah, I said “urine”) will give you a sense of whether you’re properly hydrated — if it looks like lemonade, that means you’re good, but if it looks like Jose Quervo Gold, drink up… water, that is.
Second, cold winter air is dry. As you inhale, the air is warmed and humidified as it passes through your sinuses and in your lungs. Unfortunately, as you exhale used air, that moisture goes with it. That’s the cloud you see coming out of your mouth. This sucks moisture out of your body.
Lastly, most people overdress and end up sweating more than expected. I’ll cover how to dress in the 2nd part of this series, but generally speaking, you want to dress as if it’s 15-20º warmer than the “real feel temperature” (that’s the temperature with the windchill factored in).
What does this mean for me? It means that hydration is just as important in the winter as it is in the summer. Because of the first point about the cold killing your thirst mechanism it might even be more important.
So there you go.
Keep these things in mind as you put in your miles this winter and stay tuned for more winter running tips.