Listen to the Whispers of Winter
Dawn was breaching through the darkness as I pulled on my running tights, thermal, beanie and gloves. From my lounge room window I could see Mt Wellington and my beloved trails covered in a thick blanket of snow. Winter has arrived!
Winter training poses many challenges to all of us. Increased darkness and cooler temperatures disturb our homeostasis and require alterations to our exercising habits. Developing an understanding of the physiological changes your body goes through during winter will assist you to maintain healthy, safe and sustainable exercise routines this year.
Quick Fact Sheet
- Increased dependence on carbohydrates
- Increased fat storage
- Alteration to circadian rhythms caused by decreased light exposure
- Elevated melatonin levels
- Inflammatory processes increase
- Vasoconstriction reduces blood flow to working muscles
- Vasoconstriction increases blood pressure and urination
- Increase carbohydrate consumption before, during and after exercise.
- Increase electrolyte and fluid consumption.
- Layer up ‘like an onion’ and avoid fabrics with poor breathability that retain moisture such as cotton clothing.
- Consider using a light-weight, wind-proof jacket to decrease wind chill.
- Consider using different shoes with a more aggressive grip for muddy, winter trail running.
- When possible, try exercising in the middle of the day. This will be in greater harmony with your circadian rhythm, melatonin levels and warmer air temperatures. The extra vitamin D is a bonus!
- Utilise cross training on days when being outside is less appealing. This will help you to stay more consistent with your exercise routines and can help avoid overuse injuries.
- Use winter as a time for addressing your weaknesses, especially your core and gluteal muscles.
- Consider using winter as a time for base training in preparation for spring and summer races
- If possible, try using a Compex muscle stimulator to assist with the warm up, cool down and recovery processes. They can also greatly increase muscle recruitment for strength training.
- Expect to take longer to warm up. Start gently and build into your exercise session. Try beginning every run with a short walk.
- Boost your diet. Eat a range of brightly coloured vegetables and protein sources, and avoid calorie deficits that place greater loads on an already slightly stressed physiological system.
- Manage life stressors to enhance the recovery processes.
- Get your ZZZs!
Add more carbohydrates
Through the door… kick off the running shoes… flick on the kettle, then head to the pantry. This increased hunger and search for nourishment is partly caused by an increased baseline metabolic rate as your body uses more energy for warmth. Furthermore, research shows that genetic changes sparked by the onset of winter are also responsible. During winter, genetic up-regulation causes your body to naturally store more adipose tissue (fat cells) and switch to greater carbohydrate dependence. No wonder I crave a big bowl of steaming porridge after a cold morning run in winter! For endurance athletes, this research suggests that our ability to efficiently burn fat for energy during winter exercise is slightly reduced. We lean towards higher carbohydrate dependence for driving the muscles and consume greater quantities of oxygen. This can create increased lactic acid production during intense bouts of training at this time of year. To avoid carbohydrate depletion during sessions longer than sixty to ninety minutes, take a source of glucose-based energy such as a sports gel. Ensure adequate cool-downs and replace your carbohydrate stores afterwards. Add quality carbohydrate to all your meals, such as whole grains, pumpkin and sweet potatoes.
Your circadian rhythm is a hormone driven process that determines your sleep & wake cycles. The average individual has an internal circadian clock that ticks on a 24hr 11min cycle. That’s right, for most of us our circadian rhythm would actually extend beyond one day if it weren’t for light. The presence of light resets our circadian rhythm so our body remains in sync with the time of day. However, in winter the shorter days and longer nights create changes to our sleep and awakening cycles, and lead to that 2pm slump hitting you a little earlier in the afternoon. Altered circadian rhythms can make clambering out of bed in the morning even more difficult and could be the reason behind lethargy on your morning run. If possible, in winter try to have days where you can allow your body to awaken naturally and shuffle some of your runs to periods of the day when you feel most energised. This will help to keep your stress levels reduced and enhance recovery from exercise. So turn off that alarm!
Get your rest
Many of us could relate to the sensation of entering winter hibernation. This is likely influenced by the increased production of the hormone melatonin, otherwise known as the hormone of darkness. Melatonin has a strong influence on the length and quality of our sleep, and is often used as an alternative to sleep medications. In individuals who experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), melatonin is shown to be elevated. The moral of this story? When melatonin induced hibernation kicks in, have your daily dose of exercise, then get your ZZZs! As the body does most of our physical recovery during the earlier stages of the sleep cycle, enhancing the quality and duration of your sleep will ensure that you recuperate faster between exercise sessions.
‘Listen when the body whispers’
A study published by British and German researchers showed that over one-quarter of the genes in our body become more or less active during different seasons. This impacts on our mood, sexual behaviour, metabolism and now it appears our immune defences. Their research also suggests that genes responsible for promoting inflammation also become more active during the coldest winter months and are particularly elevated in Australia’s southern-most states. Whilst inflammation has an important role in healing, excessive inflammation can generate discomforts and diseases, such as the common winter ailments of arthritis and cardiovascular disease. With increased inflammation involved, perhaps niggles in our active bodies whisper louder during winter? It is critical to moderate exercise routines to avoid unnecessary injuries and sickness. One option is to see winter as an ideal time for gentle base training, building up to races in spring or summer. Furthermore, winter is the ideal time to focus energy on strength weaknesses in the body. Therefore, pre-empt the danger months by switching to aerobic base training, rehabilitation exercises and cross training. Protect the immune system with quality nutrition, sleep and self-nurturing.
Don’t become chilled
Physiological changes become more dramatic when your core temperature drops. To avoid this, layer thin thermal clothing ‘like an onion’. This traps warm air closer to the body and layers can be removed to help effectively regulate your temperature. However, also be aware of exposed regions of skin. When skin is exposed to cold air, vasoconstriction of blood vessels prevents excessive heat loss and helps to maintain a warm core temperature. If vasoconstriction occurs during exercise, blood flow and nerve impulses to muscle fibres in these regions is reduced. This will lead to reduced exercise performance and unnecessary discomfort. On very cold days where the ambient air temperature has plummeted, keep the entire body warm with layers of clothing and full-length garments. And wear gloves or beware the hot shower after a cold run in winter! Cold fingers that have turned numb and a pasty shade of grey will yell at you as they begin to defrost.
Be prepared to pee!
There appears to be a urination goblin around whenever the cold sets in. This goblin is actually a result of the vasoconstriction processes just mentioned. Vasoconstriction limits the available blood vessel space for our blood, raising our blood pressure. The increase in blood pressure then triggers the perfusion of kidney nephrons, triggering a faster release of urine into the bladder. Whilst urinating is a natural process, the combination of the increased fluid loss through urination and sweating from exercise can lead to a sneaky build up of dehydration. Therefore, during winter aim to drink more, especially electrolytes to replace your exercise and urinary losses.
In summary, the onset of winter should not lead to your trail running shoes being relegated to the closet, and the bike being banished to the garage. Understanding the physiological changes that occur during winter and cold weather training can assist in making smart decisions that will keep you exercising throughout the coldest, darkest months. So layer up, listen to the whispers of your body and play hard this winter!