Contrary to popular opinion, while they may warm and fill us up, eating hot foods alone do not necessarily ensure the best performance when exercising in cold weather. Chances are the 3,000 athletes representing 88 nations at this year’s Sochi Winter Olympics know something about what fuels quintessential cold weather performance — and practice it every day.
What we eat and drink before, during, and after cold-weather exercise can help us perform at our highest levels and stay comfortable — without stressing the body. According to sports medicine experts, proper nutrition helps regulate core temperature, keeps the body warm, and provides enough fuel for working muscles. In warm weather it’s easy to sweat to regulate body temperature, removing excess heat, but in cold weather we need to generate more heat to stay warm. What’s more, because cold, dry air intake forces the body to heat and moisten that air, fluids are lost with each exhalation. While many people do not associate dehydration with cold weather and, accordingly, don’t take steps to prevent it, the condition is not uncommon. And as caffeine and alcohol are known diuretics, so it’s certainly wise to avoid them.
According to experts, the best foods for cold weather exercise are complex carbohydrates consumed about two hours prior to exertion. These may include whole wheat breads, beans and legumes (vegetarian chili is a good choice), nuts, dried fruit, baked potato (sweet potato is also a good choice, packed with vitamins and fiber), root vegetables, peanut butter, cereals, and whole wheat pasta with tomato sauce. And please remember to super hydrate with plenty of water before, during, and after exercise.
Additionally, did you know that before a big race and/or if temperatures drop to dangerous lows, sled dogs — who live and work outside —receive extra fat sources, usually lard or butter, in their diets. This is true for mushers from Maine to Minnesota, and certainly for Alaska’s Iditarod teams. Fat helps ensure they will stay warm, well-functioning, and are able to endure long, grueling winter days in harness. And though dogs in the Iditarod need to consume about 12,000 calories a day as they will likely burn 10,000 (up from about 1,000, more or less, in the off-season), humans also need fat for optimal cold weather performance. In warmer seasons, the temptation may be to skimp on them to maintain a healthy body weight, but not so in winter. Stored fat, or adipose tissue, insulates internal organs, moves vitamins throughout the body, and is the largest reserve of fuel available for endurance activities.
So-called winter-friendly fats can include olive and canola oils, avocado, nuts, and fish —especially salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, herring, and trout, which contain higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids.
Finally, carbohydrate stores relied upon for exercise and warmth can become easily depleted in cold weather temperatures. Failure to replace these often enough can result in fatigue — especially common in children who tire more quickly. So take along a bag of trail mix, energy bars (though be on alert for excess unrefined sugar), bananas or the like to keep everyone fueled up and running.
Try this yummy winter soup recipe, full of fiber and complex carbohydrates to help keep you properly fueled for your cold weather exercise regimen. You’ll reap the benefits all winter long!
Winter Bean, Squash and Parsnip Soup
1 onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 bay leaf
1 bunch thyme, still intact
1/4 teaspoon ground fennel
1 parsnip, chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 cup butternut squash, chopped into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons white wine
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 cups vegetable stock
1 can pinto beans
Sea salt and pepper to taste
Sauté onion and garlic in olive oil just until fragrant. Add bay leaf, thyme, and fennel and cook for 5 more minutes. Add parsnips, butternut squash, white wine, lemon juice, and vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Turn down to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes. Add beans and cook for 5 more minutes. Remove bay leaf and thyme bunch (some leaves may still remain). Season with sea salt and pepper.