Obstacle Course Training | 5 Tips for Training in the Cold
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5 Tips for Training in the Cold

It’s winter for us in the Northern Hemisphere, and for many of us the real challenge of training becomes just getting our butts out into the frozen tundra that used to be our favourite trail run. The following will give you some powerful tools to help you suck it up and deal with the cold.

1. Don’t Expect to be Awesome (and don’t worry if you’re not)

Cold weather will impair your performance and slow you down, just like hot weather will. This is yet another example of how the Goldilocks Principle (too hot = bad, too cold = bad, somewhere in between = just right) rules your body. Focus on your effort rather than on your pace or time, otherwise you’ll be setting yourself up for disappointment.

2. Learn to Dress Yourself

The 3 Golden Rules of Dressing for Cold Weather Training (which I just now made up) are: Layering, Zippers, and Thermostatting. The first two are really all about giving you the most options for the third one.

Layering 101 is as follows: a wicking layer to move sweat and water vapour away from your skin, an insulating layer to help retain some body heat, and a wind/water shell to keep the elements out. Note that this applies to your lower body as well, so don’t neglect the long underwear under the tights. Tossing a light loose pair of trekking pants over top will also really help keep the wind and cold out.

750 Layering

Image from http://www.backpackinglight.co.uk/layering-system.html

Zippers are the best things ever when dressing for the cold weather activities. With your wicking layer you really only have choices with the weight of material and whether it’s a long sleeve or short sleeve top. However, when it come to the top two layers, zippers become critical. Pullover tops have only two states: on or off, hot or cold. Tops with full length zippers are much, much more adjustable, ranging from on through various degrees of unzippage to off. Think of it as a dimmer switch compared to your standard on/off switch. For shells, you’ll also want pit zips in addition to the standard full front zip. I am about to tell you why.

Thermostatting is exactly what it sounds like: you need to act like the thermostat in your home. The goal is to keep you as close to the Goldilocks Zone as much as possible. Obviously you don’t want to be too cold, as this will reduce your performance, drain your energy, and make you feel miserable. On the other hand, you don’t want to be too warm either, as this will have you sweating too much and getting all your layers soaking wet. This is why both layering and zippers are best practices.

My rule of thumb is that if I am fairly comfortable outside before I start the workout, then I am dressed too warmly. You want to be a bit on the cold side pre-workout, otherwise you’ll be opening zips and shedding layers within the first couple of minutes.

3. Fingers and Toes

Your extremities will be ground zero for a tug-of-war between opposing thermoregulatory reflexes when you are training or racing in the cold. When dealing with being too cold, your body will constrict the blood vessels in your extremities to reduce heat loss and keep all that warm blood in your core to maintain core temperature. When trying to dump heat generated by exercise, your body will dilate blood vessels in your extremities, especially in your arms and hands, in order to help dump heat into the environment.

Given the above, you’ll find that even if you suffer from cold fingers and toes normally, they’ll tend to warm up as you work provided you have enough insulation covering your core. If you normally need thick mittens, then you’ll likely be okay with mid-weight gloves if you’ve got everything else figured out clothing-wise.

Moving down to your feet, the goal is to not be running in winter boots. With the right socks you can still go out in the snow and ice wearing your trail running shoes. Ideally you’d have a pair that is a ½ size too big and slip on some thick-ish smartwool socks. Alternatively, especially if you think your feet will be getting wet, you can go with a thin wicking liner sock and a Gore-Tex sock on top. Finally, a budget version that works quite well is to put on a decently warm pair of socks, pull plastic bags over your feet, and stick them in your shoes like that.

4. Your Noggin

While it is a myth that you lose most of your heat through your head, you’ll still want to have something to put on it. My go-to headwear for almost all weather conditions is a Buff (http://www.buffcanada.com/). They now come in winter varieties as well, but I’ve only used the standard ones and they work well for most non-Arctic conditions. Again, it is all about options. A toque (or hat, if you prefer) is either on or off, whereas a Buff has loads of cool and stylish possibilities.

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5. Food and Drink

For some reason people tend not to feel hungry or thirsty as much when training in the cold. However, please take your usual amounts of fuel and fluid with you on longer workouts, as you will need both.

Food is critical, as you will likely be burning more fuel in a given workout since you will be both moving and trying to maintain core body temperature. In fact, your body will rely more on carbohydrates than on fat for fuel in the cold compared to in warmer conditions. The worst thing that can happen to you is to bonk at the far end of an out-and-back run. You’ll have no energy to run, meaning you won’t be generating any heat from your exertions, meaning you’ll be freezing cold in short order.

A note about food: many bars become rock hard when exposed to cold, so make sure yours stay chew-able. Either that or store them under your layers so that your body heat can keep them soft. The same thing applies to some gels.

It might seem that you’d need less to drink when training in the cold; after all, you’ll probably be sweating less. That is generally true, but you might be surprised at how much you actually do sweat during a cold weather workout. Add to that the fact that the air is much drier when it’s cold out, and you’ll still be losing water at a decent rate. Take the same amount of fluids as you would during a cool fall or spring run.

A note about fluids. Water freezes in the cold, and this can mess you up. Bladder systems are good in that the outflow is at the bottom of the bladder and it is generally in a pack that is in contact with your body. They are bad in that any fluid in the tube will freeze and render the whole system useless. The best way to use bladders is to fill it with warm fluid, and remember to blow back into your bladder after every drink in order to keep the tube clear.

With water bottles, again you will want to start with warm fluids. On top of that, you’ll want to carry them upside-down, since water freezes from the top down. If you don’t believe me, go chop a hole on a frozen lake.

From http://blackscliffresort.com/

Image from http://blackscliffresort.com/

There you have it. Genius tips for training and racing in the cold. You know they’re all rock solid because I’m from Canada and therefore born knowing everything there is to know about hockey, maple syrup, apologies, and staying warm whilst playing outside in the eternal winter that blankets our frozen country.

Peter Dobos
peter@obstaclecourse.training

Peter is the Community Manager at ObstacleCourse.Training and brings a unique blend of writing, sport science, and 16 years of "extreme" racing to the table.

1 Comment
  • Andrei
    Posted at 09:57h, 17 February Reply

    I had an enjoyable experience running 35 km during the Ultra program when it was -24C outside 🙂 I had all three layers of clothes put on and enough water and food with me and it helped me to run that distance enjoying every km of it 🙂

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