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Braving the Cold

Tribune Media Services

When I started skating seriously, we did all of our skating outdoors: on the lake in front of my grandparents' house, at the place near Milwaukee where we trained, even at the ovals where we competed.

Living in Park City, Utah, I still prefer exercising outdoors in winter. There are some factors to consider, however, to ensure you do so in safety and comfort.

The most common problem with training in cold environments is hypothermia. During cold training sessions, your body not only needs to provide the energy for training but also for maintaining your body's core temperature. The energy required to maintain your core temperature is even greater if you are training at altitude. When your body loses heat faster than you can produce it, your body will cool. This restricts blood flow to your working muscles, which translates to a workout lower in quality and quantity.

To avoid this, choose your workout clothing and shoes carefully. Dress in layers, in non-cotton clothing. If you plan on walking outside or in wet, cold weather, avoid shoes designed for summer or indoor use, particularly those with a ventilated or nylon upper. Instead, choose a sturdy, less permeable upper made of vinyl or leather. If you will be running in water, you may want shoes with a Gore-Tex upper, but keep in mind that while these shoes will keep your feet dry, they will also make them hotter, which can cause blisters.

If you carry very little body fat, you might feel even greater fatigue as the days grow colder and your system takes on the additional burden of keeping warm as well as exercising. People who are very muscular or carry extra fat don't perform as well when it's hot and humid outdoors; the additional effort required to keep cool in summer can be taxing and cause unusual fatigue. These people do well in the cooler temperatures, however. When winter workouts roll around, they have extra protection from the cold, so they don't waste energy keeping warm.

Take note if you experience shortness of breath when working out in the cold - it could be a symptom of exercise-induced asthma (mild bronchial spasms that occur only when sufferers exercise). Its symptoms are subtle; many sufferers aren't even aware that they have it. Other symptoms of exercise-induced asthma include:

  • Coughing when warming up or cooling down.
  • The sensation of shortness of breath in cold (or polluted) air.
  • Breathing that is cut short.

If these symptoms bother you or affect your workout, speak with your doctor; and avoid starting any workout too quickly in dry, cold or polluted air, particularly when you are dehydrated. Exercise-induced asthma can be triggered by dehydration.

For anyone, frequent fluid intake is wise when exercising in the cold. Marlia Braun, Ph.D., registered dietitian, health nutritionist for the University of California, Davis, Sports Medicine Center and former world-class rower, points out that cold exposure can reduce your sense of hunger and thirst. For cold-weather workouts she recommends that athletes:

  • Drink 8 to 12 ounces every hour.
  • Drink a sports drink, rather than plain water, to consume carbs as well. Choose a drink you like. This increases the chances that you'll drink it, which can be a challenge in the cold when we tend to feel less thirsty.
  • If you work out two hours or longer in cold temperatures, consume a drink that is 6 percent to 8 percent carbohydrate, the upper range of carb-to-water ratio for good absorption. (The sodium content of the drink isn't key, as it would be in heat.)

Braun also notes that the combination of cold temperatures and exercise does not necessarily boost your fat metabolism. In fact, your fat metabolism may be lower when exercising in the cold, possibly due to the vasoconstriction of peripheral fat tissue. However, adding a snack of more nutrient-dense, high-carbohydrate foods such as trail mix with nuts can help you support energy needs when training this winter.

( Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic gold medalist speed skater, is now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-authored "Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Exercise Bible, for a Leaner, Healthier Body in Just 12 Weeks" (HarperCollins) with exercise performance physician Max Testa, M.D., and DeAnne Musolf.

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