The winter season provides a whole new array of opportunities for outdoor fun and recreation. Some of these may be dependent upon the availability of snow and/or cold weather, while others can be done indoors (such as indoor skating and ice hockey). No matter what the activity, a little preparation can mean improved performance and safety.
Some activities may be done more recreationally (done at a lesser intensity), while others are more competitive and intense. Some might occur only occasionally – think “weekend warrior”. Others might be part of a rigid training program or involve competition. Some examples of winter sports would be downhill or cross-country skiing, ice hockey, skating, sledding, hiking, snowboarding, telemarking, ice or rock climbing, etc.
Preparing your body for any change in sport or for increased exercise intensity/duration requires some thought. Consider your current level of fitness. Start the activity more conservatively and progress gradually. Even if you are relatively fit, if you are changing to a different sport, it is important to train your body for the demands of that new activity. Be realistic about your training. Note that over-training (too much, too fast, insufficient recovery after workouts) can lead to injury.
A good plan for preparing for winter activities is to include forms of cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility exercises. Consider including some sports-specific activities to get those body tissues ready. Listen to your body and know when to give it a rest. Know when to stop the activity to reduce the risk of injury. For example, taking just one more run down a ski hill at the end of the day may spell disaster if your legs are feeling fatigued.
Sleep is a frequently overlooked factor that can not only affect performance directly, but insufficient high-quality sleep can also interfere with recovery. Insufficient sleep can also reduce reaction time and increases the risk of injury.
As with any physical activity, adequate hydration is crucial for performance as well as for safety. The body requires a high percentage of fluids to perform its numerous activities. These needs are even higher during physical activity. Breathing cold air can be dehydrating as can exercising at higher altitudes. Athletes wearing heavy padding, as in ice hockey, are especially vulnerable to dehydration due to excessive sweat loss. Note that eating snow as a form of fluid intake is not recommended as it can contribute to hypothermia.
For all active individuals, fluid intake should be consumed consistently throughout the day with even more consumed around exercise bouts. Keep up with fluid intake during the activity to sustain good hydration. For endurance activities, like long-distance cross-country skiing, plan to take fluids with you (and don’t forget to protect them from freezing).
For extended activities and for those that trigger heavy sweating, packing some snacks containing electrolytes may be beneficial (such as bananas, oranges, dried fruit, or V-8/tomato juice for potassium; salty nuts, crackers, pretzels for sodium).
As with any sport, adequate fueling is extremely important. This means consuming foods/beverages needed for fueling before, during (for longer bouts), and after the activity even if you do not feel hungry (exercise, especially at higher altitudes, can curb appetite).
Note that carb sources are your fuel. Matching healthy carbs with fiber and sources of protein can extend the length of time fuel is available. Carbs are especially important if exercising at high altitudes due to the reduced oxygen. Protein can speed muscle recovery when consumed shortly after exercise.
Eating consistently throughout the day not only provides immediate fuel but also protects stored fuels in the muscles and liver so they can be accessed during exercise bouts. These stored fuels are incredibly important for activities that include a lot of quick, stop/start sprinting, and for those lasting longer periods of time.
Remember that in activities where your body is trying to keep warm, you are burning more calories. Pack meals and snacks as needed so you do not leave big gaps between eating episodes. A good plan is to not allow more than about three hours between eating times. If you need to carry your food, choose options that are nutrient- and calorie-dense so they take up less space. If possible, take more fluids and food that you might need when away from sources of these in case you get delayed (as in back country skiing or winter hiking).
Nutrients consumed through healthy foods are the unsung heroes when it comes to physical activity. They work behind the scenes short- and long-term to allow the body to perform at its best. Some are also part of body tissues so are needed for recovery after exercise.
Wearing appropriate clothing and footwear is important. Choose options based on the temperature, humidity, and potential changes in body heat with the increased activity. For instance, it might feel like you need a lot of clothing before you begin cross-country skiing, but once you start moving, you may feel overdressed. Wearing multiple clothing layers and sweat-wicking fabrics can be helpful.
When it comes to your eyes, do not forget UV protection sunglasses or goggles. Reflected light off snow can be especially damaging. Sunscreen may be a good idea as well.
So, with a little preplanning, you can be at your best and participate safely in a wide range of enjoyable winter activities!
Pam Stuppy, MS, RD, CSSD, LD is a registered, licensed dietitian with nutrition counseling offices in York, ME and Portsmouth, NH. She is also the nutritionist for Phillips Exeter Academy, presents workshops nationally, and is Board Certified as a Specialist in Sports Dietetics. (See www.pamstuppynutrition.com for more nutrition information, some healthy cooking tips, and recipe ideas).