Friday, December 9, 2016

Seems Like Science: Cold Weather Coping Strategies

I don't know where you are, but around these parts winter has just made a sudden arrival. As if to compensate for its tardiness, it came howling down with all guns blazing: I went from running in knicks and a shirt on Monday to full-on windproof XC ski pants and a neck gaiter over my earband last night as I ran through an inch or two of fresh snow. While I know how to approach running in cold weather, I still have a tendency to freeze afterward.


As the weather worsens for most of us in the northern hemisphere, I thought I'd do another installment of Seems Like Science to share with you my cold weather coping tips for outdoor athletes. These are as applicable to cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or cycling as they are to running - good for anything that gets your heart pumping outside in the cold air and leaves you chilled once the adventure is over.

If you're one of those treadmill-or-trainer-'til-spring people, you can move along now. If you're made of a bit tougher stuff, read on.

1. Get Out of Wet Clothing

A mop can be helpful for cleaning up after..

The most basic thing you can do to prevent the post-workout chills is to get changed out of the gear you wore outside. Even if you weren't actively sweating, the fabrics will have absorbed some of the moisture that your body is constantly releasing and will carry the cold of the outside air. By ditching them as soon as possible for warm, dry layers, you'll prevent that moisture from leaching your body heat away - after all, sweat is how our bodies cool themselves naturally, but you want the opposite! Ladies, that means your sports bra needs to come off, too - it's actually one of the worst offenders, since it wraps around your ribcage stealing heat from the very core of you. Get it off, post haste!

Ideally, you'd be doing this in a heated area, where you'll then start to absorb warmth from the air as well. However, it's in your best interest to change even if you have to do so in a cold place like your car or an unheated washroom at a trailhead. The longest I'll drive to get to a warm area to change is about 10 minutes, and even then I'll probably get a bit of a hard-to-shake chill going as I move from the car to indoors. There are a couple of products out there (like this one - which I have owned for awhile and heartily endorse - and this one, which I'll be trying out soon) to help you change outdoors with a little more modesty and warmth than just stripping down beside your car.

That said, you do you. I've never shied away from a little parking lot nudity if that's what it took to get me on my way to WarmTown. All you really need to do is make sure you've packed some clothes to change into - even if they get chilly in the car while you're out getting your sweat on, you'll still be warmer just a few minutes after changing than you would be if you'd stayed in your cold, wet clothes. It's one of the first principles of treating hypothermia!

2. Hot Food


You know you're supposed to have a bite to eat to help with recovery after a workout. When it's cold out, there's nothing better than something nice and toasty to nosh on just after you've changed out of your sweaty gear. With a bit of pre-planning, you can have a hot meal before you've even returned to your resting heart rate, even if you're at a far-flung trailhead when you finish. For a relatively small initial investment, a vacuum-insulated double-walled stainless steel food container is an invaluable source of post-cold-workout happiness: just fill it with something hot before you leave and you're ready to chow down as soon as you've changed out of your wet clothes. Heck, eat while you're changing if you can manage it - I certainly won't judge you. If you don't have anything capable of keeping food warm on its own, try wrapping a watertight container in a towel and putting it in a cooler bag; most vessels designed to keep food or drink cold will also help keep them hot, as you're just changing the direction you're trying to prevent the heat from moving.

If you can't have hot food, at least eat something - if it must be cold or room-temperature, try something spicy or with a high protein content, and lower in fat. Your body generates heat (known as diet induced thermogenesis) when you digest food of any kind, but the energy required to metabolize protein is higher than that needed to process carbohydrate or fat, and spicy foods like hot peppers have been shown to boost metabolism, which will warm you up as well. Endurance athletes should be replenishing carbohydrate stores after long workouts, but you can increase the thermic effect of the CHO by choosing complex carbohydrates that require more energy to break down than simple sugars.

My favourite things for post-trail run munching are soup and oatmeal: with their high sodium content to replace electrolytes and carbohydrate-heavy composition, instant noodles are actually a great choice here. I love these ones, but you can pick your favourite. Preparation couldn't be simpler, either: just boil some water, pour everything in, then seal it up and it's ready to go. It's equally easy to prepare the noodles or instant oatmeal at home, too: have the kettle ready before you head out, then switch it on as soon as you get back. Let the boiling water work its magic while you change, then add whatever you like to your oatmeal (I love some sea salt, maple syrup and almond butter stirred into mine) or noodles and slurp away! If you have some hearty soup or chili pre-made at home, all the better - pop a serving on the stove or in the microwave to heat while you change, then go to town once you're all changed up.

3. All the Clothes

And this is just to hang out in my livingroom!

Because I know I tend to get cold easily after a workout, I will typically put on clothing that is appropriate for at least 5c/9f colder than whatever conditions I expect to encounter. Basically, whatever you think you'll need, add one more layer. Bonus points if you have something cozy to wear that also makes you feel like a badass, like a hoodie from a favourite race. Also make sure you keep all the places where the veins and arteries are closest to the skin covered, like your wrists, ankles and especially your neck - you want to keep all of the blood circulating through your body from losing as much heat as possible.

4. Hot Shower or Bath

It's only the steam that prevents this from becoming crayon porn.

This is THE BEST. If you're running from home or can make it back there (or somewhere else that they'll let you shower, like a fitness facility at which you're a member or even an understanding friend's house), hop on it and let the hot water and steam work its magic. While moisture is your enemy when it's just sitting on your skin, wet heat is about the most effective way to warm yourself back up when you're cold. The bonus here is that you'll also wash off all the stank you worked up while you were out there sweating, and as long as noone does something inconsiderate like opening the bathroom door to let all the heat out (or chucking a big cup of cold water on you over the shower curtain - NO I HAVEN'T FORGOTTEN THAT TANK), you should be able to keep yourself warm while you use your biggest, fluffiest towel to dry yourself off and put on all the clothes (see point #3). Do make sure you get properly dry, though, otherwise you'll just end up shivering in your now-damp change of clothing.

5. Hot Drinks

Not the most effective way to warm up, but certainly pleasant - a big mug of something hot can be a great addition to the above strategies. I'll often make myself a big cup of non-caffeinated tea to sip while I make dinner after an evening run, but for those of you who get out earlier in the day, a hot cup of coffee (or caffeinated tea) can be just the thing to give you both some warmth and a bit of energy to get on with your life outside of sport. If you're not into tea or coffee, try some chicken broth (also a great pick-me-up during a long, cold race!) or a steaming mug of hot chocolate. A vacuum insulated double-walled stainless steel container of homemade cocoa waiting for you at the trailhead (again, put it in a cooler bag and/or wrap in a towel for extra insulation on those super cold or very long workout days) can make a huge difference in your happiness at the end of a chilly training session or race.


I hope these tips will help those of you who struggle with chills when training or racing in cold weather, and invite you to leave a comment if you know of any others to try - I'm always looking for new ways to hang onto the meagre bit of warmth I generate, and I'm sure Tanker will eventually get sick of me attaching myself like a barnacle to him in order to engage in a little body heat vampirism!

Stay toasty, my friends!


  1. I need the combo of hot food and hot shower. And as I mentioned today, merino wool long johns to keep my behind warm.

    1. Yep, needed ALL THE WARMZ after, as the wind blew really cold just past noon when I was out in the hydro line & I got chilled. Merino stuff is my absolute favourite; I basically live in wooly gear all the time. Was a pleasure seeing you yesterday - happy holidays to you & yours!


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