Running in the Cold: Nutrition and Hydration

Mount Everest Route to the SummitYou’ve got your hat and gloves, your several thin layers, your long underwear, and your warm socks. You’re all suited up, and although there’s a serious nip in the air, you’re prepared. You’ve followed my advice about what to wear when running in the cold, or just paid attention to what your mama probably told you, so you’re ready to face the chill. Plummeting mercury be damned.

But what about hydration and nutrition? Anything special to consider about those?

One of the reasons we can still get out there and train in the winter is that a byproduct of running is generating body heat. Yet to do so, you have to have enough calories in the body to keep you warm, and enough fluid in your system to keep the blood moving.

Start out and stay hydrated. When you’re cold, your blood viscosity increases. With hypothermia, for example, the blood can become as much as 200% more viscous. (Like motor oil, higher viscosity means it’s thicker, harder to pump.) The water content of your blood is another factor in viscosity—so, when you’re running in the cold, staying sufficiently hydrated becomes that much more important.

We tend not to think about being thirsty when it’s cold, neither when we’re just going about our lives nor when we’re working out, but that’s when it’s really important to pay attention to drinking enough. And it’s especially important in higher altitudes where the air tends to be dryer.

Even for short distance runners, hydration is just as important in the winter as in the summer. You can wind up dehydrated after just 5K, even in the cold, especially if you start out a quart low.

So don’t train in a dehydrated state, or you’ll probably feel like crap and your hands won’t get warm. The body warms the core first and pumps blood to the “expendable” parts of you, like the capillaries in your fingers, last.

Keep fueling. This is where most short-distance runners may not need to pay as much attention. But I’ve gone out on these extreme mountain climbs or long runs (20+ miles), and that’s when you’ve got to do some refueling, no matter what the weather. In lower temps, if you don’t have the calories, you’ll get cold. Really cold.

So much energy is taken up by the act of running, and it’s harder for a person to keep warm, especially after your body converts to burning fat. So you’ve gotta eat, not so much that the blood is shunted to the stomach to aid digestion, but enough to keep the core intake up so you can keep moving and stay warm.

What should you eat? Any kind of fuel is better than nothing. Simple sugars are the thing; a candy bar or hard candy, sport goo or beans, a packet of raw sugar, a spoonful of honey, whatever. Not that I’m recommending any of those in particular; you have to do what works for you.

The truth is that I’m not terribly picky about my food. I have this “Incinerator Theory”: basically, when the body is desperate for calories, it will burn almost anything. Besides, I have an iron gut. Given the choice, I’ll opt for something that’s not processed, like raw honey, but if it’s easier or cheaper to get my hands on some good ol’ American processed food with sugar in it, I won’t turn my nose up. Hell, no. Most sports “foodstuffs” will never pass my lips, but junk food? Uh, let’s just say I’m known among friends as having a somewhat indiscriminate palate. (Okay, they use other words, but this is a family show.)

So much of what’s in these faddish engineered products is just sugar and caffeine. Which is fine—sometimes that’s exactly what you need—but why not just have a couple cups of coffee, if rocket fuel is what you’re after, and save a buck or five? It’s one of my pet peeves. But, hey, it’s your money. If it entertains you or makes you feel charged up to eat the stuff, have at it. But beware of getting sucked into the marketing hype. There’s no silver bullet.

As with most things to do with running, the basics will serve you best. Stay hydrated and watch your caloric intake as distances increase. That’s good advice no matter what the weather. Just don’t forget it when you’re running in the cold.

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