How sports nutrition changes from the warm to the cold months

Elena Casiraghi, PhD

The arrival of autumn marks a great moment of change and two events are ready to seal this transformation: the change of time, from legal to solar, and the seasonal climate change. One can think of autumn as a transitional season that accompanies us from the summer towards the cold season or the winter season.

Nature becomes a teacher and teaches us the art of change. It's up to us to be able to adapt.

A series of events that on a practical level are translated into physiological changes, while on the psychological level and the physical level of the energies. So much so that someone defines autumn not so much as a season as a state of mind. Autumn is the ideal time to think about what we have done - a sort of assessment of the first part of the year - of what we have not achieved and what we would like to do next.

Technogym and the Wellness Pyramid

The Pyramid of Wellness Lifestyle is a visual guide developed by the Wellness Foundation in collaboration with the Research and Development Department of Technogym, which outlines in a simple graphic all the components that contribute to the achievement of psycho-physical well-being through three main drives: movement, nutrition and mental approach.

If diet and exercise increase in quantity and complexity, the pyramid proposes the correct complementary dosage of movement and nutrition over a typical week: from what needs to be practiced or taken most frequently, to what is useful, but of lesser use. The mental approach is necessary for a balanced life based on constant physical exercise and proper nutrition.
Which factors most influence our body when the cold comes? What are the right foods to train and avoid problems such as hypodermia of the hiker? How does our body adapt to the harsh winter weather?

Let's discover together in this article dedicated to sports nutrition to train and perform at their best during the cold months.

  1. How the alternation of light and dark influences our body
  2. What to eat when the season changes
  3. Attention to the quality of sleep
  4. Sporting and cold performance: how the body adapts and how to feed itself
  5. Greatest cold feeding
  6. Avoiding hiker's hypothermia with food

1. How the alternation of light and dark influences our organism

Sunshine duration has a significant impact on our daily lives and well-being. The rhythms of life are altered even if it seems to be a slight change. After all, all we do is move the clock hands one hour back. But there is much more to it than that. Proof of this is the light jet lag we find ourselves dealing with in the first few days after the time change.

Our life, and more generally the life of the animal kingdom, is regulated from the beginning of existence by the alternation of light and darkness. The circadian clock that everyone possesses internally and that manages the rhythms of daily life - such as body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate and much more - is dictated by the presence of sunlight and adapts to it.

The reason for this mechanism is simple. Light influences the hypothalamus and this acts on the inner clock in two different ways: one directly through the eye, and thus the sight of light, the other indirectly through the greater or lesser production of melatonin - also known as the sleep hormone - whose production increases in the dark and decreases in light. In this case also with artificial light.

Whenever there is a change in exposure to light, the body must adapt. As such, the adaptation is the result of continuous stimulation, also called stressors. It therefore takes a few days to reach a balance, similarly, to happens when we are subject to jet-lag travel. Thus, by intervening on these two planes, light reflected in the eye and production of melatonin, we can help to change the circadian biorhythm. This is based on two factors:

  • the first refers to the control of artificial light sources, especially in the evening;
  • the second considers the choice of foods, as well as the energy density that is consumed in the evening meal. For example, skipping dinner or taking fewer calories than necessary, in fact, disturbs the quality of sleep.

2. What to eat when the season changes

Ensure yourself a source of carbohydrates at dinners such as basmati rice, wholegrain rice, Venus rice or spelt, barley, quinoa or a mix of them. Alternatively, a piece of dark chocolate will stimulate serotonin with a positive impact on melatonin, the sleep hormone.

2.1 Carbohydrates

A diet too low in carbohydrates can reduce the quality of sleep due to increased cortisol levels. Carbohydrates but also proteins: a correct intake of proteins in the dinner improves the quality of sleep. Among these, for example, chicken meat can be a good choice because it is rich in tryptophan, an amino acid used by the body for the synthesis of serotonin and melatonin, which can increase the quality of sleep.

2.2 Fats that are beneficial to health

Fats should also be only those beneficial to health: a dinner rich in fats decreases the total time of sleep. Extra-virgin olive oil, mainly rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, is ideal for condiments and proves to be an excellent choice within appropriate quantities.

3. Attention to the quality of sleep

Move away from the sources of blue lights such as smartphones, tablets or PCs at least 1 hour before bedtime. This will allow the physiological cycle of melatonin thus promoting sleep. Think that there is a real alarm in place for young athletes who spend a lot of time in bed to chat or play interactive games.

The same alarm has been activated for NBA players who, playing in the evening, spend a lot of time to relax, after the game, on Twitter but get the opposite effect: in practice a real sleep disorder, a factor that is reflected in the efficiency of the immune system and performance.

4. Sporting and cold performance: how the body adapts and how to feed itself

The arrival of the cold season is a game changer, especially when performing physical activity or sports. This is the case for example of alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, mountaineering, snowshoeing. In order not to be caught unprepared, follow advices on what to eat and what physiological changes with low temperatures. Although thermoregulation is effective in regulating body temperature under normal conditions, physical exercise and sports activity in cold conditions cause stress on the mechanisms regulating body temperature. It is therefore very important to remember that everyone is different in terms of cold tolerance.

Scientific research shows that humans vary their ability to adapt to the cold. Acclimatisation undoubtedly plays an important role: just as it is possible to adjust to the heat, it is equally possible to do that with the cold. As mentioned earlier, there are physiological differences between individuals. The first important difference is related to gender: most women have higher levels of fat mass than men.

This layer of thick subcutaneous fat tissue produces greater tissue isolation which results in lower critical temperature. Women lose the battle with the cold because they generally have a larger surface area than men and a lower body mass.

Assuming equal insulation capacity from the clothing worn, the total heat loss in women is greater precisely because of the greater body surface area through which heat loss can occur. Also, due to the reduced body mass, the body heat content is lower in women.

5. Best cold feeding

For training and competitions in cold environments i.e. non-extreme conditions, it is enough for the athlete to follow a normal diet, assuming adequate clothing,

However, in more extreme conditions with temperatures below 0 C, especially when combined with cold wind. It is more challenging to keep warm or rather not to disperse too much heat. For example, a temperature of 0C, combined with wind 30 miles/h will result in an actual temperature of -8C. In practice, you will lose heat at the same rate as when you are exposed to -8C in a windless environment.

6. Avoiding hiker's hypothermia

In case of long events during cold days, athletes are at risk of hiker's hypothermia. This is where prolonged exposure to cold and fatigue induced by prolonged physical exertion can compromise the mechanism of chills and vasoconstrictive response to cold. This modification increases the risk of hypothermia. It is not clear why this is happening, but there is evidence that a drop-in blood sugar may increase this risk. This seems to suggest that a large intake of carbohydrates is particularly important when exercise is conducted in an extremely harsh environment.

Studies show that the energy spent to keep warm in extremely cold conditions can increase by 5 times compared to milder temperatures. Because every gram of oxidized fat provides more than twice as many calories as carbohydrates, and because fat is a good insulator, many people mistakenly eat fat-rich foods believing that they help to adapt to the cold. Maintaining a wide availability of carbohydrates, even at cold temperatures, is therefore essential, if not vital.

6.1  Protein before training

Although carbohydrates are critical to cold weather performance, there may also be some benefits by eating a high-protein breakfast before your training session. Lean sources should be used to promote gastric emptying. Studies show that the thermal effect i.e. generated by the digestion of proteins is higher than that of the ingestion of fats and carbohydrates. Breakfast with a high protein content can result in an increase in body heat up to 6 hours after ingestion. This should not divert attention from carbohydrate intake.

6.2 Hydration

You might think that fluid leakage and dehydration in a cold environment are not a problem.

Given the need to take fluids and stay warm, the consumption of hot drinks can be beneficial for athletes who train in cold temperatures. Water has a very specific thermal capacity. This means that it takes a lot of energy even to heat a small amount of water. It takes 1 calorie to heat 1000 ml of water of 1C. In the recovery meal phase, carbohydrate-enriched soups are ideal for heating, rehydrating and supplying the body with carbohydrates, even in extreme environmental conditions.

  • Boswick, J.A., J.D. Thompson, and R.A. Jonas 1979. The epidemiology of cold injuries. Surg. Gynecol. Obstet. 149:326–332.
  • Gonzalez, R.R. 1988. Biophysics of heat transfer and clothing considerations. Pp. 45–95 in Human Performance Physiology and Environmental Medicine at Terrestrial Extremes, K.B. Pandolf, editor; , M.N. Sawka, editor; , and R.R. Gonzalez, editor. , eds. Indianapolis, Ind.: Benchmark Press.
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  • McArdle, W.D., J.R. Magel, T.J. Gergley, R.J. Spina, and M.M. Toner 1984. a Thermal adjustment to cold-water exposure in resting men and women. J. Appl. Physiol. 56:1565–1571.
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  • McArdle, W.D., F.I. Katch, and V.L. Katch 1991. Measurement of human energy expenditure. Pp. 145–157 in Exercise Physiology. Philadelphia, Pa.: Lea & Febiger.
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