Cycling Nutrition: Winning in Winter

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23.12.19 at 9:31 am

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To get the best results from your training, your cycling nutrition needs to be on point. Winter has come and most cyclists and triathletes it means a different style of riding and training. If you’re a competitive athlete it might mean some cyclocross or mountain biking get thrown into the mix, but even so, it will usually mean a slow-down in effort.

Many will follow a winter programme designed to maximise performance when the racing season kicks back in in the spring. That kind of programme won’t always factor in nutrition changes as the mercury plunges – it probably should. Because winter cycling nutrition is not summer cycling nutrition. Here are a few pointers in that general direction beyond swapping out a bidon for a thermos of steaming hot coffee…

Coping with cold-induced thermogenesis

Let’s start with something slightly counter-intuitive: You might feel like eating less in winter but the cold actually makes your body burn more calories, so not the best idea.

“The cold is a key factor in not only training but in body weight. Cold-induced thermogenesis (CIT) is science-speak for the burning of more calories when exposed to a cold environment,” says Dr Mark Tallon, PhD, UK-based founder of TriathlonLab and someone who has competed in eight Ironman events.

In humans, this CIT can increase our basic metabolic rate – calorie burning – up to 280%.

The greater the body fat percentage, the less the body accommodates for the biting cold of a typical northern European winter, Dr Tallon observes, but there will be adjustments for all body types.

“Some athletes will naturally want to eat more, whereas others will be happy with the normal dietary plan,” says Ian Craig, editor of Functional Sports Nutrition magazine and founder of the Centre for Integrative Sports Nutrition. “It is important for athletes to feel what their bodies are asking for and not just relying on numbers.”

Colorado-based Jeff Sankoff, Ironman racer, licensed physician, ex-medical editor at Inside Triathlon and Triathlete magazines and founder of TriDocCoaching, put some numbers on it, suggesting an increase of 100 calories per hour when exercising in the cold for prolonged periods of time” for a trained athlete.

So yeah, eat more, not less.

‘The danger of exercising in the cold is not drinking enough…’

What about the fluid front? As with most things thirst/hydration, it gets a bit complicated. Respiration may go up, but perspiration goes down. Sweat-inducing winter clothing layers alter things. Thirst reflexes and sweat rates need to be considered.

“Colder air is drier air and so losses of water through respiration is accentuated,” says Sankoff. “These losses are offset by a decrease in perspiration because of the lower temperatures.”

Craig reckons that while generally speaking hydration needs are less in the winter months that is no reason to go full camel. Indeed, never go full camel.

“The danger of exercising in the cold is not drinking enough simply because you don’t feel like it,” he says. “Especially if working quite hard and wearing heavier winter clothing, an athlete is still likely to be sweating quite a lot, but for many people, the normal thirst reflexes can be diminished in the cold.”

Getting an accurate read on sweat rates in different climes is key to working out optimum rates of fluid input, Dr Tallon says.

“To do this you simply need a cheap wall thermometer and note your sweat rate and the temperature at the start of the session. Over a few weeks you will be able to map out your own sweat rate per hour as it relates to any specific temperature.

“Once you know this, follow well-established guidance lines of matching sweat rate during the session and replacing what is lost post-session.”

This method is particularly useful, especially if a lot of your winter riding is taking place indoors on the Turbo trainer. The rise of Zwift and other stationary training apps means more people are training – and racing – this way, and training longer and harder indoors. That brings its own particular fuelling concerns.

If the winter ride is long and intense try a sodium-fortified low-carb drink (less than 7% carbs).

A thermos of coffee can be beneficial as it can raise body temperature and is a natural stimulant.

“There is the view that in the cold that we still sweat albeit less than in the heat and as such if a hot drink makes you drink more then that is of benefit for maintaining hydration,” says Dr Tallon.

‘Don’t overdo the supplements…’

So what are some good foods to eat then – sorry, nutritional inputs?

The principles of carbohydrate-led fuelling remain much the same as the summer, says Dr Tallon, from bananas to supplements, gels or bars.”

“But don’t overdo the supplements. Unless you are working towards a winter event and in a high volume and intense training period, it’s likely for most of us following a well-constructed diet, 30-50g of carbs per hour are maximal.”

For long, low-intensity winter rides Craig recommends whole foods like bananas, salted baby potatoes, fruit cake, nuts, sandwiches or “even carrying something like an Asian stir-fried rice and vegetable dish, carried in a small cool bag.”

He adds: “Bars and gels can be used just in the same way as in warmer weather, and are useful in short-duration rides, where the athlete is looking for a specific gram/hour intake of carbs. However, it comes down to palatability and intensity of ride in the wintertime.”

 Fat-adapted

For those athletes interested in the idea of adapting their bodies to more efficiently burn fat as a fuel source – winter is a good time for that, says Dr Tallon.

“Try going 90 minutes or more without carbs on a ride. Or a training post-nightly fast of 16 hours so sleeping with no carbs only protein following an evening bike session.”

Immune to the cold

With colds and flus more prevalent in winter, bolstering the immune system can mean better all-round health and less time off the bike holed up with a box of Kleenex and bingeing Netflix.

“Exercise plus high temperature or cold can increase the risk of the immune system being supressed increasing risk of illness and or injury,” says Dr Tallon, who recommends oily fish, vegetables and nuts along with nutrients like vitamin A, C, E, D, zinc and selenium or  a multivitamin supplement to “to strengthen that immune system and keep away the winter blues.”

Craig offers bone broths in liquid foods like soups, stews and curries; supplement some probiotics and consume fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir and kombucha.” 

And if you put on a couple of kilos in this period, well, as Sankoff says, An increase in body weight by 3-5kg over the off season is not the end of the world for most athletes and should not be feared or admonished.”

“If an athlete can avoid weight gain, even better but it is the holidays after all and life is to be lived and enjoyed!”

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