Just because the weather is getting colder, it doesn’t mean you need to stop your outdoor workout routine.
Two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, we have a better picture of the toll it’s taking on our mental health. And while there’s plenty of evidence that exposure to fresh air and nature is good for our physical and mental health, winter poses an extra challenge. The benefits, though, make it worth pursuing: With the cooler temperatures, extra layers and challenging conditions, we have to put in more work, which builds more strength, says Michael Kennedy, an exercise physiologist and associate professor in the faculty of kinesiology, sport and recreation at the University of Alberta.
This makes knowing how to warm up and cool down properly even more important. Here’s how to prep before heading outside, and what to do afterwards:
Before you go
Hydrate and nourish
Drink ample fluids beforehand, and bring some water with you too. “We lose a significant amount of fluid in the cold because the body humidifies the air as it tries to warm up — so you’re exhaling a lot of excess water,” says Alison Friesen, a Saskatoon-based registered dietitian with Health Stand Nutrition Consulting Inc. And make sure to consume carbohydrates to energize you, such as a banana, a piece of toast or even a glass of juice. “It’s important that you have some form of energy your body can burn,” she says. “Plus, food actually has a warming effect 30 to 60 minutes after you eat, so your body will generate more heat.” If you’re going to be out longer than an hour, pack a snack, like a granola bar or fruit.
Get acclimatized and start slow
Do something that exposes you to the cold air as a staging exercise before a slow warm-up. For example, if you’ve driven to a Nordic centre, spend a few minutes walking around the parking lot to acclimatize before strapping on your snowshoes and easing into your pace. “Starting the body from rest and then slowly increasing your metabolic rate will help your lungs prepare for more strenuous activity,” says Kennedy.
Watch the weather
The colder it is, the greater the effect the cold air will have on your lungs and respiratory tract. Kennedy is one of the few people who has studied the temperature at which exercising in the cold becomes harmful for your lungs — and he found respiratory symptoms and lung function begin to change at -15 C. The takeaway? “Slow down the colder the weather gets,” he says.
When you get back
Take your time
While it may sound counterintuitive, resist the urge to rush inside after your cold-weather workout, which can cause stress to your respiratory tract. “There’s something called the burden of rewarming,” says Kennedy. “Basically, if you’ve been out in cold weather, your airway is stressed and more vulnerable.” To give your lungs time to recalibrate, take a slow cool-down and gradually reintroduce yourself to a warm environment. “For example, try driving home with your heater off so your body can reconstitute your airway’s surface liquid before you go back into your house.”
Take the chills away with a hot beverage, and a meal or snack that combines protein and carbs. It’s important to eat something within 30 minutes of your workout to replace glycogen stores and rehydrate, says Friesen. Some of her favourite options are hot cocoa, or a tea latte made with dairy or soy milk, chicken noodle soup, whole wheat toast with peanut butter and banana, or oatmeal with warm milk, raisins and walnuts.
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