Training in the Cold – Hear from our Performance Nutrition Team

Carolyn Cruden, HPSNZ’s Sport Lead Nutritionist for Snow Sports, and Ien Hellemans HPSNZ’s Sport Lead Nutritionist for Triathlon, provide a winter and summer nutrition perspective for athletes training at HPSNZ’s winter training facility in Wanaka.

The most notable differences when training in winter is the cold and athletes can be at altitude, with increased layers of clothing.  So how does this affect what our top winter sport athletes drink and eat when training?

  • The cold air is less humid which causes an increase in respiratory losses (through breathing) and therefore an increase in daily fluid needs.  Athletes need to be mindful of their fluid intakes and monitor the colour of their urine regularly to help stay hydrated.  Also there is less oxygen at altitude so it may take athletes some time to adapt. However for elite winter athletes who live and train in this environment almost all year round this is not a concern.
  • Cold air temperatures can cause the body to shiver which increases carbohydrate oxidation (the process of burning fuel to keep warm) and overall daily energy expenditure.  In order to counteract this, carbohydrate intake must increase (through nutrient rich food choices including wholegrains, porridge, grains, cereals, rice, pasta, starchy vegetables and fruits) and it is important athletes stay warm by using appropriate clothing.
  • Training in the cold can rapidly decrease muscle glycogen, increasing daily energy requirements. Ensuring meals, snacks and fluids on the mountain are carbohydrate rich will help this as well as aid a quick recovery between training sessions. 
  • Even in the extreme cold, athletes can still sweat when training and when it is really cold there can be an increase in diuresis (needing a pee).  Escalating fluid losses is the fact that athletes need to wear more winter clothes to combat the cold, but this makes going to the toilet more difficult.  As a result some athletes tend to drink less so that they don’t have to go to the toilet when training in the cold and snow, however with the increased respiratory losses that means athletes are at an increased risk of dehydration. 
  • Our elite winter athletes chase back to back winters across the globe to maximise training and competition opportunities, meaning very little, if any summer sunshine.  This means their vitamin D status needs to be carefully monitored.  Vitamin D is extremely important for bone health and the athletes need to be exposed to sufficient UV light to help the body make Vitamin D – a challenge when training in winter due to low sunshine hours, low angles of UV light, and when skin is constantly covered by winter clothing and safety gear. 

Top tips: When training in the cold and snow – monitor hydration status regularly, if you haven’t passed urine during the day you could be dehydrated, carry a carbohydrate based snack and eat regular meals (especially breakfast and stop for lunch).