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Article - 30 November 2011

Cold Weather Training - no excuses please.

This is an article originally written for Triathlon Plus magazine:

Cold Weather Training – Don't Let It Beat You.

Training in less than perfect weather conditions is a reality of life for most triathletes based in Britain. In some ways, because our climate is temperate rather than seriously cold, damp rather than arid and windy rather than still, getting the right balance between comfortable warmth and sweaty overheating is quite a challenge. But it is one that you need to get very good at overcoming because effective winter training is predominantly about relatively low intensity, uninterrupted and consistent efforts, whether on a bike or on the trails. For this reason alone, knowing why you get cold, what is going in your body when you do and just how that is going to effect your training session both during and afterwards, is essential knowledge for the serious triathlete. After all, the more optimal training sessions you can accomplish during the winter months, the better your condition will be when it is time to get race fit.

From a physiological perspective, cold significantly reduces our capacity for exercise and subsequently, performance. Research has shown that the maximal power output of muscle is reduced by 3% per 1°C fall in muscle temperature, hastening fatigue, reducing the speed of movement, dexterity, strength and mechanical efficiency. All are very good reasons for ensuring that you are fully warmed up prior to training and especially before winter testing sessions or races. One of the many advantages to being a triathlete is that you probably carry less body fat than your sedentary counterparts. However, when the temperature tumbles you are immediately at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to trying to keep warm. Body fat is a very effective insulator against the cold. If you are also tall as well as lean, then it just gets worse. Short, heavy individuals will always lose heat more slowly because they have a lower body surface area to body mass ratio – think Eskimos versus Kenyans. Furthermore, the tall, lean triathlete conscientiously putting in the winter miles at relatively low intensites will struggle to produce enough heat to counteract the heat loss. This becomes a real issue when cycling because the more quickly we move through the air, the higher the rate of heat loss from the body - otherwise known as wind chill. What feels like adequate clothing when the wind speed is zero can result in uncontrollable shivering when on a lengthy descent. Getting the right balance between maintaining core temperature and skin comfort is critical. Too much insulation leads to sweat production which in turn leads to wet clothing. Because water is 25 times more conductive than air, heat loss is increased by as much as 400%! Equally, too little insulation leads to sub-optimal training sessions due to the muscular inefficiencies mentioned previously. Fortunately, there are various measures we can take to ensure that every scheduled session , no matter the temperature, can be performed as intended. This not only leads to consistent training, adaptation and progress but it is also makes winter training a lot more fun!

5 Ways To Beat The Big Chill

1. Eat enough.
Winter training is not the time to experiment with low glycogen or fasted state training sessions. Our bodies produce heat as a result of a series of chemical reactions which drive energy metabolism.  From resting to maximal exercise this metabolism can increase by up to 25 times and at its peak requires around 20 Kilocalories per minute. That is a lot of food!

2. Warm – Up.
The reason a warm-up is so important is that it elevates body temperature and increases blood flow to the muscles and associated soft tissue beds. A ‘warmed-up’ muscle is much harder to injure than a cold one, requiring considerably more force and stretch to damage it. You have been warmed!

3. Layering.
Clothing works because air gets trapped between the fibres, warms up and in turn, keeps our body temperature up. Because both air and materials used in clothing conduct heat poorly, heat is lost slowly. For this reason several layers of light, close fitting material – read base layering – are much more effective at trapping heat than one bulky garment. Such a garment worn against the skin wicks moisture and considerably reduces heat loss. Layer it on!

4. Wear a hat.
30-40% of body heat is lost through the head in spite of it only representing around 8% of the surface area of the body. This is is because it is the most highly vascularised part of the body. Whether wool or synthetic, a hat will go a long way to keeping you warm when it matters most.

5. Be organised.
Check the weather forecast to make sure you have the right clothing at hand for when you need it. Also try to organise you training so that you get it done when it is least cold, around the middle of the day. Simple planning like this will give you an advantage over time. Common sense after all, is not that common. A fit and successful triathlete is always an organised one.

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