Despite rumours of a warm October, the darker nights have started to draw in and there’s a noticeable drop in the temperature. The winter can pose difficulties for many people when it comes to sticking to their training regime. Food cravings can be harder to resist during cold weather, exercising outside in low temperatures poses its own challenges, and most people find themselves struck down with colds and the flu at some point too. But before you despair, there are ways to boost your immune system, alter your diet and prepare for winter exercise, which could help keep your training on track until spring returns.
Adapting your diet for the winter
If you don’t usually consider changing your diet between summer and winter, you’re not alone. However, making some simple changes can have a hugely positive impact. Wherever possible, embrace the change in climate and try to eat with the season. Seasonal fruit and vegetables are not only grown using fewer chemicals, but they are more nutritious than non-seasonal alternatives.
It’s not uncommon to feel hungrier when it’s colder. It’s actually instinctive! Metabolising food not only keeps your body warm, but your body is programmed to eat whatever is available as fast as possible during shorter days. This harks back to the days when humans were only able to hunt for food when it was light.
However, to avoid slipping into hunter mode and over-eating in the colder weather, make sure you stick to slow-release carbohydrates – a bowl of porridge for breakfast should keep you full until lunch, minimising other cravings. Despite the temptation, minimise your intake of refined sugars, such as those found in chocolates and cake, as these can make your blood sugar spike and then dip, ultimately causing you to crave more food.
It’s important to eat good fats (such as avocados, oily fish and nuts) all year around, but they have added benefits in the winter, as fat acts as a good insulator.
Vitamins to boost your immune system
The lack of sunlight caused by shorter days leads to a drop in Vitamin D levels as our bodies need direct sunlight to synthesise Vitamin D, which can potentially lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). To avoid this, try to supplement your diet with Vitamin D where possible. D3 is the best variety as it is the one naturally produced by the body, and can be purchased in both tablet and capsule form.
You can also use other vitamins to help boost your immune system. Anti-oxidants, found in Vitamins A, C and E, are great for immune support as they help maintain immunity by neutralising free radicals, which can cause damage to healthy cells. To increase your intake of these vitamins, eat lots of colourful fruit and vegetables. Purple, blue, red, orange and yellow ones are the best, such as berries, apples, citrus fruits, kiwis, carrots and kale. You’ll get the greatest benefits from eating them raw, or lightly steam your vegetables (but don’t boil them!)
Tackling outdoor exercise
Outside exercise presents different challenges in the winter, but it’s important to prepare in the same way that you would for warm weather training, including making sure you hydrate properly. You may also need to consume more complex carbohydrates (high fibre vegetables and whole grains), as your body increases carbohydrate consumption and reduces its reliance on fat when cold, meaning it burns carbohydrate resources more quickly than it would in warm weather.
It’s also really important to spend slightly longer warming up before exercising in cold weather, as your body takes longer to ‘get going’ when its colder. Stretching off properly afterwards, just as you would in summer, should reduce the risk of injury.
If you would like expert advice about nutrition and exercise tips for the winter, or any other health issue, AXA PPP healthcare offers an ‘Ask the Experts’ service, where you’ll receive a response to any medical question from an expert within a couple of days: www.axapaxpphealthcare.co.uk/expert.
Guest blog post by David Williams, physiologist at AXA PPP healthcare
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