Once winter sinks its claws in, the idea of outdoor training sessions becomes less appealing than strip poker with Pat Butcher (and no, sadly earrings don’t count as items of clothing). Even peeling yourself off a warm sofa to sweat it out in the gym is a massive ask. It’s OK, we get it.
But just because you can get away with piling on enough layers to keep your moob cupsize a mystery on par with the meaning of life, it doesn’t mean you should abandon your fitness regime entirely. Not only will it make getting back into respectable shape an even tougher slog come spring, you’ll also be missing out on perfect conditions for working out.
Here’s why science reckons winter training is for the win, and how to get the most from your cold-weather sessions.
1. The Cold Burns More
Just being in chilly conditions makes our bodies burn more calories to keep warm, but there’s more to it than that.
There are different types of fat in our bodies. White fat (or adipose tissue) is particularly gross, increasing risk of heart disease, diabetes, and all the other health problems associated with being overweight. Brown fat, on the other hand, actually helps us burn more calories, hoovering up nasty white fat as it goes. Any kind of exercise will help increase your brown fat levels by triggering the release of an enzyme called irisin that converts to white fat to brown – and doing it in the cold is even better.
How do we know? One study (as published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation) exposed people to temperatures of 17°C for two hours a day over six weeks – not even jumper weather for anyone born north of Birmingham – with results showing a huge increase in calorie burn over the test period, leading researchers to believe that low temperatures encourage production of the wonder hormone. In short: a cold-weather training session torches calories.
2. Don’t Be SAD
As sunlight becomes a distant memory, so does having a decent stock of the feel-good chemicals it helps stimulate. If you want to look weird at work, then by all means get yourself one of those plug-in anti-SAD light panel things. For the rest of us, exercise is the key to turning frowns upside down.
North Carolina’s Duke University found that cardio, thanks to its ability to increase serotonin production, is four times more effective than antidepressants when it comes to reducing depression. Just a 30-minute session is enough to boost your levels of the so-called ‘calming chemical’.
Another huge downside to eschewing the outside world for a quarter of the year is the scant vitamin D you’ll be getting, since your body needs sunlight to synthesise it. That’s not just bad news for your immune system (more on that next), but studies suggest that people with low levels of the sunshine vitamin store more fat.
The fix? Half an hour a day in sunlight is enough. Not training that day, or the sun’s hiding behind clouds? Take a vitamin D supplement (£6.62, bodybuilding.com) to keep your levels up.
3. Give Man-Flu The Finger
Sacking off exercise for the winter isn’t just a fast-track to blubber levels a whale would be jealous of, it’s also a sure-fire way of succumbing to all the colds and flus doing the rounds.
One study from the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research found that outdoor training sessions in the cold cuts the risk of colds or flu by as much as 20-30 per cent. All the more reason to haul ass once the cold hits.
4. Get Warm First
“Don’t even think about warming up until you’ve warmed up,” says sports masseuse Lucy Macdonald from London’s Octopus Clinic. Confused? Don’t be.
“Whatever type of training you plan on doing, spend 10 minutes gently jogging,” she says. “Warming up is even more important in cold temperatures because the warmer your muscles are, the faster they can contract and relax. It’s vital that you get blood flowing through your muscles before you even attempt to stretch.”
That done, do dynamic, rather than static stretches. Which means movements that replicate the exercise you will be doing such as high knees and heel flicks for running.
5. Run Faster
Exercising in the cold makes us more out of breath, quicker. It might feel nasty at first, but it’s actually a very good thing because it forces your body to more efficiently use the oxygen it gets.
That was the conclusion of a study published in the American Journal of Physiology, which showed regular cold-weather running sessions can lead to a 29 per cent increase in running speed. Admittedly the study was done on goats, but the researchers assert the findings hold true for humans too.
6. Dress For The Weather
Though science seems to back Wim ‘The Iceman’ Hof’s claims that a combination of breathing technique and belief is all you need to survive cold conditions, until you’ve mastered that method we strongly recommend layering up for your outdoor winter training sessions. You can’t go wrong with any of this kit.
Need some extra motivation? Simply watch this video of The Iceman and try not feeling like a wuss next time you take a glance out the window and decide it looks a spot too nippy to train. It’ll be worth it.