Winter Fueling: Increased Calorie and Fluid Needs

Dehydration is as much a concern in cold weather as it is in warm.
A pro athlete recently mentioned that she felt hungrier while training outdoors in the winter and asked me, "Do you burn more calories in colder temperatures?"

Yes. When the temperature is 32F or lower, it can increase your calorie needs if it's cold enough to elicit the shivering response. In colder temperatures, calorie needs are greater due to the increased work of thermogenesis, the body's temperature regulation. Shivering can increase metabolic heat production two to five times above your resting metabolic rate, increasing your calorie needs.1

Carbs are the key

When shivering isn't part of the equation, training in cold weather will increase your carbohydrate needs, although total calorie needs are the same as in warm weather. In cold weather, your body burns more carbohydrates and less fat than in warmer weather.2

Your pre-workout meal is important because it will fuel your workout and ensure you're able to maintain the intensity to stay warm and keep you from shivering.

Pre-workout meals should contain enough carbohydrates to satisfy your hunger without making you feel stuffed or bloated. Some athletes tolerate a small amount of pre-workout protein, but use your own experience to guide you on what works best. You may have to experiment with this to get things just right. Try to limit the fat in your pre-workout meal since fats take longer to digest and can potentially cause stomach upset.

Drink up!

Although athletes don't feel as thirsty in cold weather, dehydration is as much a concern as it is in warm-weather training. For workouts that last an hour or more, be sure to carry fluids. How much you need to drink will depend on your losses. To determine your fluid losses, weigh yourself before and after a workout to get an idea of how well you're hydrating. Fluid is lost through sweating, urinating and breathing. Cold air temperatures further increase your fluid losses because your breath warms and humidifies the air during each inhalation. And because you're not sweating as much as you do in warm weather, you may not feel as thirsty, so you're less likely to drink.

In colder temperatures, a sport drink is a better option than plain water because it supplies additional carbohydrate calories. It will also provide essential electrolytes such as sodium and potassium which will improve fluid retention, fluid balance and decrease urine output more than plain water.1 Also, when temperatures drop below 20F, the need to urinate also decreases. Remember even low levels of dehydration can impact your performance; a two-percent body weight loss can reduce performance by 10 to 20 percent. Drink up!

Fueling your winter workout

The winter months often a time for many to work on their fitness base or aerobic endurance. While training at an aerobic level or submaximal effort (VO2max ~65%) in colder temperatures, be sure to invest in the proper equipment and clothing for winter conditions, and whether you feel it or not, your body has additional nutritional needs so be sure to fuel properly.

Carry a sports drink to replenish your fluid, electrolyte and carbohydrate needs, and bring an extra bar or gel for an extra carbohydrate boost.

Pre-workout meal ideas (30-60 minutes before): Have .25 grams to .5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight.

130 lb athlete: 30-60g carbs 180 lb athlete: 50-90g carbs

1/2-1 cup oatmeal, or 1-1 1/2 cup oatmeal & 1 banana, or
1/2-1 bagel w/1 Tbsp peanut butter, or Bagel w/1 Tbsp peanut butter & 1 Tbsp jelly/jam, or
1 cup yogurt w/1/2-1 cup cold cereal Yogurt smoothie: 1 cup yogurt + 1 banana + 1 cup OJ or 1 cup frozen/fresh berries
+20 oz of fluid +20 oz of fluid

During workout: Aim for 30-60 grams carbohydrates, 7.5-15g protein and 20-32 oz fluid per hour. Because each athlete will have a different absorption rate and tolerance for fueling during exercise, this is a broad range of recommended intake. What may cause stomach distress in one person may be just fine for another, so experiment with different products in order to customize what works best for you.

130 lb athlete x 3 hours
Goal: 135 grams carbs,
30 grams protein & 60 oz fluid*
180 lb athlete
Goal: 180 grams carbs,
45 grams protein & 92 oz fluid*

1 bar 24-50g carbs, 10-18g protein 2 bars 48-100g carbs, 20-36g protein
60 oz sports drink, or 92 oz sports drink, or
40 oz sport drink and 20 oz water 60 oz sports drink and 32 oz water
*Some athletes tolerate more, some less

Post-workout meal ideas (Consume within 15 minutes of workout): Have .75 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight and .25 grams of protein per pound of body weight.

130 lb athlete
Goal: 70-90g carbs, 25-30g protein & 30-40 oz fluid
180 lb athlete
Goal: 115-125g carbs, 35-45g protein & 30-40 oz fluid

1 1/2 cups of chicken noodle/rice soup 2 cups chicken noodle/rice soup
Smoothie: Yogurt or dessert tofu, banana, fruit fresh or frozen, 12-16 oz Smoothie: Yogurt or dessert tofu, banana, fruit fresh or frozen, 16-20 oz
Sport recovery drink Sport recovery drink

1. Meyer, NL and Parker-Simmons, In Preparation for Torino 2006: Dietary Needs of Winter Sport Athletes, SCAN'S Pulse, Winter 2006, Vol. 25, No. 1
2. Layden, J, Patterson, M and Nimmo, M, Effects of reduced ambient temperature on fat utilization during submaximal exercise, Med & Sci in Sports and Exercise, 34 no. 5 May 2002

Kristin McCowan, M.S., is currently serving her dietetic internship at Simmons College and is a member of Team Psycho, a Boston-based triathlon team. Contact Kristin at

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