Winter sports require a wide range of skills, strength, concentration, technique and energy demands. While the principals of fuelling performance and fuelling training remain similar to summer sports, the thing that sets them apart so distinctively is the environment they participate in.
Winter sport athletes have environmental challenges in the cold climate and being at altitude. This increases energy demands and makes the body work harder, even at rest, on top of the effort needed to compete or perform.
The exposure to cold temperatures further exaggerates this increased energy demand. The act of maintaining the body’s core temperature increases energy expenditure through producing heat. When stationary the body is using more energy to warm up the cold air you are breathing in. When not wearing enough layers, the colder you get, the harder the body has to work to create heat, to the point you can shiver to generate heat in the muscles. As you become active the working muscles generate heat and this will keep you warm. Eating food also creates an internal heat so snacking regularly not only helps replenish fuel it can help keep you warm.
It’s important for winter sports athletes competing outdoors to keep this in consideration for their nutrition plans so they don’t get fatigued and run out of energy before they are up to compete.
Planning ahead and being prepared so you have energy through carbohydrate foods when you need it is just as important as packing your gloves.
Altitude reduces the level of oxygen in the air as you rise from sea level, known as a hypoxic environment. This has physiological effects, including increased resting metabolic rate (RMR), decrease in appetite and possibly dehydration from dryer air. This combination of an increased energy requirement and decreased voluntary food intake can result in a negative energy balance and fatigue, making you feel flat and drained.
Fat needs oxygen present to be used as a fuel source, so the reduced oxygen means carbohydrates will be a more dominant and preferable fuel source. If carbohydrate stores aren’t adequate it may mean your body will be breaking down muscle to fuel your time on the snow. If out on the snow regularly and for a long time, there may not be the time to build stores of carbohydrates at main meals. The best way to approach this is to take portable carbohydrate snacks like cereal bars, crackers or fruit with you to top up energy during your sessions.
It’s also important to note that altitude exposure increases the body’s need for iron, primarily to support the accelerated production of red blood cells. For this reason, athletes who are regularly in high altitude should get their iron levels checked via a blood test to make sure they’re in range.
This is especially important because iron is responsible for the delivery of oxygen to tissues like muscle, which helps support performance on the mountain.