Cool Runnings: The 7 Incredible Benefits of Training in the Cold

by Grace McCalmon


Cool Runnings: The 7 Incredible Benefits of Training in the Cold

by Grace McCalmon

There’s something about an icy winter morning that just screams “workout!” Or… Maybe not. For many of us, when the temperature drops, so does our incentive to stick to our training schedule. After all, why freeze your giblets off when you can snuggle under the covers and catch up on six hours of television? Well, according to science, those gray winter days could actually be the best time to train – especially for runners.



If there was a theme song for runners, it would probably be titled Better, Faster, Longer, and working out in the cold just might help you accomplish those feats. According to Michael Joyner, M.D., an endurance athlete and expert in human performance at the Mayo Clinic, the body can regulate its temperature better in the cold, meaning you can often exercise farther or longer. Additionally, cold weather makes the heart work harder to distribute blood throughout the body. For an unhealthy heart, this is not a good situation, but, for a regular exerciser, this external stress can further increase cardiovascular endurance, better preparing the body for more strenuous workouts, not to mention all the other, non-exercise related stress life can bring.



Research conducted by the United States Army and St. Mary’s University in London found that running in cooler temperatures – around 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit – can significantly improve run times. This could be due to the fact that cold weather acts as a natural heat dissipater. According to Tom Holland, exercise physiologist and author of The Marathon Method, the less heat stress on the body, the easier it is to run.



It’s well documented that you burn slightly more calories when exposed to colder temperatures. Our metabolism speeds up to help heat our body. If you ask most fitness experts, however, this increase isn’t enough to make much of a difference, but those faster run times we mentioned, plus an elevated metabolism, may add up to more than a few extra calories burned.  



Why on earth would we want more fat? Humans have two different kinds of fat: white fat and brown fat. White fat makes up the jiggly bits. It’s the fat that’s created when our body stores extra calories. Brown fat is, essentially, the opposite of white fat. As opposed to just hanging on our thighs, arms, and midsection, waiting to be put to good use, brown fat helps regulate our body temperature by burning calories. In fact, a study carried out by the Université de Sherbrooke, found that when brown fat cells were active, participants burned an extra 250 calories!

In other words: brown fat helps burn white fat.

How do we get more of this calorie-burning brown fat? Several studies indicate that spending time in the cold makes brown fat more active and may help create new brown fat cells.

A research team at Virginia Commonwealth University found that regular exposure to low temperatures while training changed the way the body processed fat reserves. After a month of exposure to mild cold, participants had a 42% increase in brown fat volume and a 10% increase in fat metabolic activity.

Best of all? It doesn’t even need to be that cold to get your brown fat burning. According to George King, chief scientific officer at Joslin Diabetes Center, temperatures around 62 degrees Fahrenheit are enough to activate brown fat.



Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of fuel, and cold exposure can cause blood glucose to be burned even more rapidly in order to help heat the body. Chilly temps also prompt our bodies to release hormones which further lower blood sugar – epinephrine stimulates glycogen breakdown, while adiponectin shuttles glucose into muscles. Translation: if you accidentally go for seconds of grandma’s homemade apple pie, an outdoor jaunt could help keep those blood sugar levels in check.



Training in the cold may actually help keep you from catching one. According to a study by the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, regular outdoor exercise in the cold reduced the risk of flu susceptibility by 20-30%. Other studies support these findings, indicating that regular exposure to low-temperature training may trigger an adaptive response of the body, and, over time, strengthen our immune response to cold.



If wintertime makes you feel a little wump wump, it could be due to a dip in vitamin D. Extensive research shows that vitamin D, specifically vitamin D3, is a critical nutrient needed to support our mood and mental state. Vitamin D3 is the form of vitamin D that our bodies make after our skin is exposed to UVB light (it’s also the form we include in all our SmartyPants gummies.) During winter months, our natural vitamin D exposure can be cut almost in half. By taking your training outdoors, you can help keep your vitamin D levels on point while also releasing endorphins for a double dose of feel good vibes.



Before you strip down to your skivvies and hit the trail, beware that winter weather is no joke. As we mentioned, cold exposure carries the risk of increased stress on your heart, as well as hypothermia, depending on how cold it is. Both hot and cold-weather workouts call for appropriate prep, which includes dressing for the occasion, always staying hydrated, and a proper warm-up and cool down. We also recommend consulting with your primary healthcare provider before beginning a cold-weather regimen, especially if working out in wintery conditions is new for you.





Posted on February 13, 2017

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Grace McCalmon

Grace is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) and a graduate of Duke University. She received her nutrition certification from the Nutritional Therapy Association, and her training is based on the work of Dr. Weston A Price, as well as the latest peer-reviewed, scientific research.