Can hot drinks help you perform in cold weather?
I landed back in the U.K. in early Jan this year after spending a memorable 3 weeks in the southern hemisphere Summer in Cape Town, where the weather was glorious. I wore flip-flops everyday and - needless to say - it's been a tough transition from running and kayaking in just a pair of shorts to having to wrap up head to toe in a fleece, neoprene and Gore-Tex for dark and damp training sessions!
One thing that I've noticed is how much more I've been craving the comfort of hot drinks in these colder temperatures, even more so than during my usual winter blues. My consumption of tea and coffee has gone through the roof and, coincidentally, we’ve had a couple of emails in recently asking about the benefits of using hot drinks during winter training. So, I thought I'd look into just that...
So what does the research say about the benefits of drinking hot drinks in cold weather?
The relationship between environmental temperature, beverage temperature and performance has been studied to a certain extent (see this example from 2006). But, almost exclusively researchers have examined how well cold drinks can enhance performance in hot conditions (the general consensus seems to be that they do help a very small amount compared to room temperature fluids...).
This is unsurprising as there has been far more attention given to how to improve exercise capacity in the heat. That's despite the cold arguably being more challenging in many respects. So, if the peer-reviewed science is a bit thin on the ground, it comes down to drawing a bit more heavily on experience and common sense.
Personal experiences in cold climates
Whilst my own experience of training and competing in cold conditions are not exactly comparable with elite winter sports athletes, I've done longish periods of cross-country skiing (as part of my winter cross-training for triathlon), competed in winter ultra endurance events like the Devizes to Westminster kayak race (where you can be racing through the night in sub-zero conditions) and I often open water swim, kayak or surf in reasonably chilly water. Also - as I'm British, I'm used to the day to day challenge of putting in long running and cycling miles in the middle of a typical cold U.K. winter!
Based on all of those experiences and from talking to many elite athletes who do train and compete in alpine and winter sports, my strong instinct is to say that I think there are some advantages to be gained from using hot drinks over cold ones, at least when the temperature gauge drops really low.
The two most likely benefits are...
1) Having warm drinks available in low temperatures encourages you to drink more than you otherwise would.
This is principally because taking in ice cold drinks in already frigid conditions is pretty unpleasant and discourages you from drinking at times when you should actively be keeping your fluid levels topped up.
Whilst the overall risks posed by dehydration are, of course, less prevalent in the cold than when it's stinking hot, they definitely do still exist. You lose a surprising amount of sweat if you go out all bundled up in multiple clothing layers and the drier air can often contribute to losing more fluid through your respiratory tract. As a result, doing whatever you can to make the idea of drinking more appealing is probably a good idea and that includes using hot drinks when you can.
2) Hot drinks are a huge morale booster in cold conditions!
When I was cross-country skiing we used to take a flask of piping hot Ribena out in a backpack with us during longer sessions and it was always preferable to having to sip at cold drinks that made your teeth sore at those kind of temperatures. Re-grouping at the top of the big climbs for a quick shot of hot, sugary juice before braving the windchill on the descent back down was something we all looked forward to.
Similarly, during the 125 mile Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race getting hot, sugary tea or coffee poured down my throat during the overnight section was like receiving life-support when frankly there was not much else to look forward to with the finish line still many hours away!
World Singlespeed 24 hour Champion Steve Day had this to say about the power of hot drinks during his races...
I normally ask my pit crew to get a mug of strong black coffee ready for me for about the 12 hour mark, then to keep one on the go for the next few hours. I don't stop for the whole cup, just a couple of mouthfuls at a time.
A couple of mugs over a six hour period keeps me sharp when it's dark and it's easier to make bad decisions on lines, etc.
It's also got to be good, fresh coffee...none of that instant muck!
Outside of sporting situations, both the motivating and soothing effects of hot drinks in cold weather are so universal they're effectively taken for granted in our ‘put the kettle on’ culture. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that that positivity can’t be transferred to a boost in athletic performance, even if it's maybe having a placebo effect rather than anything more concrete.
If you're interested, I wrote another blog on how to motivate yourself to train during the winter months a while back.
How to use hot drinks effectively during cold training sessions and races
So, if hot drinks are a useful asset in the cold, the next question is how to give yourself access to them efficiently.
Have a support crew if possible!
In events where you can have a support crew looking after your needs, it becomes relatively easy to take on hot drinks as the team can carry flasks or whatever they need to take care of it. The main thing your crew really need to be aware of is making sure they don’t 'over deliver' and provide scalding hot liquids that'll burn your mouth if you drink them too quickly.
Plan hot drink stops into training sessions (and ultra-distance races) BUT keep them brief to avoid "Cafe Legs"
If you're having to be self-sufficient, your options are cut down to either carrying an insulated drinking vessel or stopping somewhere that can provide a hot drink.
Stopping is clearly not an ideal option in all but the very longest of ultra distance races, but it can work ok in certain training circumstances. Many years ago when I occasionally put in some road bike sessions with the late, great Julian Jenkinson in the bleak mid-winter, we would sometimes stop at a petrol station 3-4 hours into a long ride to neck a quick instant coffee from the vending machine inside the mini-mart on the forecourt before cracking on. During those more hardcore training sessions it was a much quicker and less disruptive pit stop to take than a full cafe stop and it didn’t result in those horrendous ‘Cafe Legs’.
Carry hot drinks with you
When it's not possible/convenient to stop, there are a few options for carrying hot drinks with you.
The first (and best in terms of keeping the drinks hot) is to use a proper double-walled, insulated flask. Durable stainless steel ones are best for use in outdoor sporting situations and many of these will keep drinks pretty damn hot for up to 24 hours, especially if you take the time to pre-heat them properly before filling.
The downsides to a proper flask are that they often require two hands to unscrew the lids and they're heavy, so they're not very compatible with drinking on the move at speed (especially when cycling or running)! They are also not usually a particularly good fit in bike bottle cages, or running waist packs.
I did use these kind of flasks a lot of the time when I was cross-country skiing as nothing else could really keep liquids hot in the snow! I'd either carry them in a back pack or stash them close to the tracks when we were doing intervals or sessions on a looped course.
For cycling specifically, insulated bike bottles (such as this kind of thing from Elite) are primarily designed to keep drinks cold in the heat but do tend to keep the warm for a relatively short period of time.
One tip when biking is to carry your hot bottle(s) in your back jersey pocket rather than on the frame. This shields them from the wind and your body heat actually helps keep the fluid warmer for longer.
In reality, you’ll be lucky to keep a drink anything more than lukewarm for more than about an hour or so in a plastic bottle on the coldest of days. However that ought to be enough time to get through the 500-750ml (16-24oz) they usually contain and give you a bit of a boost early on in your ride, when you're trying to convince yourself to brave it and stay out for a few more hours...
When running, carrying hot drinks can be very tricky if you’re not carrying a back pack or bottle holder in which to store a flask or insulated bottle. But this is maybe not such a problem as most normal training runs are relatively short and internal heat production is pretty high when running hard.
One potentially useful bit of kit that I picked up years ago when in Switzerland doing some cross-country skiing and that I've used on some of my longer winter runs back in the UK is an insulated waist pack. It's basically a ~1 litre (32oz) padded reservoir, built directly into a bumbag/fanny pack, with a drinking valve mounted on the side. It’s acceptably comfortable to wear (given that it’s pretty heavy when full) and keeps drinks warm for a couple of hours, which covers you for a decent winter trail run at least. It does just need cleaning out thoroughly post run to avoid developing new bacterial life forms in the intervals between uses…
What is the best hot drink to drink during training/events?
I think the main consideration here should be personal preference and taste. After all, if the key benefits are encouraging you to drink more and a morale boost, whatever you drink needs to be tasty.
In the past when skiing I tended to use hot blackcurrant juice. This was simply because it seemed to be what the local athletes we trained with used and it did the job just fine. In the DW Canoe Race, we used tea and coffee (with plenty of milk and sugar) and bouillon soup. The saltiness of the soup was a perfect alternative to the sweetness of the tea/coffee, which had the added benefit of caffeine.
I’ve heard of some athletes using hot chocolate and that's obviously got the added benefit of providing a sugar boost, but if it’s really milky it might not go down too well if you’re working hard.
Whilst hot alcoholic drinks like gluhwein, vin chaud, mulled wine or cider are ever so drinkable in subzero conditions, I’d hesitate to recommend them from a performance point of view (especially for bike riding)!
Out of curiosity, I recently tried using our all-natural drink mixes and zero-calorie tablets in hot water during some cold training sessions and was pretty pleased with the results. The drink mixes (which contain some sugar) are definitely my favourite of the two options -maybe because you do tend to burn through more glucose when it’s very cold - But the tablets have the benefit of dissolving amazing quickly when dropped into an insulated bottle of hot water.
The other possible benefit of using Precision Hydration in your bottles or hydration pack when it is below freezing is that the electrolytes will lower the freezing point of the fluid, making it less likely that your bottle (or hydration feed tube) will ice up!
Check out my other post on how to stay hydrated during your winter training for some tips and the lowdown on why hydration is still important in cold environments.
Do you drink hot drinks during training sessions and events in cold weather? I'd be interested to hear what you think the benefits are and any tips you have for how to get them in efficiently when you're working hard.
If you're reading this from somewhere cold, I hope it's helpful. Chin up, it'll be Spring in no time...