Could hot drinks boost your performance in cold weather?
By Andy Blow
The relationship between the environment and beverage temperatures with race results has almost exclusively been examined from the perspective of whether cold drinks can enhance performance in hot conditions (general consensus: yes, a very small amount compared to room temperature fluids).
My experience in cold climates
While my own experience of competing in cold conditions is not exactly comparable with elite winter sports athletes, as part of my winter cross-training for triathlon I’ve done periods of cross-country skiing, competed in winter ultra-endurance events like the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race with its nighttime sub-zero conditions, and I often open water swim, kayak or surf in reasonably chilly water, including a few ÖTILLÖ races in recent years.
Also, as I’m British, so am used to the day-to-day challenge of putting in long running and cycling miles in the middle of a typically cold UK winter.
Based on all of these experiences, and from talking to many elite athletes who do train and compete in alpine and winter sports, I’d say that there are two advantages in using hot drinks over cold ones, at least when the temperature gauge drops really low.
1. Having warm drinks available in low temperatures encourages you to drink more than you otherwise would.
Drinking ice cold drinks in frigid conditions is pretty unpleasant and discourages you from drinking at times when you should actively be keeping your fluid levels topped up.
While 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 bundled up in multi-layers and the drier air can often contribute to losing more fluid through your respiratory tract.
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 in a backpack with us during longer sessions. Regrouping 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 (200k) Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race, getting hot and sugary tea or coffee poured down my throat during the overnight section was a lifesaver when frankly there was not much else to look forward to with the finish line still many hours away.
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 access them efficiently.
Have a support crew, if possible. This is obviously not applicable for ÖTILLÖ races but in events where you can have a support crew, it becomes relatively easy to take on hot drinks although your crew need to be aware of 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”. Stopping is clearly not an ideal option in all but the very longest of ultra-distance races, yet it can work 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 midwinter, we would sometimes stop at a petrol station 3-4 hours into a long ride for a quick instant coffee from the vending machine inside the mini-mart. 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” – what Kieran at PTBORides.ca describes as the moment after you stop to eat, drink some coffee or go for a pee, when “back on the bike the legs that felt so good are suddenly gone to jello”.
If you have to be self-sufficient, your options are either carrying an insulated drinking vessel or stopping somewhere that can provide a hot drink.
Carry hot drinks with you. When it’s not possible or convenient to stop, there are a few options for carrying hot drinks with you during training (other than swimrun!).
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 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 downside to a proper flask is that they often require two hands to unscrew the lids and they’re heavy, so they’re not very compatible 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 types of flasks a lot when I was cross-country skiing as nothing else could really keep liquids hot in the snow. I’d either carry them in a backpack 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 Elite’s Iceberg ergonomic sports bottle) 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. You’ll be lucky to keep a drink anything more than lukewarm for more than about an hour in a plastic bottle on the coldest of days. However, that should be enough time to get through the usual 500-750ml (16-24oz) to give you a bit of a boost early on in your cycling, 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 backpack 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 training in Switzerland 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 a decent winter trail run at least. It does require cleaning thoroughly post-run to keep bacteria at bay.
What is the best hot drink?
The main consideration here should be personal preference and taste. After all, if the key benefits are encouraging you to drink more and provide a morale boost, whatever you drink needs to be tasty.
In the past when skiing I tended to use hot blackcurrant juice, which 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 or 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.
Out of curiosity, I recently tried using our all-natural drink mixes and low-cal tablets in hot water during some cold training sessions and was pretty pleased with the results. The Precision Hydration 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 amazingly 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.
If you’re reading this from somewhere cold, I hope it’s helpful. Chin up! It’ll be spring in no time.
Andy Blow founder of Precision Hydration, the Official Hydration Supplier of ÖTILLÖ is a former Team Sports Scientist for Benetton and Renault F1 team.
Article first published in Swimrun Life Magazine Issue #6 (March 2018)