Tough enough

by • December 10, 2013 • FeatureComments (0)947

Real Alaskans don’t let a little cold weather nip their adventures

Winter Activities in Alaska - Illustration by Owen Tucker


On the first snowy run of the season, I dug out my Icebug running shoes from under a pile of summer gear. After a quick inspection of the studs confirmed that they were still serviceable, I laced them up and hit the road. Just two days prior, I’d been on the hard pavement of my neighborhood streets. Already, I was excited to be on the snow, which by now was nicely packed by the cars that had driven over it for the past 24 hours.

It may not seem like it, but for those who love outdoor exercise, winter really is one of the best times to take advantage of it. In running, for instance, the softer, more forgiving surface of a snowy road is gentler on joints. Cyclists, likewise, can explore on fat bikes those places that during the summer are swampy and inaccessible.

And skiing? Well, that’s a no-brainer – you can’t get out and enjoy downhill or cross-country skiing without snow.

So, embrace the cold weather. Get a head start on that few extra pounds you want to lose, or start working on building that endurance base you’ll need come summer. Believe in your ability to be outside when it’s cold rather than worry that you’re not tough enough.

You just might be surprised at what you can accomplish.



A few years ago, I was speaking with Dr. Thomas Hunt, a family physician and chief executive of Providence Physicians Services Organization, about this very topic. Today, like then, he still believes that winter is one of the best times to continue staying active. He speaks from both a medical and personal perspective. He is a mountaineer, skier and runner, and he commutes to his job, year-round, by bicycle.

Being outside in the winter is one of the best ways to lose weight faster and stay more mentally fresh, he said. It’s simple: If doing the same workout in 60 degrees that you would do at 10 degrees, you will burn more calories in the colder weather.

“Just breathing in the cold costs you more calories because you have to warm that air,” he told me.

In a study at the University of Utah, nutrition professor Dr. Wayne Askew said that the body’s basal metabolic rate – i.e., the rate at which the resting body burns energy – increases slightly during cold weather. It’s not a huge leap, but it adds up. Breathing in and warming air, as well as rewarming cold skin, all costs calories – and that’s what you want to burn when losing weight.

If you start to shiver – which you really don’t want to do – your calorie-burning will go even higher.

A Princeton University study claims the same thing. On the university’s outdoors website, it says that a spring, summer or fall backpacking trip will burn 3,500 to 4,500 calories per day, while backpacking in the winter requires at least 5,000 calories.

I tried comparing my own running from summer to that in colder weather, and had no scientific luck. My Garmin GPS watch is ignorant of temperature differentials and only records an estimated calorie burn based on distance and speed.

But if my refrigerator could talk, it would rat me out. When visiting family in Virginia recently, I’d go for runs under 50-degree, sunny skies and have little appetite for hours afterward (other than the obligatory post-run snack that I make myself eat).

During my runs since the snow has fallen here in Alaska, I’m ready for a full meal almost immediately.



Still, winter exercise is about more than just getting skinny – it’s about feeling good, too. Alaska has one of the highest rates of Seasonal Affective Disorder – or SAD – of any place in the country. A 1992 University of Alaska Anchorage study confirmed this – while the average rate of those suffering from SAD in other northern climates is around 6 percent, the study found a full 9 percent of its Alaska participants suffered from the disorder.

Our lack of sunlight in the winter, combined with working hours that keep us indoors during the best time of day, conspires to create some very sad people. Depression heightens in the winter, and one of the best ways to fight back is – yes, you already know the answer – getting outside.

Hunt notes that the intensity of an Alaska winter day is not enough to fully alleviate symptoms – 10,000 lux per day is the required norm, and at Anchorage’s latitude, a sunny winter day provides just 1,000 lux – but it’s better than noting at all. Pair it with a SAD light, and the winter blues will be anything but.

Additionally, he said, winter exercise can actually strengthen our bodies. Icy and snowy surfaces help engage the proprioceptive aspect of the nervous system, thus strengthening core muscles. Exercising on such equipment as stationery bike trainers do not engage this type of balance work, he added.

It creates a reverse advantage: Rather than fear slippery winter surfaces, “the more we challenge ourselves proprioceptively, the less likely we are to slip and fall,” he said.



Winter Running in Alaska - Illustration by Owen TuckerHealth arguments aside, there is something triumphant about getting outside when the mercury drops. We humans love to tell stories – with anglers, the size of the fish is the superlative; with climbers, it’s the difficulty of the pitch (again, the bigger, the more impressive).

So, when you use common sense – dress in layers, wear shoes that are appropriately spiked and use a headlamp if the sun is setting – when you run, it feels really good to come back and tell your friends, “It was 20-below out, and my eyelashes froze shut.”

These are the types of stories that make us Alaskans, that separate our tough asses from those living in shorts and flip-flops in Hawaii. We were once in Hawaii with some friends, and our buddy Ron, a longtime Alaskan who has done it all from hunting to fishing to dog mushing and more – said, “I couldn’t live here. It’s too easy.”

I’ll never forget his comment, because it’s true. We Alaskans really do need more to rev our engines. We are in a special club and while we can all readily agree that really cold weather sucks, we also can share in that misery and defeat it rather than succumb to it.

It’s a fine line, but one that sets us apart from the rest of the rest.


Tips for winter recreating

Whether skiing, running or cycling, here are a few suggestions for making the most of your winter outing:

  1. Light up. If you’re out in the dark, wear a headlamp, especially if on multiuse trails or roads.
  2. Layer up. Dress in layers that you can peel off as needed.
  3. Pick your route. If running or cycling in windy conditions try to begin the workout into the wind so you’re not sweaty and running against the wind on the way back.
  4. Make a date. A standing workout date with friends or family will keep you motivated on those extra cold days.
  5. Wool socks. They are your friend. They really do help keep your feet warmer when it’s cold.
  6. Wear the appropriate footwear.  Whether it’s spiked running shoes or pack boots for cycling, do all you can to stay upright and avoid numb toes. Invest in ice grippers for day-to-day activity.
  7. Wetness is not your friend. Beware hypothermia, frostbite and other signs of “I’ve been out in the cold too long.” If you’re fingers are turning white or numb, you’re not in good shape.
  8. Stay hydrated. More water means better circulation, which means that blood will keep pumping to keep frostbite at bay.
  9. Wear sunscreen. For super-long days of exercise in the cold, be sure to cover your face, which can burn easily with sun rays reflecting off the snow.
  10. Play mind games. If you really want to exercise but just can’t bear the cold, vow to do just a short run or ride – just a half hour to get yourself moving. Ninety-five percent of the time, you’ll surprise yourself and keep on going.

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