Have a hard time sticking to your gym schedule during winter? Follow these life hacks and stay on track with your training routine.
We’ve all had those days where we’d rather lie on the sofa than hit the gym, and while missing one sweat session won’t undo all of your hard work overnight, it can easily spiral into a serious case of lethargy during the winter months.
Reclaiming your gym mojo can have some serious benefits for both your physical and mental health, though; studies have linked regular physical activity to more restorative sleep, a major reduction in the risk of serious health issues like dementia, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, and improved mood in people with depression and seasonal affective disorder.
When the days are shorter and you have to spend extra time wrapping up against the elements, it’s easy to make excuses for skipping a workout - but chilly winter temperatures are no reason to put your workouts on ice completely. What you need is a strategy.
The lack of sunlight during the winter months can make rolling out of bed more of a chore. For an instant energy boost, ditch the early morning phone scroll and opt for a few simple rounds of breathwork instead.
Leo Oppenheim, Head of Yoga at BLOK, recommends trying Wim Hof breathing, a technique created by Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof. There are two stages to the practice: the first involves taking 30-40 quick 'power breaths' where you inhale deeply and exhale quickly (a bit like hyperventilating). The second stage involves taking one deep inhalation into the belly, a full exhalation, and then holding your breath for around 10 seconds.
“I find that it’s useful for clearing the mind of any negative thoughts that can act as a barrier to exercising," explains Oppenheim. "In yoga, we call this ‘chitta vritti’, which literally translates from Sanskrit as mind chatter”.
Indeed, a growing number of studies show that breathing techniques can be effective for reducing mental health issues like anxiety and insomnia (caution has been urged however). A 2021 study on 15 amateur athletes found that those who practiced the Wim Hof breathing method had more energy and felt less tired during a sprint test compared to those who didn't.
While showering in bone-chilling temperatures might not seem like the most relaxing way to start your morning, Oppenheim believes that cold water - especially in the depths of winter - can have significant benefits for the mind and the body.
The yoga expert suggests that subjecting your body to colder temperatures, particularly targeting the vagus nerve at the back of your neck, can induce what he calls 'positive stress.' “This can enhance alertness, motivation, and overall energy levels,” he notes. "As soon as you step out and towel off, it's like flipping a switch that fires up your circulatory system, endocrine system, and temperature regulation system.” Think of it like a caffeine-free espresso shot.
Cold water therapy has experienced a buzz in recent years, and while more research needs to be undertaken, there’s a reason why top-tier athletes like Cristiano Ronaldo and Usain Bolt swear by it. Studies seem to suggest it can reduce muscle pain, lessen your risk of cardiovascular disease, and support the immune system.
“Submerging your body in an ice bath also increases your dopamine concentration by 250%,” adds Oppenheim. Dopamine is known as the ‘feel-good’ hormone because of the key role it plays in regulating mood, giving you that extra nudge to lace up your sneakers and hit the weights first thing in the morning.
A solid warm up routine helps to get the blood flowing around the body. It becomes even more important during the winter, because the chilly weather conditions can take their toll on your muscles, putting them at a greater risk of injury.
Instead of cycling through the standard static stretches like hamstrings and quads, researchers say that you should prioritise dynamic stretches in the winter. Think energetic arm swings, high knees, and walking lunges.
Aside from keeping you from being sidelined by an injury, it could also help you to achieve a new PB. A study published in the the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that runners who performed a sequence of dynamic stretches before a treadmill workout were able to run for longer than those who didn’t.
As the quickest way to lose body heat is to get wet, you’ll want to dress 'dry' and not just 'warm' if you're taking your workouts outdoors. Throw on base layers made from moisture-wicking material and a synthetic outer shell, and add headbands, gloves, or a hat - anything that can provide you with some extra comfort without overheating. Visibility can keep you safe in the dark too, so opt for bright colours and reflective materials, or strap on a head torch for early morning runs.
As the days get shorter, we all know how difficult it can be to feel energised in the morning - particularly when you crack open the curtains and see that it’s still dark outside.
Losing out on sunlight in the winter can disrupt the delicate balance of your circadian rhythm, aka your sleep and waking cycles. This is because when it’s dark outside, the body produces more of the hormone melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy.
One way to combat this effect is to get as much natural light as possible. Open your blinds during the daytime and take a lunchtime walk. To bolster that ‘get up and go’ feeling, Oppenheim recommends investing in a sunrise alarm clock, which mimics the natural dawn light as you’re roused from slumber.
Although evidence around light therapy is still not 100% conclusive, some studies show that lamps designed to combat seasonal affective disorder can deliver positive short-term effects.
Routine can be a good thing, but doing the same exercises day-in, day-out can leave us less than inspired to roll out a workout mat. When you allow yourself the freedom to explore other disciplines, there’s a fresh sense of excitement and curiosity to waking up early to work out.
“I'm a big believer in cross-discipline training - building new skills with a range of different exercise methods,” enthuses Oppenheim. “As adults, we can have a lot of ego about being ‘the best’ at a type of training, whether it’s yoga or lifting weights. When we aren’t the most skilled in the room, we can start to build a negative mindset about fitness.
“When you flip your mindset and allow yourself to approach exercise with a beginner’s mind, knowing that you’re likely to fall or fail the first few times, that’s when you can start to enjoy being pushed out of your comfort zone.” In short: sustainable training is a marathon and not a sprint finish.
As well as keeping your gym days interesting, training across lots of different disciplines can improve your performance in your primary sport. Malcolm Gladwell famously popularised the idea that 10,000 hours of practice can make you a master in any given field, but many athletes say that the secret to reaching peak performance is to look beyond one discipline and practice a variety of different activities, creating whole-body strength and agility.
By being open-minded about different classes and methods, you can emerge from the colder months a stronger, fitter, and more skilled contender. Take that, winter.
Words: Liz Connor
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