Tips for Athletes for Surviving the Winter and S.A.D.

The dark days of winter are a tough time of the year to stay focused on fitness and nutrition. Holiday activities, end of the year work demands, lousy chilly and gloomy weather, and shorter, darker days all play into this. Party foods challenge our nutritional resolve. We get sick, end up with a lot of sugary food and alcohol as gifts, and often find ourselves encased in a germ filled test tube flying to a different time zone. All this disturbs our ability to keep to a good, structured exercise and eating routine.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a real thing. I have it. Being prone to any type of depression just makes it worse. Low energy, low motivation, depression can all be real, physiological responses to shorter, darker days. Not everyone who has trouble staying motivated through the winter has SAD though, so we’ll come back to that later.

Tips for Surviving the Winter with or without SAD

Staying on track or getting off it starts with our head. The way we mentally approach things is key here. Some things that will help keep us pointed in the right direction:

Walk it off – Didn’t work out today? OK, move on. Fitness not great? OK, fix that. Overate? Do better starting now (not “tomorrow”). Point is, don’t dwell on where you’ve fallen. That’s driving the truck into a ditch and hitting the gas instead of just sticking the thing in reverse and backing out. We all fall, even your coach. Back out of the ditch and head on down the road.

Early is better – Don’t wait until 10 PM to start your workout. Get up early and knock out an hour, which means go to bed early enough to get the sleep you need. DVR’s are a wonderful thing; you no longer need to stay up until 11:00 to catch the Daily Show.

Toss out the bad food and don’t buy any more It’s winter. Your reptilian brain says to add a fat layer and prepare for the months when food will be scarce. It wants to eat a lot of carbs.  Your reptilian brain is not aware that there’s a well-stocked supermarket right down the street, or that racing starts in a few months.

Revisit the good stuff – Every season brings some type of highlight; those moments when we realize this is why we engage in sport. Embrace those. Reminisce a bit.

In the dead of winter, the seasonal racing calendar is like a Fodor’s travel guide – Read and dream. You don’t need to visit every place to have a nice trip.

If you’re not “feeling it” talk to your Wenzel coachHe or she is there for you. Likely as not your coach has been through what you are going through.

Keeping our heads in a good place makes it easier to follow the above advice. Mindfulness and meditation apps, such as Headspace, are one approach. They guide you to a calm, mindful state in which you can focus and make good decisions more easily. Some offer a first session for free. You could literally just replay these and not spend for the app, but they have value well beyond the intro sessions (I used Headspace prior to my points race at Nationals to help me focus and blot out some external noise). Investing 10-20 minutes a day in meditation can actually save you time by creating a calmer, more organized mental state.

If the winter weather doesn’t just discourage you but really gets you down, you may have a problem that requires stronger intervention.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder is a condition in which brain chemistry shifts towards low energy and depression in the extended absence of bright sunlight. Symptoms vary. Some people will feel slightly unmotivated, while others will be depressed to the point of staying in bed all day. The Mayo Clinic website gives a solid overview. Several years ago a good friend and I were having a conversation about the lousy spell of weather we were having and started comparing notes. He had researched SAD, realized he had the symptoms, and started using lightbox therapy.

I had the same symptoms. I bought a box from the same company and started using it when working at my desk on dark days or when I couldn’t get out, and found it definitely helped adjust my mood. It takes between 15 minutes and an hour or so per day of sitting in the bright light to be effective and usually takes 4-7 days to start working. Missing a day won’t set you back to zero, but missing several days in a row will. You can use a lightbox while sitting at a computer, reading a book or newspaper or even working, so it takes no time out of your day.

Vitamin D

Humans make their own vitamin D when sunlight hits their skin. The research suggests that very few people who live north of Arizona or Florida get adequate vitamin D even in the summer. The lack of direct sunlight in winter can create a more dramatic vitamin D deficiency, which can create a feeling of fatigue, aches and pains, and also weaken the immune system. In most cases easily solved with a vitamin supplement.

I am not a medical professional and strongly suggest checking in with yours should you feel this is appropriate. But these behaviors, treatment and supplements are things that have helped me “right the ship” during winters when it was floundering. Give them a try if you are feeling “off” in the off season.

Coach Kurt Bickel has a lifetime of experience in cycling and motorcycle racing and skill training, and works with road, track and mtb athletes of all levels and ages. 

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