Fuel your body for winter sports

Carbs, proteins and plenty of fluids the key to not "bonking"

Fuel your body right for a fantastic weekend of skiing, snowshoeing and other winter weekend warrior sports.
Fuel your body right for a fantastic weekend of skiing, snowshoeing and other winter weekend warrior sports.

Winnipeg Health Region
Published Wednesday, February 8, 2012

You've been busy all week, working the desk job, and waiting for the weekend when you can hit the trails or the skating rink. That's when your inner weekend warrior puts in an appearance, as you attempt to cram a week's worth of exercise into two days.

Winter athletes - whether of the weekend warrior type or not - should eat a special diet in order to fuel their bodies to participate in winter sports.

Our bodies need foods rich in carbohydrates, proteins and fat in order to keep on skiing, burning towards the net, or stomping a trail with snowshoes. Burning calories also will make you thirsty, so it's important to drink plenty of fluids. Two hours before heading out, aim for two cups of fluid. During the event, drink one to two gulps of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes, especially when exercising at high intensity.

"Cross country skiing, for example, is an endurance sport requiring both high aerobic and anaerobic capacity, but predominantly aerobic. It uses carbohydrates and fat," says Jorie Janzen, a health and sports dietitian, who has a diploma in sports nutrition from the International Olympic Committee.

"Work in the cold can increase energy requirements 10 to 15 per cent, due to the inefficiency of exercising in snow as well as thermoregulation," says Janzen, who works with many of the athletes associated with the Canadian Sport Centre Manitoba and Sport Medicine and Science Council Manitoba. 

The energy or calories expended depend on your fitness level, the intensity of the exercise and duration of what you are doing. The average person burns around 1,500 to 2,000 calories per day.

A well-trained cross country skier can expend 714 calories in a 10 km race, according to author Louise Burke in Practical Sports Nutrition. A 15 km race may use up 950 to 1,200 calories. A 30 km race may expend 2,140 calories.

Another example is that of a 120 pound downhill skier, who burns approximately 342 calories per hour, while a 180 pound downhill skier burns about 510 calories per hour. When doing a five-hour ski day, the 120 lb skier burns 3,210 calories, while that same 180 lb skier burns 4,550 calories. All just by going downhill!

Running out of fuel leads to fatigue, or what many athletes call "bonking." Fatigue leads to sloppy technique, and opens the potential for injury. So stay fuelled, and enjoy your weekend on the slopes, the trails and the rinks.

Fuel tips

The best fuel for muscles during exercise is carbohydrates. Your body stores carbohydrates mostly in the muscles and your liver. If you do not eat a diet high in mainly complex carbs (high fibre/low glycemic index) - 45 to 65 per cent of total calories - you may run out of fuel when playing winter sports.

Carbohydrates are an athlete's main fuel source. Not eating enough carbs - veggies, fruit, grains and milk or alternatives - will leave you feeling dizzy, light-headed, fatigued, and with heavy-feeling muscles. 

Protein is used by the body to build and maintain muscle performance, so just under one-quarter of your total calories should be protein. It takes longer to digest protein, so it's best to eat proteins two to three hours before you exercise.

"This includes foods from the milk and meat and alternate food groups. When including resistance training, the protein content (10 to 20g) should be consumed within one hour of that session," says Janzen. "That is why so many suggest 500 ml chocolate milk. It gives you 55 g of carbs, 16 g of protein and more electrolytes than your typical sport drink!"

Fats are difficult to digest and convert to energy. Fats carry a lot of energy, but the problem is they are not easily broken down for that quick energy you need, so keep these to no more than one-third of what's on your plate. Don't fear fat; it adds flavour and keeps you feeling fuller longer. So, if  eating a higher fat meal, allow for two to three hours before heading out.

Remember to drink!

Drink at least two litres of fluid every day. Drink two cups of fluid two hours before training or hitting the trails.

"Fluid requirements are higher in the cold due to cold air containing less water than warmer air. Also, cold temperatures can lead to an impaired thirst response," says Janzen. "Another issue is that going to the washroom is not all that practical when bundled up in winter gear and away from indoor plumbing. This can lead to one not drinking enough before or during winter sports, leading to dehydration."

For cross country events longer than 15 km, sports drinks are good to have as they encourage fluid intake and assist with maintaining hydration and sodium levels and provide quickly digested carbohydrates. You can also include chicken noodle soup, soup broths, or hot chocolate as part of your sports hydration plan. 

Don't bonk!

Ever hear about GORP? It's an acronym for "good old raisins and peanuts," and it helps stave off "bonking" - or running out of fuel. You can make your own trail mix at home, mixing a bag of long-lasting fuels like raisins, dried fruits, gummi bears and nuts (or skipping the nuts if you have an allergy), and quick fuels like chocolate chips or caramels. Some winter sports aficionados carry oatmeal cookies or chunks of cheese to nibble on the trail. Your kids will especially like carting cookies on an outing. Typically, carbs are what you want. For ultra endurance, you are going to need something such as trail mix with nuts and chocolate chips added. This should reflect your own tolerance to types and amounts of food.

Packing tips:

Pack a thermos with warm liquids. Place heat packs around bars, gels etc and keep bars in extra socks to keep them from going rock hard in the cold.
Keep small amounts of food in pockets. Your body heat will keep them warm.

Menu options

Fluid choices:

  • flavoured milk
  • juice
  • hot chocolate
  • soup
  • hot apple cider
  • meal replacement shakes

Cool fluids are typically preferred as very cold fluids tend to discourage intake. But in some cases warmer fluids are more inviting.


  • fruit that is easy to peel: ie. mandarins or bananas
  • cereal bars
  • muffins / English muffins with honey or jam
  • dried fruit and nut mixes
  • peanut butter and jam sandwiches
  • soup / hot chocolate in a thermos
  • liquid meal replacements (Boost, Ensure, Carnation Breakfast, Nutrimeal, etc.)

For recovery:

Your body's ability to store carbohydrates and to rebuild muscle is highest in the first 30 minutes to one hour after exercise - the window of opportunity for optimal recovery. A snack that includes some carbohydrate and protein, along with fluid sources such as water is a smart way to help your body regain energy after exercise.

  • warm soup and dinner rolls
  • pasta and tomato-based sauce
  • meat and vegetable stir fry with rice
  • porridge made with milk

Watch the alcohol and caffeine:

  • Alcohol impairs recovery and hydration. Be sure to recover first, before being festive! It takes one hour to metabolize one alcoholic drink.
  • Caffeine may be a part of your routine. However, whether in the form of coffee, tea or energy drinks, keep in mind that caffeine can lead to a fast pulse, nervousness, insomnia, headache, irritability, frequent urination, diarrhea and in some cases, dehydration. It's not exactly performance enhancing.

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