How to beat winter blues

Sport psychology expert Nikki Heath gives advice on how to approach the winter blues.

Winter. Muddy, dark, wet, cold and seemingly endless. Then more mud, plus bugs and viruses that appear in both man and beast, can cause sense of humour failures but can also cause physically induced doldrums. There are not many who look forward to the challenges of winter and retaining motivation is essential to emerge fit, prepared and ready for early spring success.

How winter affects athletic performance

  • Short, dull daylight hours combined with wind and wet all generate both physiological and psychological changes in us. 
  • We need more energy and get fatigued quicker. 
  • Keeping warm requires more calories. 
  • Bulky clothing restricts joint movement, weighs more and makes you work harder; it also effects how we move and react. 
  • Anything that restricts peripheral vision, such as hoods and hats, slows down our reaction times to external events. 
  • Everything on the ground takes longer and seems to be more effortful, which can affect confidence in ability. 
  • Many of us can get dehydrated in winter as we can get hot under all the clothing. We also drink far more diuretic drinks such as tea and coffee and stop drinking water-based drinks. Dehydration slows cognitive functions and reaction times.
  • Cold muscles and extremities also reduce performance and reaction times. This can influence perceptions of ability, again impacting on confidence and motivation. 
  • Tiredness and lethargy, food cravings, depression and negativity can be present (Seasonal Affective Disorder).
HOWEVER, winter can be a period to re-invent oneself, to raise your expectations and time to take stock. New Year resolutions should be planned early for success – why wait until 1 January, why not start the process now? 

How winter can help your athletic performance

  • Something as simple as choosing the right gear that works for you can be the difference between feeling confident and controlled – or not. 
  • Find a routine that makes sure you are warm and stretched. Winter is a good time to go the gym or have a go at some other sports, such as squash or swimming, which helps increase fitness and make you use different muscle sets to keep a balanced physique. This is a real help for those that also suffer psychological effects.
  • Keep sight of long-term goals while making sure that the positives that winter can bring are enjoyed and noticed to the full.
  • A contented horse tucked up in rugs munching hay is a real heart warmer; enjoy those crisp mornings.
  • Long nights allow for winter parties and log fires; there is time for holidays and friends and, of course, Christmas. 
  • The importance of having a mental break as well as a physical one cannot be overestimated as it allows short fuses and fragile, strained relationships to be put into perspective. You wouldn’t work your horse day in day out on the same routine so nor should you.