It’s coming into that time of year again, the evenings are getting shorter, mornings increasingly darker and its hard to focus on your training and nutrition when all you want to do is come home from work, curl up in front of the fire with chocolate, tea or biscuit and chill out for the night. Don’t worry, you are definitely not alone. This blog is a full ‘survival guide’ for winter; everything that I have used myself and with clients to improve energy, keep mood elevated and get leaner (or bigger depending on your goals) over the winter months. We’ll start from the bottom.
How to get out of bed on winter mornings!
One of the things I struggled most when working as a primary school teacher in London was the ‘getting up when it’s dark’ and ‘going home when it’s dark’. My routine was largely the same, 6:10am the alarm would go off, I’d snooze twice and then get up for 6:20am, make my breakfast, put on music and head off to work at 6:45am and slowly walk to catch my 7am bus.
Sometimes the only thing that got me out of bed was knowing that I could sleep on my first bus for thirty minutes before switching to another route. Coming home was pretty much the same; the thoughts of a thirty-minute sleep from 5:30pm – 6pm would get me so excited.
It did beg the question, why was I so tired? In the summer, I would bike the 8 miles to and from school and get my gym session in on the way home; so why had a flip been switched now that it was winter?
I had significantly less energy; I didn’t feel like training (although, I did drag myself to the occasional weekday session) and would grow to detest my daily lunch of sweet potato, vegetables and chicken. These were all the things that I had loved during the summer.
Had I changed? Was it me? After spending 4 winters in London, this same thing happened time and time again; by my last winter, I knew it wasn’t just me.
“Ask better questions, get better answers” – Anthony Robbins
I asked myself the question, why did I have less energy in the winter? Firstly, I did what every 25 year old does when they hit their quarter life crisis, I put it down to age (which in my mid twenties was ridiculous on reflection) and secondly I put it down to having a ‘real job’ (which again didn’t explain it as I actually work longer hours now), so what was it?
From my own research and experience; it’s a combination of a few things- physical, mental and physiological. Over the next few days, ill talk more about how you can align your nutrition and supplementation to support energy levels in winter and how overlapping with the correct training regimen can actually give you more energy. However, there are two ‘quick fixes’ that you can literally apply today that will have you feeling happier nearly instantly.
Tip 1: Fix the lack of sunlight!
Quick Fix: Add Vitamin D:
As the days become shorter, your sleep and waking cycles become disrupted, leading to fatigue. Less sunlight means that your brain produces more of a hormone called melatonin, which makes you sleepy.
Because the release of this sleep hormone is linked to light and dark, when the sun sets earlier, your body also wants to go to bed earlier – hence you may feel sleepy in the early evening.
One of the biggest energy and feel good ‘hacks’ is adding Vitamin D to your supplement regimen. You normally get Vit D from the sunlight but obviously this is harder in the winter so supplementing is key. It has an array of secondary benefits (hormone balancing, immune system support) but its primary job is the positive effect it has on your mood at this time of the year.
How to do it: Add 1-3IU of vitamin D three times per day to support mood.
Tip 2: Ditch music or the radio for a couple of weeks
Quick fix: Add audiobooks to your morning commute.
Having grown up on a farm, I always enjoy the harvest metaphor for life. In winter, we rest and plan for the spring, in spring we work and grind, in summer we reap what we sowed in spring and in autumn, we begin to wind down for winter. Life is similar; we have cycles.
I can’t speak for anyone else but I find that my mind is at its most receptive for ideas at this time of year. It’s not clogged up with sporting seasons, events, parties and festivals; for the large part you actually have ‘thinking time’ to kill. This can be a good thing or a bad thing.
“The mind can make a heaven out of hell and hell out of heaven’ – John Milton
Would you have a cheeseburger after every workout?
With the lack of events, activities and engagements in general, your brain turns to ‘thinking time’ and similar to the post workout window where you physical body is like a sponge for nutrients, your brain is a sponge for information.
Would you have a cheeseburger after every workout? Probably not. Filling your mind with gossip and social thoughts (who slept with whom or ‘why did she say that about me?’) is the ‘mind equivalent’ of a cheeseburger post workout. Fill your mind with resourceful thoughts; remember thoughts influence actions, and the actions you take dictate the direction of your life.
Three ways to fill the space:
Now you can do one of three things:
- You can let your social thoughts consume this space (what did ‘so and so say’ at work or ‘who is breaking up or sleeping with whom’).
- You can let music fill this gap (keeping you pretty neutral).
- You can find an audiobook that supports the vision of the person you want to become.
Winter is perfect time to start fueling your mind with ideas that support your end vision (leaner body, better job, happier relationships). How do you this? If I was to really dig deep, there’s probably one habit that has changed my life like no other.
I was never much of a reader before 2013, my eyes would hurt if I stared at a book too long (or so I told myself anyways) but I made one simple switch that changed the entire direction of my life in the autumn/winter of 2013 – I stopped listening to music on commute to work and started listing to audiobooks.
“Turn you car into a library on wheels” – Brian Tracy
After 6 months of doing this (I had finished 4 business books and maybe 10 self development books), I left my teaching job and set up my business full time. The truth is ‘you become what you think about most of the time’ – I made one simple switch that has had a compound effect over time like no other.
I’m not saying that you will find the job of your dreams or get everything you want in life from this one change but I am saying, if you are listening to books (or podcasts) that support your end goal (body, job, relationships), that feeding your mind with that information will support you more than any Kanye West or Rihanna song.
Before I get the ‘I cant live without music’, I will hedge my point here and agree that music is incredible and is ‘food for the soul’ but music, like everything else is a tool. Use it like a tool (i.e. when you are training or need to change to a happier physical state at short notice) but remember ‘to the man with a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail’.
Use both music and audio books as tools. Both will help you feel better on the dark nights of winter by changing your physical or emotional state, the way you feel. One will help get you motivated on the spot or change your physical state in an instant but the other will plant the seeds of the person you want to become in the long term. Decide who you want to be, what you want to be and then consume as much information that supports that vision. What you think, you become.
How To Eat To Get Lean For Winter
To truth is, this is probably the hardest time to stay on track with your nutrition: you don’t have a holiday to look forward to (not in a bikini or swimming shorts anyways) and most of the events, festivals and weddings are over for the next couple of months so its easier to just have that chocolate bar or biscuits and sit down and watch your favorite TV shows or movies for the night. I know, I did this for years.
Every summer, I would eat my six meals per day (three mains meals and three snacks), go to the gym every day after work and never struggled to stay on track; there was always an event or a night out that I wanted to look and feel good for.
However every October/November, that attitude would shift. Suddenly my t-shirts switched to baggy hoodies and my V-necks were substituted for a big coats or jacket. As if over night, my diet just didn’t seem as important anymore, so inevitably I found myself becoming increasingly relaxed and more or less eating what I wanted. I had eaten clean all summer; surely I can have what I want now? If you have ever had this thought, consciously or even subconsciously, you are not alone.
To be completely honest, the real key is finding a nutritional plan that fits into your lifestyle with foods you enjoy and just becomes the way you eat and not a ‘diet you’re following’ – it took me years to figure this out and that way of thinking is deeply rooted in my online program because I wish I had learnt how to cut that learning curve years ago. If you are in a position where you don’t even have to think about your nutrition anymore; you follow the same strategy, foods, timings all year and have found what works for you, then read no more. However if you are looking for some of the tips that have massively supported me in getting leaner and having more energy over the winter months, then read on.
Go on a ‘gossip magazine diet’
This isn’t a point as such, but it does tie directly into my first tip so ill give it some context. This is mainly for any female readers, not to play the gender card but its normally my female clients that make these references so its purely my perspective on things.
If you pick up any gossip magazines or celebrity section of a newspaper over the next two months, you will see them glorifying that we should embrace the cold weather because we ‘burn more calories’ this time of year.
There is some truth to this, your metabolism will burn more calories in colder conditions as your body tries to maintain core temperature but its not an excuse to eat an extra 500-600kcals of cake (I saw this on the cover of a gossip magazine, I kid you not). Remember thoughts become things and if you are even putting those ideas into your sub conscience mind, you are setting yourself up for self sabotage before you have even begin, so Id advise going on ‘gossip magazine diet’ for 6 weeks and see how much better you look and feel.
Increase calories in colder weather
I would advise increasing calories slightly; the reality is, with the lack of Vitamin D and an over production of melatonin making us sleepy in the early evenings (discussed yesterday) , our mood is going to take a hit.
An increase in quality nutrient dense calories can do wonders for you mood, energy levels and actual physique. I would advise increasing fat slightly throughout the day to keep energy levels steady whilst keeping your carbohydrate meals for insulin sensitive times (morning and post workout). Of course this is dependent on the program you’re following, your metabolism, macro digestibility but it’s a decent starting point.
How to do this: Start adding a tablespoon of coconut oil to your coffee during the day and add flax seed oil to your morning porridge or smoothie. Do this on top of your normal eating strategy (bumping calories by about 300 kcals).
The fat that makes you lean!
Coconut oil is primarily MCT (which can actually help your body burn fat) whilst flaxseed oil is loaded with Omega 3 which can speed up fat loss if in the correct ratio to Omega 6. Even though you are increasing calories by 300 kcals; assuming you are following a good training program and the rest of your nutrition is on point, then this can help give you more energy and speed up fat loss during the winter months. Also, the increase in brain satiating from the fat can help tremendously with food cravings, especially those from ‘lack of energy, I need chocolate fast’ type cravings.
Soup it up!
This is also the perfect time of year to start making your own homemade soup. There are fewer foods more nutritionally dense than a quality soup loaded with fresh vegetables. The beauty of soup (similar to broth) is that as you’re drinking (or eating.. wait chicken or egg??) and consuming all of the vitamins and minerals that the are naturally occurring in those foods. Sometimes when we cook vegetables, we lose precious vitamins and minerals (boiling being the worst for losing nutrients) but blending for soup keeps all the nutrients in.
Personally, I make my home made soup using as much fresh vegetables as I can get my hands on, enough sweet potato to thicken it and then add cooked chicken to bump up the protein content. I also use a low sodium organic stock and then add black pepper and Himalayan pink salt as needed.
Top tip: Make enough at dinner so you can have the left over for lunch the following day to save you prepping two meals.
Train Fasted During The Winter And Save More Time!
For years I found my motivation dropping every October or November. To start with, the alarm would go off; I’d snooze it twice, embrace the warmth of my cosy bed sheets; thinking “please can work just tell me they’re closed today”. Begrudgingly, I would drag myself out of bed, put on clothes as fast as I could (that initial coldness that hits you on a winters morning can be soul destroying at times) but every morning I got up. Not exactly the best way to start your day.
My energy would pick back up during the day, normally teaching numerical strategies to thirty kids alongside two cups of coffee would do the trick. 3:30pm would arrive, the kids would go home; I’d finish up marking and head home for 5pm; all the while thinking that a good gym session will make me feel so much better. Alas, the allure of the couch, my favorite game show (I was addicted to The Chase at one stage) and a large dairy milk daim bar would be all too much for me.
This happened nearly every single day. After reading Charels’ Duigs, The Power of Habit and learning more about the ‘cue, trigger, reward’ system that creates new habits, I realised I had created a really bad habit.
“Fix the chains of habit when they are light before they are too heavy to be broken” – Charlie Munger.
Luckily I read this book at a time when the habit was just starting to take hold. It was having a real negative feedback loop in my life; I’d wake up tired, go to work tired, drink coffee for a pick up, come home tired, eat chocolate for a pick up, watch TV and then go to bed, only to do the same thing the next day. I knew something had to change so I started an experiment. I tried training every morning.
Initially it was the 8 mile cycle to work, but I later graduated to the gym (London winters can be unbearably cold at times). Teaching thought me that our will power is at its absolute highest first thing in the morning, we were always told to teach numeracy and literacy early in the day when the childrens’ brains were at their freshest and as adults, this doesn’t really change; we just use coffee and other stimulants to ‘hack’ the tiredness. To this day, I still always do my hardest tasks first thing in the morning.
Being completely honest, I started because I was beginning to get out of shape. I barely had energy to get out bed in the morning, how on earth would I pull myself to the gym? But a funny thing happened, as anyone who has followed a new training program can attest to, it actually increased my energy.
Now there’s a flip side to training in the AM and before people jump on the ‘you shouldn’t train fasted’ bandwagon, I am telling you right now, that this worked for me and if it fits into your lifestyle, schedule and makes you feel better for the entire day, then do it!
Is training fasted bad?
This is one of the most frequently asked questions on my snapchat (briank019) and the truth is, I have several people in my online program who do their entire program fasted in the morning. Is it optimal, well that depends; what’s the alternative? Not doing the workouts? – Then is perfectly optimal.
The key is to not train ‘truly fasted’. If you train (high intensity, resistance and weight training in particular) – you are going to be at risk as using your hard earned muscle as a fuel source, especially if you’re in a calorie deficit (even when fat or weight loss is your goal, you never want to ‘lose’ muscle as this keeps your metabolism elevated and actually helps burn body fat).
How to train fasted?
There are several decent strategies you can incorporate that don’t involve you getting up earlier to eat, then waiting for it to digest before training. However, there are two main systems that I use myself and with people in my online program.
Take MCT’s and BCAA’s when you wake up
Medium-chain fats (MCT’s) are digested easily and sent directly to your liver, where they have a thermogenic effect and the ability to positively alter your metabolism. This is one reason why many people claim that MCTs, including coconut oil, are burned by the body for energy, or “fuel,” instead of being stored as fat. Not only that, but they also support the release of ketones in the brain (so you will feel like you have had something sugary without any negative affect on blood sugar levels).
I advise taking 1 scoop of MCT oil (you can use coconut oil too) mixed with coffee or whey protein as soon as you get out of bed. Not only will it help you have more energy and think more clearly (meaning you can focus more on the workout), it can also help to reduce stored body fat as it raises metabolic function.
The next thing I would add is BCAA’s. If you mix 5-10g in your water as soon as you wake up, start sipping on it until you get to the gym and then continue to sip on it through your entire workout.
This will do one of two things primarily: 1) in a fasted state/calorie deficit, it can use the amino acids as an energy source, thus preserving muscle; and 2) If you have stored glycogen or are in a calorie surplus, it can support new muscle growth faster (leucine is the most anabolic of all the amino acids).
How much water you use is dependent on personal preference but for me 10g of BCAA’s with 1 liter of water has always worked great.
If you find you are really struggling to get the gym at the minute and that your energy is lower (make sure to check out the last two days on why you have less energy this time of year and how to improve it), try switching your gym sessions to the AM.
That way, when your work day is done, you can come home, chill out in front of the fire for night. It might even allow you to spend more time with your family, your partner or just to watch your favorite TV shows (I recommend The Chase 😉 ). At least you will be safe in the knowledge that your workout is done for the day.
I’ll post my fasted morning routine below in the hopes that it helps give you a lay out of how to incorporate it into your day.
Morning Gym routine:
6am: Alarm goes off (gym clothes beside the bed, meals for work prepped the night before)
6:10am: 1 tablespoon of MCT oil and coffee, start sipping on BCAA’s
6:30am: arrive at gym; keep sipping on BCAA’S through workout.
7:30am: finish workout, shower, post workout shake (100g oats and whey protein)
8am: arrive at work, have my first ‘real meal’ and ready to start the day.
Energy and Mood Boosting Winter Supplements:
The final jigsaw to having more energy, get leaner (or bigger depending on your goals) and feeling better in winter is choosing the correct supplements.
I’ve talked regularly in the past about all the best muscle building and fat loss supplements; and assuming you are already using things like branch chain amino acids and a good quality protein; there are a few other supplements that can help tremendously with energy levels and mood in the winter months.
Note: If you are still unsure of the muscle building and fat loss supplements to use, check out episode 7 of the Brian Keane Fitness Podcasts titled ‘Everything You Need To Know About Supplements’,
Don’t get sick!
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” – Paul Chek
One of the biggest tips I can share to keep energy levels and mood elevated over the winter months is to not get sick or at least give your self a fighting chance of not picking up every cold that comes into your home, office or work.
Even though energy levels are generally lower this time of year with the over production of melatonin (making you sleepy earlier) and increased calorie expenditure from colder weather, the real thing that can knock you for six is a suppressed immune system. Of course you can get all of these supplements from food but personally, I particularly like to hedge my bets with these supplements over the winter months.
Vitamin C could very well be one of the safest and most important vitamins you could take on a daily basis to strengthen your immune system. Vitamin C is the first thing I reach for when I feel the onset of a cold invading my body. If you are currently sick or fighting a cold, you can actually tolerate more than the dose below but as a prevention dosage, this tends to work really well for most.
How to take it: Add 1-2g of vitamin to three of your meals throughout the day.
Along with being incredible as a mood booster (especially this time of year with less sunlight), Vitamin D is also vital for immune health. From cold hands to alterations in insulin regulation to feeling fatigued, many of the Vitamin D deficiency symptoms can make you feel downright horrible at times. When you feel bad, training may be the last thing on your mind. Or, even if you make it to the gym, your workouts may suffer.
How to take it: 1-2IU with three of your meals throughout the day.
Note: If you find you regularly get sick this time of year or want to know the extra nutrition and training tips to avoid getting sick this winter, check out Episode 4 of Brian Keane Fitness Podcast ‘ What To Do If You Get Sick”.
A good green supplement can double up as a immune system supporter (as its loaded with vitamins and minerals) but can also tremendously improve energy levels throughout the day. Quite simply, a quality greens supplement can help minimize the negative effects of a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables: Notice, I didn’t say it could replace fruits and vegetables, only minimize the damage.
I can only speak from personal experience, but I tend to eat less salad and green vegetables in winter (with the exceptions of home made soups); so I always try to supplement what I’m missing to keep my energy levels consistently high.
I use the Body Ecology Vitality Greens but any high quality green drink will work amazingly well.
How to take it: Use full dose (normally two small scoops) twice per day in smoothies, soups or by itself in water.
The King of Mood Enhancers!
Keeping your immune system strong, training regularly and eating good quality, nutrient dense foods will all affect how well you feel but sometimes you just need something that gives your mood that extra jolt in the winter months. Step in 5-HTP.
I first discovered 5HTP when I found my mood dropping from excessive dieting during my competing days. It was the only supplement that made me feel ‘normal’ when my carbohydrates and calories were so low and it not only balanced my mood but also improved the quality of my sleep.
5-Hydroxy-l-tryptophan is an amino acid that converts in the brain into a chemical called serotonin (the happy hormone). Serotonin is an important brain chemical involved in mood, behavior, appetite, and sleep. A combination of low energy in conjunction with a stress-filled life (busy job, demanding family, excessive dieting etc.), can lead you to have lower levels of serotonin in the brain. This can cause people to become overweight, crave sugar and other carbohydrates, experience bouts of depression or just have that overwhelming feeling of being ‘low’.
By raising the levels of serotonin in the brain, these problems can be corrected nearly instantly (I noticed a difference after two or three days). I still use 5HTP to aid my sleep quality but it does have an incredible secondary benefit of keeping your mood elevated throughout the entire next day.
How to take it: full dosage thirty minutes before bed.
Everything mentioned above should support you massively over the winter months. The most important thing is. use all the tips that support you on a personal level; if you never get sick during the winter, you probably won’t need the immune boosting supplements but if you find it difficulty to get out of bed on cold mornings or that you cant get motivation for the gym, try the strategies above. As with everything in life, experiment and use whatever works for you.