Cold Weather and Athletic Performance

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July 27, 2020
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There are many external factors that affect an athlete’s performance ability, Weather is one of the many environmental factors that can have a significant impact on an individual’s ability to perform at their best.

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The feeling of being ‘cold’ is subjective to each individual, however these are the definitions; “cold” is refrigerator temperature (4˚C) and “very cold” is freezer temperature (-20˚C). Physical activity in colder weather can be safe, you just have to take a few more precautions.

Protecting yourself while exercising in the cold is important to ensure that optimal performance can be continued. Ensuring your limbs are covered in cold weather is essential – You may perceive that your arms and legs are not cold and uncomfortable, but they will be cold and that will affect the performance of your muscle and nerve chemistry irrespective of what your attitude to them is.

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How To Stay Warm

Layering clothing is the answer to staying warm! Each layer has a different function:

  • Thin base layer – wicks away sweat so you don’t get cold when the air hits the sweat when you stop exercising. You can wear only this under layer while exercising. Some may want this layer to be a compression garment or it can be Merino wool or synthetics. Avoid cotton materials as they hold onto moisture.
  • A windproof, light weight layer should come next (e.g. softshell or hard shell outer garments) ideally with some way of making it loose to lose heat when needed but then with the ability to batten down the hatches and retain heat if it gets cold and/or if you stop. A pocket is useful for gloves and a lightweight hat.
  • Further insulation is unnecessary during activity but can be provided most efficiently by a close-fitting fleece that can go between these two layers or carried in a backpack to prevent cooling when you stop.

Hydrate properly

  • This is often forgotten in cold weather, but hydrating is just as important in cold weather as it is in warmer weather.

Nutrition

  • For 60 minutes or more of exercise – ensure you have a small carbohydrate meal 2-3 hours in advance to ensure the slow release of sugars
  • Snack on carbohydrate rich foods throughout the event/day if you are exercising for a long period of time.
  • Even in cold weather, eating in cold weather ensures your body is able to regulate its temperature and function properly.

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When to Avoid Exercising In Cold Weather

Exercising in the cold puts the body under more physiological stress. Any exercises an individual has when exercising normally will be exaggerated when performed in colder weather.

Conditions that should be extremely careful when exercising in cold weather:

  • Heart Conditions – cold weather puts greater strain on the heart
  • Asthma – cold weather can trigger asthma attacks as cold air rapidly fills the lungs
  • Exercise Induced Bronchoconstriction (E.I.A or exercised induced asthma)
  • Raynaud’s disease – an illness that constricts blood flow to peripheral parts of the body and can lead to greater chance of hypothermia.

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The Negative Effects of Cold Weather on Performance

  • Greater stress on metabolism – as temperatures fall, blood pressure increases as blood retracts from the skins surface to heat the body’s core. This increase in blood pressure puts stress on the heart as it struggles to maintain a stable core temperature. Glucose stores are used as fuel to continue heating the body prior to muscular contractions (e.g. shivering)
  • Less efficient muscles – cold temperature slows chemical reactions – muscular contractions are a series of chemical reaction that produce movement. Arm and leg muscles are the most affected by the slowing of the muscular contraction as there is less blood flow to them.
  • Tight muscles – Warming up all muscles is especially important when in colder weather. Athletes must take precaution when warming up to ensure no muscle damage (strains or pulling) is done prior to the muscle fibres becoming mobile. Aerobic warm ups are efficient and safe to ‘wake up’ the necessary muscles, ligaments, and tendons.
  • Extra lactate Production – Muscles have a mixture of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres that are activated at different intensities of exercise. When muscles operate less efficiently in cold weather, all muscle fibres are activated to try and keep muscle contraction functioning. Fast twitch muscle fibres are not usually activated until higher intensities and cannot fire for as long due to the lactic acid they produce, when it is cold, the fast twitch fibres are activated and therefore the muscles produce large amounts of lactic acid. Lactic acid creates a greater metabolic load on the body, creating oxygen deficiency in the muscles, reducing the efficiency of the muscular contraction.
  • Slower reaction times – Impulses that control reaction time are a chain of chemical reactions, similar to muscle contractions, they slow when in cold weather.
  • Hydration – when an individual exercises in warm weather, they sweat, and it makes you feel thirsty. In colder weather, an individual is less likely to sweat a lot which doesn’t bring on the same thirst sensation. This can lead to dehydration as water loss through breathing is significantly increased due to warm air holding larger amounts of water vapour.  When you breathe in cold air, it has less moisture of its own on the way in, even if external conditions are quite damp. It’s nice and warm inside your body and so the air gets warmed up and topped up with moisture from your respiratory system.

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Health Benefits of Exercising In Cold Weather

  •  Fat Burning – Colder weather allows an individual to burn more calories while the body tries to stay warm.
  • Increased Focus – Cold weather increases the brains ability to focus due to the body’s ability to regulate heat better when there is less influence from external forces (hot weather).

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There is absolutely nothing wrong with exercising when the weather is colder, however, next time you are exercising in colder weather – ensure you take the proper precautions to ensure you stay safe and healthy.