Exercising in the cold weather is a fact of life for us living in Central New York. Cold weather can profoundly affect the physiological responses to exercise. In some cases, it can present a significant health risk.
Body Response to Cold
During exposure to a cold environment, the normal body temperature is maintained by increasing heat production and/or decreasing the rate of heat loss (heat conservation).
Heat production can be increased by voluntary exercise or by shivering, which is caused by involuntary muscle contractions. Heat conservation is accomplished behaviorally by adding clothing or physiologically by constricting the vessels that carry blood to the skin and to regions of the body such as ears, feet, and hands.
Body Response to Exercise in Cold
Effects of exercise performance in the cold depends on the severity of the cold and the type of exercise. With endurance sports, extreme cold reduces both the exercisers core temperature and the maximal aerobic power. Moderate cold exposure can produce a positive effect. This is when, as research has shown, many long-distance running and cycling records have been set.
Proper warm-up: Don't just take off running. Start slowly, ease into the exercise of choice. Optimal performance requires the elevation of the muscle temperature before exercising.
Appropriate clothing: When exercising in the cold, ensure adequate insulation while avoiding an accumulation of sweat in the garments. Multiple layers of clothing provide good insulation. However, the innermost layer should carry moisture away from the body surface. Polypropylene or cotton fishnet materials are recommended.
Gauge the wind: Wind can greatly increase heat loss from the body. While exercising, runners and such, should go out facing the wind and come in with the wind.
Prevent frostbite: Fingers, toes, ears, and facial tissues are susceptible to frostbite during cold exposure. Check these areas regularly.
Prevention of postexercise hypothermia: This can be prevented by adding clothing, drinking fluids, and moving to a warm environment soon after exercising.
Dennis M. Dewane, CFT