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Running in winter. Whats cold got to do with it?

Reaction to Cold: How the runners body responds


Cold weather will have an impact on your body and your training no matter how well conditioned you are. There are five body changes at all year-round runners need to be aware of: 
  1. Vasoconstriction-constriction of the blood vessels. 
  2. Tachycardia-Increased heart rate
  3. Tachypnea-increased respiratory rate
  4. Brochospasm-constriction or spasming of the smaller airways
  5. Dehydration-loss of water.  

The major effects of cold are the root of all other cold related problems. Combat them and you'll enjoy your winter running with decreased risk of illness or injury. These five body changes are the building blocks of system failure caused by cold environmental conditions. They all stress the healthy body and a greater impact can be seen in runners who are not prepared for cold weather action.

Cold conditions do not have to be extreme to cause problems. Even mild decreases in temperature are enough to trigger those five major effects of cold on the body. Runners can have increased heat losses through radiation and conduction and those losses increase by 25 to 30 times when a body is in contact with a cold or wet surfaces such as wet cotton socks. 

Any condition or disease that involves vasoconstriction, respiratory or neurological impairment can put a runner at increased risk during exposure to cold. In general, increased cold exposure risk increases with:
  • Circulatory, vascular or neurological disease
  • Raynaud's Phenomenon
  • Alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, or energy drink use
  • Trauma or Hypoglycemia
  • Prior cold injury
Better health means better performance in cold environments. Exposure to cold decreases mental capacity with increased risk of injury, accidents and errors.

While often considered during the hot summer month, dehydration is a major threat during cold periods. Evaporation losses, sometimes referred to as insensible losses, increases with cold atmospheric conditions. Respiration moisture losses account results in large amount of fluid loss through evaporation. These respiratory/evaporation losses  increases dramatically in cold environments as the moisture in exhaled breath increases. Dehydration is more prevalent with excessive use of caffeine or alcohol. Prolonged exposure to cold and dehydration are important variables to evaluate as both increase risk for hypothermia.

Environmental exposure to cold is also linked to decreased mental capacity. Reduced mental endurance has been shown to increase the risk of errors and accidents. Runners should be taking this into account when training in cold environmental conditions for any period of time.

There is an increased risk of physical injury while operating in a cold environment as joints and muscles become stiff and strength decreases. These factors lead to sprains, trains and muscular micro-trauma as well as acute injury. These effects can be seen in the well-conditioned person just as easily as in those who are not in good physical condition. Risk of injury can come from external spouses, too. Make certain you can see and bee seen by others. There is no better friend on a winter run than a trusty headlamp and bright reflective vest!

Factors in remaining warm include maintaining good food/nutrition status, adequate fluid and hydration and maintaining reasonable physical fitness. Runners should be preparing their wardrobe with as much care as their body during cold weather. Layered clothing with moisture wicking ability is best. Dressing in layers allows the runner to shed clothing as body temperatures increase and put it back on when needed.

Don't neglect your head, hands, and feet. These body parts should be treated to the same level of moisture-wicking material the rest of the body enjoys. And don't forget the sun glasses. Sunglasses cut down on UV exposure, snow/sun glare and have the added benefit of keeping the wind out of your eyes. 

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