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Is It Ever Too Cold to Exercise Outdoors?

With the Winter Olympics in full swing, you may be wondering how the heck these athletes train, let alone perform, in such cold conditions.

By
Brock Armstrong ,
February 20, 2018
Episode #377

 

image of people exercising in the cold of winter

It may surprise you that scientists have actually suggested that no temperature is too cold when it comes to exercising outdoors. It’s true. Almost everyone is safe to work out in cold weather. You should probably choose some heat generating high-intensity workouts instead of a more chill workout like yoga, but your body will do its darndest to maintain a core temp of 98.6 degrees no matter what you choose to do—as long as we follow a few necessary precautions.

In fact, according to Dr. Castellani, lead author of a 2012 paper on Health and performance challenges during sports training and competition in cold weather, it turns out that even though cold can be thought of as dangerous and uncomfortable, more people are injured exercising in the heat than exercising in the cold.

One of the great thing about our human meat sacks is that when we exercise, our bodies generate enough heat to make us feel much warmer than it really is

One of the great things about our human meat sacks is that when we exercise our bodies generate enough heat to make us feel much warmer than it really is outside. Research suggests no matter what the thermometer says, the body will work hard to maintain the healthy and happy temperature of 98.6˚F. That work backfires on us a little since it can lead to a higher level of perceived exertion, but we’ll get into that later.

What Happens When We Get Cold?

When your core (or your torso) is nice and warm, it allows blood to flow to the extremities. But when your core gets too cold, your body stops sending as much blood to the extremities and hoards it for your vital organs and brain. So, what is the best way to keep your hands and feet warm? Heat up your core through physical activity!

It’s not just the core heating up that keeps us safe either. The body has many mechanisms that protect us from the cold. Even that runny nose is helping to keep you safe. When you are cold, the inside of your nose moistens itself to help humidify the cold, dry air that you are inhaling. The runny nose part comes from the excess fluids that end up dripping out of your nostrils.

We’ve all probably heard a story of someone’s cousin’s friend who froze their lungs while exercising outside. Well, please don’t give any credence to that tale or worry about icy cold air hitting your lungs because it is basically impossible for cold air to damage your lungs. Kenneth W. Rundell, the director of respiratory research and the human physiology laboratory at Marywood University says that no matter how cold the air is, by the time it reaches your lungs, it is body temperature.

Interestingly, a thing called exercise-induced asthma is something that some people claim to get from working out in the cold, but that irritation of the respiratory tract is actually caused by dryness, not by the cold. The coincidental thing is that cold air also happens to be quite dry, so those same people would likely have the same problem while exercising in equally dry but hot weather.

Before I get into the Tips part of the Quick and Dirty topic, I want to emphasize that although cold weather exercise is safe for almost everyone, you may want to be careful if you have certain conditions. Conditions such as asthma, heart problems, or Raynaud's disease, may require a check-up with your doctor to review any special precautions due to your condition or your medications.

Dress Appropriately

The rule of thumb is to dress in layers.

The first layer should be a synthetic fabric that will wick moisture away from your skin.

  • Polyester - wicking (low water absorption)

  • Nylon - wicking (low water absorption)

The second layer should provide some insulation or Loft (which we will talk about later)

  • Fleece (non-lined or lined) - almost no water absorption, high Loft value

  • Pile - low water absorption, rain resistant, wind resistant

  • Wool - low water absorption, rain resistant

The third layer (usually a type of shell) should be windproof and waterproof.

  • Gore-tex - the industry standard for being both waterproof and breathable

  • Gore XCR - same a Gore-tex but lighter

  • eVent - similar to Gore-tex

  • SilNylon - a mix of silicon and nylon, wind and rain proof but with low breathability

  • DWR - durable water resistant coated fabrics, rainproof, usually windproof as well.

Pro tip: Avoid anything that is made of cotton. Cotton loses its warming power the instant that it gets sweaty or wet. I have actually had cotton shirts get sweaty and then freeze to my skin in the past. That patch of skin has never been the same since.

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