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Find out how cold weather affects exercise performance! Winter is approaching, but that doesn’t stop people from playing snow sports or exercising outdoors.  Despite our bodies’ need to maintain a certain core body temperature for thermal homeostasis, the cold weather itself is not a major barrier to people wanting to enjoy exercise outside. Although it’s generally safe to exercise in colder temperatures, it’s important to know how cold conditions affect your performance.

Exercise and sports performance depends on several factors such as the neuromuscular system, energy metabolism, the cardiovascular system, and psychological capabilities (i.e. motivation, pain tolerance, cognitive function, etc). The cold weather affects all of these factors and thereby influences what we can do. To what extent may also be different for every individual. Regardless, you may find that exercising in the winter may not feel the same as it would during the fall, spring, or summer.

How cold weather affects exercise.
How cold weather affects exercise.

Here are 5 ways how cold weather affects exercise:

1. Your muscles must work harder in the cold 

There is a correlation between muscle temperature and neuromuscular function. When muscles are exposed to cooler temperatures, the maximal contractile force of muscle decreases. In other words, your muscles must work harder to contract while nerve function also operates at a slower speed. Overall, this impacts certain muscle functions such as manual dexterity, grip strength, and reflexes. You may find it difficult to tie your shoelaces or zip up your jacket in the cold. However, you would have to be in extremely cold conditions to not have full use of your hands.

2. Your body consumes more oxygen

In terms of metabolism, acute cold stress has been shown to increase oxygen consumption in the body. VO2 max (AKA maximal oxygen consumption) is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during exercise. The cold weather causes us to use more oxygen to supply our muscles and organs for exercise. It’s also been shown that continuous exposure to the cold (about 40 deg F) results in greater metabolic heat production in response to acute cold stress at rest. What that means is over time, your body will be better at generating heat to allow you to keep warm at rest. This happens in exercise as well. Your body does a good job at maintaining VO2max (or max oxygen consumption) to keep you warm during your cold-weather exercise.

3. Your body fatigues faster

The combination of increased muscle work and oxygen consumption may result in faster muscle fatigue. You have to expend more energy in cold weather to keep yourself warm, which leaves you with less energy to work with during an exercise. In a multi-day cross-country ski race where conditions ranged from -18 to -4 deg F, only 6% of participants finished due to extreme discomfort and fatigue. The high energy cost of moving on high-friction snow (from the extremely cold conditions) caused the athletes to fatigue sooner.

4. How cold weather affects exercise for your heart and lungs 

Your heart functions to regulate body temperature by circulating blood and oxygen around your body. In cases of hypothermia (core body temperatures dropping below 95 deg F), this can lead to irregularities in the heartbeat. In cold climate athletes, it was found that the underlying common respiratory health risk factor is breathing in large volumes of cold dry air, which ultimately dehydrates the lining of your lungs. This can result in coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and excessive mucus production.

5. Your cognitive focus gets tested

There are studies that show how cold weather affect exercise. Acute cold exposure may impair attention, speed of processing, memory, and executive function. However, acclimating to the cold over time can sometimes benefit cognitive focus, which is advantageous in sport environments. Those living and training in cold climates have an advantage compared to warm climate athletes competing in cold environments.

How weather affects exercise and what should you do:

Staying active is important and you should continue to move during the cold seasons. If you plan to get plenty of exercise in the cold, here are helpful tips to prevent unnecessary injuries.

  1. Wear proper clothing: Covering your cheeks, forehead, nose, neck, and hands can improve comfort levels in windy and cold conditions. Layering up is good to maintain core body temperature for a longer duration. Some athletes may wear fewer layers to help reduce sweating, which typically cools the body down when we get too hot. If you do this, make sure the material is “breathable” and wicks away moisture easier.
  2. Adequately warm up and cool down: Warm up or cool down for at least 10 minutes to help loosen tight muscles and prevent soreness from being in the cold.
  3. Fuel up before and after: Make sure you replenish your fuel throughout the day to ensure you have enough energy to make it through a workout, especially before and after a workout.
  4. Lots of hydration: Remember, cold dry air dehydrates you, so put extra emphasis on replenishing your fluids.
  5. Listen to your body: Stay inside if you feel like your body isn’t up for extreme conditions.

Now, you know how cold weather affects exercise!

Written by Kimberly Le, PT, DPT

References:

  1. 1. Gatterer H, Dünnwald T, Turner R, et al. Practicing Sport in Cold Environments:Practical Recommendations to Improve Sport Performance and Reduce Negative Health Outcomes. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(18):9700. Published 2021 Sep 15. doi:10.3390/ijerph18189700
  2. 2. Falla M, Micarelli A, Hüfner K, Strapazzon G. The Effect of Cold Exposure on Cognitive Performance in Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(18):9725. Published 2021 Sep 15. doi:10.3390/ijerph18189725

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