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Explainer: How Winter Olympic athletes cope with the cold

The Winter Olympics represent the pinnacle of four years of intensive training and competition for the world’s best winter sports athletes. These athletes will have spent thousands of hours planning, training and finetuning their performances in preparation for their time on the Olympic stage. 

The one thing they cannot control is the cold weather.

Many might have questions about how elite athletes can perform to their best in such cold conditions. So, what’s happening to the body in the cold. What stresses does it experience? And what about injury?

What the cold does to our bodies

Researchers are divided about whether exercise in the cold has a positive or negative impact on sporting performance.

Exposure to the cold causes an initial reduction in skin temperature followed by a drop in core body temperature. In order to defend against a damaging decline in body temperature and the onset of hypothermia, the body reduces blood flow to the skin and generates its own heat through shivering. Redistribution of blood flow is one of the primary defence mechanisms in the face of cold exposure. However, in the extremities, this mechanism causes a loss of dexterity in the fingers and toes. This has a detrimental effects in sports such as biathlon, where fine finger movement and control is vital during the shooting parts of the competition.

If exposure to the cold continues, a further drop in body temperature can occur which lowers muscle temperature. Muscles need to be warm in order to produce powerful contractions so this can have a negative impact on power events, such as in the bobsleigh and skeleton, where generating optimal muscle power is vital in powering the sled or skeleton down the start ramp. Increasing muscle temperature, through the use of a warm-up, is vital for improving muscle function, especially as for every 1°C increase in muscle temperature, there is a 2% increase in the power a muscle can produce.

Beating the cold

Unlike frequent exposure to the heat, adaptation to the cold is an incredibly slow process. There are three main steps to this process. 

If you repeatedly expose yourself to a stimulus, such as the cold, your body does get used to it. The more used you get to the cold, the less your body reacts to it, so you may shiver less or have less of a change in blood flow. If you repeatedly took a cold bath or shower day on consecutive days, you would gradually get used to the cold temperatures. This process appears to involve a reduction in the shock response generated by the nervous system on exposure to the cold.

After prolonged exposure to the cold lasting many days or weeks, a person’s resting metabolic rate gradually increases as a result of the body generating more heat as a byproduct of converting food to energy.

Habituation to the cold can also increase the insulation of the body core and result in improved retention of body heat, as less blood flows to the skin and so less heat is lost to the surrounding environment. Another effect of longer-term adaptation is an increase in body fat, which helps to preserve body temperature. However, this response is often very slow, occurring over many generations of living in a cold environment.

Some of these responses to the cold will be unlikely to occur in the short term. But, following years of training in the cold mountains, athletes are likely to have experienced cold adaptation which will help boost their performance.

The role of technology

Clothes, particularly those enhanced by technology, can help athletes to maintain the optimal body temperature required to achieve peak performance. Research has found that increasing clothing insulation via electrical heating pads within a garment during a warm-up and immediately after a sprint has positive benefits on performance. 

Modern winter sport clothing relies on layering to maintain warmth. EPA/Filip Singer

But what if you don’t have the luxury of being an elite athlete?

The next time you hit the snow or exercise in the cold and don’t have the benefit of self-warming garments, take the time to warm up – thoroughly. This increases your metabolism and, in turn, warms the body from within. 

Next, try to maintain the muscle temperature by wearing an insulated, next-to-skin garment that holds some of the heat generated. 

And if you’re on a chairlift preparing to ski, remember that your muscles are cooling and losing some of their force and power-generating potential. Do a short secondary warm-up at the top of the run, or start up slow and build into the run.

While watching the Beijing Olympics on your couch, spare a thought for the changes in the body caused by the environment these athletes compete in. It fundamentally changes the body parts they rely on to carve, flip, twist, turn, slide, grab and generally shred up the Games’ white canvas.

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