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How to optimise athletic performance in extreme weather conditions

Have you ever hit the beach for a workout or jog during your summer holiday and thought “this feels a lot harder than usual”? Maybe you blamed it on all the delicious food you’d been indulging in? Well, what if I told you that changes in temperature can impact your performance almost as much, if not more, as the food choices you make? Extreme heat can decrease power output by an average of 6.5% as well significantly increase blood lactate levels1. But hey, extreme cold can mess with your performance too2. Let’s dive in.


 

Scientists covering Boston Marathons from 1972 to 2018, with over 400,000 runners in the mix, reached the conclusion that the sweet spot for peak sport performance lies between a chilly 7ºC and 15ºC3. Why? Well, it turns out excessive internal body temperature is one of the greatest factors in putting a damper on athletic performance4. To keep things in check, the body tries to thermoregulate by dissipating heat – which it often does by sending blood to the peripheral vascular system (to avoid overheating the centre).

However, the body can only do that when skin temperature is higher than the internal temperature. When the opposite happens, the body relies on less efficient cooling methods like sweating or heavy breathing5. Essentially, the idea is that training in colder temperatures creates a better temperature gradient for such strategies to take place and therefore gets you performing at your best6.  

 

But training while worrying about frostbite isn’t the solution either. Exercising in extreme cold conditions can bring on some annoying issues like stiff joints, less flexible muscle tendons, and a reduction in the ability of muscle fibres to contract efficiently. That means performance may take a hit, and the chance for injury

increases7. Plus, brain-muscle signalling may slow down a bit, which could affect reaction time or general performance. Unless, of course, you’re on CONKA (if you somehow still haven't tried, do it). And remember the term “vasoconstriction” from physiology class? When it’s cold out, blood vessels near the body’s surface narrow to redirect blood to the body’s core. Problem is, that reduces oxygen levels and may increase blood pressure7. So, while training in the cold has its perks, it’s not without its downsides.

 

But if we can’t control the weather, how can we alleviate these issues when training in extreme weather? Well… you’ve probably noticed that when building up to the start of the World Cup, Olympics or any other competition, teams start making their way to countries with more extreme weather conditions like the ones they will be competing in. That is because heat acclimatisation can take up to 7–14 days8 and a little longer for cold9. But until acclimatisation occurs, there a few other things we can do.


To boost performance in the heat:

1.     Reduce body temperature before and during the activity.

Studies have revealed a variety of cooling techniques that can improve performance by roughly 6% when done before the activity, and about 10% when completed during the workout10.

These techniques include drinking cold water or ice, cold water immersion, cooling vests, ice packs and mixed methods – where cold water immersion and mixed methods were found to be the most effective before the workout10, 11 and ice vests during10.



2.     Adjust warm-ups to avoid excess core temperature.

Remember our earlier chat about excessive internal body temperature putting a damper on performance? Well, to sidestep that, tweak your warm-up routine so that anything that hikes up your body temp comes first, to give your body time to cool back down before exercise. Check out the adaptation proposed by Racinais and colleagues (2017) which considers environmental temperature for optimal performance12.

 

To boost performance in the cold:

1.     Increase warm-up time.

Sports medicine specialist Dr. Timothy Miller suggests warming up at least an hour before the start of competition – giving the body enough time to properly warm up its muscle fibres and tendons13.

2.     Start by running into the wind.

This is believed to conserve energy and maintain body heat for longer13. By tackling the wind head-on first, you get the toughest part out of the way before fatigue sets in.

3.     Keep all your body parts covered.

This is to avoid heat escapes. But don't go overboard with the layers – you want to stay warm without getting too sweaty. Pretty straight forward, huh?

 

And most importantly, no matter the weather, drink and fuel up. Hydration equals power, especially when paired with CONKA. Now take this knowledge and go be your best athletic self. Until the next one!


 

Leticia Hosang, BSc


Leticia is a sports science, sports psychology and neuroscience researcher, previously working with Brunel London University and exploring the effects of exercise on brain activity.


 

References:

  1. Tatterson, A. J., Hahn, A. G., Martini, D. T., & Febbraio, M. A. (2000). Effects of heat stress on physiological responses and exercise performance in elite cyclists. Journal of science and medicine in sport3(2), 186-193. https://research.monash.edu/en/publications/effects-of-heat-stress-on-physiological-responses-and-exercise-pe

  2. Nimmo, M. (2004). Exercise in the cold. Journal of sports sciences22(10), 898-916. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15768724/

  3. Knechtle, B., Di Gangi, S., Rüst, C. A., Villiger, E., Rosemann, T., & Nikolaidis, P. T. (2019). The role of weather conditions on running performance in the Boston Marathon from 1972 to 2018. PloS one14(3), e0212797. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30849085/

  4. Tan, P. M. S., & Lee, J. K. W. (2015). The role of fluid temperature and form on endurance performance in the heat. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports25, 39-51. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25943655/

  5. Tsuji, B., Hayashi, K., Kondo, N., & Nishiyasu, T. (2016). Characteristics of hyperthermia-induced hyperventilation in humans. Temperature3(1), 146-160. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4879782/

  6. Molkov, Y. I., & Zaretsky, D. V. (2016). Why is it easier to run in the cold?. Temperature3(4), 509-511. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5198806/

  7. Powers, S. K., Howley, E. T., & Quindry, J. (2007). Exercise physiology: Theory and application to fitness and performance (p. 640). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. 

  8. Bongers CC, Thijssen DH, Veltmeijer MT, Hopman MT, Eijsvogels TM. Precooling and percooling (cooling during exercise) both improve performance in the heat: a meta-analytical review. Br J Sports Med. 2015 Mar;49(6):377-84.

  9. Wegmann, M., Faude, O., Poppendieck, W., Hecksteden, A., Fröhlich, M., & Meyer, T. (2012). Pre-cooling and sports performance. Sports medicine, 42(7), 545-564.

  10. Racinais, S., Cocking, S., & Périard, J. D. (2017). Sports and environmental temperature: from warming-up to heating-up. Temperature4(3), 227-257. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28944269/

  11. Wexner Medical Center, 2017. Run into the wind and other cold-weather workout tips. Retrived from https://wexnermedical.osu.edu/blog/expert-tips-for-cold-weather-workout

 

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