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The weather factor has always been important in competitions: even with good preparation, things can go wrong when the conditions are unfavorable. The hardest competition is given in the heat, but running in the cold, especially in combination with rain or strong wind, can make its own adjustments.
Why is it hard to run in cold conditions
Performance deteriorates significantly in hot conditions and it is likely that performance will deteriorate if it is too cold. And at the expense of what exactly? Here’s what I did to find out as a result of research:
- The body relies more on carbohydrates than fats for energy.
- Lactate production is higher at a given intensity. This means you sink into oxygen debt faster to generate the energy you need to maintain your pace, as evidenced by athletes’ higher oxygen consumption during training in cold temperatures.
- Slow twitch muscles are less effective. This means that fast-twitch muscle fibers have to be recruited to maintain speed, which may explain the higher production of lactate.
- The drop in performance in the cold can be the result of a higher baseline metabolic rate, which is one of the mechanisms for maintaining core body temperature. It is assumed that metabolism “steals” part of the energy that could be used for sports performance.
- Higher risk of dehydration. Low temperatures increase urine output and reduce thirst, while fluid loss during breathing and sweating remains significant.
- Physiological changes become more dramatic as the core temperature drops. Endurance runners are particularly vulnerable to reduced performance in cold conditions due to their low body fat percentage. This means it is critical to keep your body warm while exercising in cold weather.
The optimum temperature for the competition is 11-13 degrees.
This figure can vary by a couple of degrees depending on the individual characteristics of the runner.
Here are some tips to help you get good results and enjoyment when competing in cold conditions.
Stay warm until you start
This is to avoid hypothermia before you start running. If it’s very cold, take some clothes with you that you don’t mind throwing away – they will keep you warm while waiting in the starting corridor. If rain is expected, bring along large plastic trash bags that can be worn like a disposable raincoat.
Warm up properly
If you start running abruptly without first warming up, there is a risk of sprains, cramps and unpleasant injuries. A thorough warm-up will help improve blood flow and prepare your muscles for the intense work ahead.
If you are running a short run, such as 5 or 10 km, go 20-30 minutes before the start for a 15-minute jog, adding 4-6 short accelerations.
Before the half marathon and marathon, a 10-minute jog warm-up 30 minutes before the start will help the muscles relax. For the first kilometers after the start, run more slowly, gradually increasing your pace to the target.
Dress in layers
Layering has always been a working idea in cold weather, as it is much easier to “calibrate” your outfit when you are wearing multiple thin layers versus one thick one. It’s great if the clothes can be transformed on the run – open the zipper, roll up the sleeves, etc.
The base layer should be tight to the body and wick away moisture, the top should be wind and waterproof. Make sure your socks are also made from moisture-wicking material to keep your feet from getting cold if they get wet. Choose tall models that cover the Achilles.
It is wise to pre-test anything you plan to wear to a competition to make sure the outfit is warm and comfortable enough.
A general rule of thumb applies to running in cold weather: dress as if outside are 10-15 degrees warmer than you really are. However, keep in mind that it will always be colder on a windy day.
Protect your limbs, face and head
When running in cold weather, you should keep your body free of open areas as this promotes rapid heat loss. To protect your head and hands, wear a hat and gloves, preferably made of synthetic, moisture-wicking material.
The wind enhances the effect of cold; in windy weather, you risk getting a mild form of frostbite. To prevent this from happening, use a buff or scarf to cover your neck and face. Don’t forget about lip balm and nourishing face cream.
If rain is added to the cold, there are several life hacks on how to relieve discomfort:
- Latex gloves will keep your hands dry as latex is waterproof. As soon as your hands get wet, your fingers may start to hurt. Wear latex gloves under your regular running gloves.
- Apply petroleum jelly to exposed skin. Vaseline is water resistant and will help keep you warm in windy conditions.
Don’t forget about hydration
In cold weather, it’s easy (and unsafe) to overlook your fluid needs. Don’t be fooled by dry air and cold weather – you will lose almost as much fluid as in warm weather. This means that you should stick to your usual drinking regimen, even if you don’t feel like drinking. Not being thirsty doesn’t mean you’re not dehydrated. Low temperatures reduce the feeling of thirst, so relying on sensations is not the most reliable scheme.
On cold days, gels can freeze too. Pack them close enough to your body so they stay warm so you don’t have to chew them on the run.
Listen to body cues
Low temperatures slow down blood flow, which can cause muscle discomfort and even cramps. You may feel stiff, especially at the start of a race, and if you try to increase your pace, you can injure your muscles. Adjust the pace to give your body extra time to warm up.
Beware of hypothermia and frostbite
Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops below 35 degrees. Symptoms may include confusion and uncontrollable shaking.
Frostbite occurs when blood circulation is restricted to the extremities – usually fingers, toes, ears, and nose. Symptoms may include a feeling of numbness, tingling, pain, whitening, or blue discoloration. While running, be alert and watch for the first signs of symptoms.
Get off at the start with the right mood
A lot really depends on your mood for the race. Take the challenge, smile and enjoy whatever the day has to offer, even if it’s frozen eyelashes or drenched gear.
As with any race, focus on what you can control, embrace the discomfort and do what you can best in the conditions. Be realistic with expectations – most athletes do not perform well in adverse weather conditions.
Warm up as soon as possible after the finish
After some time after the start, you will warm up and forget how cold it is outside. But immediately after stopping, remember that the weather conditions are far from pleasant. After crossing the finish line, try to warm up as quickly as possible.
If possible, use the isofolia (foil rescue blanket) provided to finishers at many major races – wrap it around you as you return to the car, storage room, or on the way to a heated room.
Immediately change into warm, dry clothes, do not forget about woolen socks and a hat – heat promotes good blood circulation, which means it will help the muscles recover faster, plus the risk of catching a cold is reduced.
Warm up with a hot drink and compliment yourself on a tough start, no matter the result.