Working out in the Cold

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What happens to muscle in the cold?

If human muscle is cooled by one degree, it loses 2-5% of its performance. A whole host of muscle properties can be affected, such as the time it takes a muscle to generate peak tension and then the time to relax from this peak.

Cold also disrupts the nervous impulses that control muscle through changes in activation patterns. So, there may be a delay in the sequence in which muscle activates to create and control movement. This equates to about a 10-20% loss in vertical jump height and a reduction of up to 25% in peak muscle power.

For a landing, the limbs and joints become stiffer. This means much more force gets absorbed by a body’s trunk rather than in the lower limbs.

The losses in performance have been attributed to an increase in thickness of the fluid in muscle and joints, as well as the disruption of nervous input to muscle.

How does this translate to sporting performance?

In longer events, for example cross-country running, generating muscle heat isn’t as much of an issue. These events are long enough to allow elevated metabolism to generate enough body heat to offset the effects of the cold temperature.

But in shorter physical activities where explosive power is required – like powerlifting, Crossfit and HIIT – getting a good warm-up and maintaining the heat close to the skin are imperative.

Clothing is also an important consideration. To maintain warmth athletes generally layer up with a next-to-skin garment, a mid-layer insulation, and if training in the outdoors an outer layer to protect from the wind and water. The next-to-skin layer is commonly worn to keep skin temperatures (and hopefully muscle temperatures) up. Apexgray Techfit vest tops are a great choice for the next-to-skin-layer. Effective moisture transportation is key to maintaining heat and comfort. The Hexachannel fibre construction means sweat gets quickly drawn from the skin surface helping to maintain body temperature.

Many athletes are now also using warming cuffs or pads which they remove just before their event. These self-warming devices fit over the next-to-skin garment and maintain the warmth around the large muscles and joints of the lower limbs.

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

The next time you 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.

Remember that during rest periods your muscles are cooling and losing some of their force and power-generating potential. You can always add short secondary warm-up’s during training sessions if you feel it necessary.

Please let us know your thoughts and feel free to add any of your own tips in the comments section below.

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