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April 2017
Fitness and sport
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Running is a sport that can be practised in all types of weather; you can run in the desert with very high temperatures or you can run amongst the glaciers in the North or South pole. This is one of the reasons that makes running a fascinating and attractive sport. Some suggestions about how to train and compete in cold weather will follow as well as some simple advice to abide by when the cold is really sharp, obtained from experiences conducted in extreme conditions, like the North Pole Marathon on the Svalbard islands. Let us start, however, with an analysis of how the body responds to the cold, leaving out, for the time being, the actual physical activity.

Physiological observations

The first phenomenon that occurs is, without a doubt, peripheral vasodilatation. The low, external temperatures mean less blood comes to the skin’s surface so more is kept deep inside the body. Circulating adrenal catecholamines are also produced and, consequently, there is an increase in metabolic activity of the skeletal muscles. We also shiver, which is caused by synchronised and involuntary muscle contractions, the aim of which is to increase body heat. Furthermore, in a cold environment we notice the phenomenon of ‘goose bumps’ on our skin which causes the hairs and skin to rise so as to limit the surface area from where heat is lost.
When running in cold conditions, and not just extreme ones, sometimes you feel like you lungs are freezing. The physiologists Fox, Bowers and Boss report on Moritz and Weiser’s studies which demonstrate how freezing of the lungs is actually impossible. Instead, the air is ‘conditioned’ during its journey towards the lungs in the upper airway tracts: cold air that enters the body through breathing is heated up until it is only 2-3% colder than the current body temperature. This warming up happens as early as when the air has been inhaled 9cm into the nasal cavity and the breath also takes on water vapour in the respiratory tract. When you expire, some of the humidity and heat of the breath is left in the mucus, which covers the respiratory tract. This is why, during training or long competitions in cold environments, we often suffer from throat irritations.

The experience

Before leaving for the Svalbard islands, we tried to prepare ourselves as best a possible for this problem [the extreme cold] which had been felt a bit by everyone in the preparation stages for the competition, and also because the local guide had told us to be aware of the problem. We agreed to run with a mask on that covered our mouth and which is usually used by skiers when facing strong winds. Once we had reached the destination and carried out the first training session though, we noticed that this piece of equipment was useless as it made it difficult to breathe in and out. We also agreed, as confirmed by the above mentioned studies, that the impact with the cold air is only a problem at the beginning as it becomes bearable after a few minutes. Therefore, we decided to leave the mask in the hotel and kept the neck of the track suit in front of our mouth for the first few minutes.
Another detail that is worth dwelling on is heat loss from your head. Frouse and Burton have showed that, when resting, 38% of the body’s heat can be lost from the head. Data from Nunneley is slightly different though, and he claims that 30% of the body’s heat is lost via the head when resting and 19% when doing physical activity. In practice, this means that the head, which represents 7% of the body’s surface area, should always be well covered. Another factor which runners have to deal with is running with strong winds: if the wind is blowing in your favour, it can be quite pleasant, however, if it is blowing against you and it is cold, running then becomes very tiring and frustrating. Tim Noakes has carried out some interesting studies regarding this and, as is reported in his book, he discusses how the speed of the wind affects the temperature of the air.

It is now time to address the actual activity and give you some advice so that you know how to train properly in cold conditions. Let us first consider how to better deal with the cold.
A small lay of fat under the skin allows you to deal with cold temperatures better. Runners, in general, are supposed to be as thin as possible, however, those who want to compete in a race on ice will also know that they need to carry some extra body weight but cannot be overweight: too much fat creates problems, in relation to the running technique, but a thin layer of fat under the skin protects the internal organs. Furthermore, according to scientists, women tolerate the cold as well as men do therefore, for women, the cold is no great problem.


With the passing of the years our tolerance to the cold reduces so keep this small detail in mind.

Physical activity

Costill, and other authors, claim that there are no studies that show that the body adapts to cold weather but ‘on site’ training contradicts these claims: those who are not used to carrying out physical activity, running in particular, do not tolerate the cold as well as those who are used to defying the low temperatures.
Following, are the details you should pay close attention to when running in the cold.


One of the greatest dangers when running in the cold is wearing clothes soaked in sweat.

The head should be covered with a woollen hat and it should be removed when it is no longer needed.
The ears should be covered with the above mentioned hat as well as ear muffs.
The torso must be covered with a thermal, long sleeved t-shirt and quite a heavy, long sleeved hoody or jumper that should also be thermal. If it is very cold and it is very windy, wear a jacket that is also long sleeved and thermal. If, during the race, the wind is less strong, take off the jacket and tie it around your waist.
The legs should be covered with thermal leggings.
The feet should be covered with a thick pair of socks. Long socks are better so they can cover the calf muscles too and, before putting the socks on, put cream on the feet to guarantee good circulation.
The hands should be covered with light gloves that can be taken off easily when you get too hot, as is often the case when running in the North or South pole.
Those who run fast will need to cover themselves slightly less, especially when running in races. For such races, a thermal t-shirt covered by a long sleeved, thermal t-shirt, a pair of shorts and socks that cover the calf muscles are more than sufficient. A vest on the outside of the t-shirts is the last piece of clothing to put on and it protects as well as making you look better. Those who will be running slower, even in races, will need to dress as indicated above (heavier clothing). Those who suffer from intestinal or digestive problems can wear trousers over the shorts and socks or, in extreme cases, a ‘Gibaud’ type belt.

The shoes

You can run on the snow quite well with normal running shoes that have very good grip. Trial shoes are a good choice.

The warm-up

Do not immediately start running in cold conditions; carry out a warm-up first in a warm (room temperature) environment. General mobilisation exercises, a bit of running on the spot and stretching are recommended before facing the cold weather. As soon as the run is finished, go straight back to a warm environment.

Various suggestions

People usually train in the evenings and then do not stretch before getting in the car to go home however, this causes them to get cold unnecessarily. Instead they should immediately go to a dry place, change clothes and then, after this, stretch their muscles.
It is not recommended that you carry out acceleration and deceleration training in the cold, thus Fartlek or interval training should be avoided because, when running either fast or slow, sweat can cling to the body creating ideal conditions for cold related illnesses to develop. It is therefore a better idea to put off this type of training until the weather is less harsh.
When the wind is very strong, it is better to keep the knees low when running so you do no waste precious energy.
If you are running in a group, alternate who runs ahead/ behind as they will take more/less wind respectively.
During the cold months, it is a good idea to chose the warmer hours of the day to carry out your training, for example during lunchtime. If the weather is really harsh, it is best not to go training; one or two days off does not make a huge difference to future performances.
If, however, you are preparing yourself to run in the North or South pole, or elsewhere at very low temperatures, it is best to run in the early hours of the morning and at dusk when the cold is more intense. Above all, do not forget to wear the correct clothing; dress as you would for the competition.
If you live in a very hot place and you intend on running the North pole marathon, it is a good idea to know in advance that you will suffer more than others in the first few days whilst your body tries to adjust itself to the cold.


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