After the unusual number, length, and low temperatures of last winter’s cold snaps, Austin’s athletes might want to take note and make strides to stay warm this winter. Local weather may not bring ice and snow very often, but it always includes chilly (and sometimes rainy) wind, which offers its own challenge. Winter conditions may affect athletes physically and mentally. They may suffer mildly or greatly. To assert some degree of control when the cold weather comes, athletes can thoroughly prepare for it; winter woes need not be debilitating, and are nothing the determined (and prepared) athlete can’t handle.
Although many people love winter and have no problems being out in the cold weather, others don’t fare as well. Taller people tend to feel the cold more than shorter people since a larger surface area means more heat loss. Those with more body fat may feel less cold, especially if that body fat is located as subcutaneous layers.
Winter is when death rates peak, and blood pressure increases are common. A 2010 press release from the Harvard Medical School noted that the 70 percent increase in the nationwide death rate can be traced back to heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular causes. The release also noted that, once the air becomes dry and chilly, flu viruses spread more readily.
In general, winter causes more difficulty for the body than temperate weather and all but the most extreme heat conditions. Ranging from life-threatening to annoying, the following issues can trouble even the most determined of winter athletes.
Hypothermia, though not a disease, can occur quickly and may cause severe problems. Winter athletes should be especially on alert for lack of coordination, mental confusion, slowed reactions, shivering, and sleepiness—especially if their body temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Heart failure is the root cause of most hypothermic deaths. Snow and ice seldom occur in Austin, but getting stuck in wet and windy conditions can also cause hypothermia in the unprepared. Children and the elderly can experience hypothermia without realizing it.
Athletes being treated for cardiovascular disease already know not to overexert themselves suddenly—especially in cold weather—so as to avoid risking a heart attack. According to the American Heart Association, “Cold temperatures, high winds, snow, and rain can steal body heat. Wind is especially dangerous, because it removes the layer of heated air” that surrounds and protects the body. At 30 degrees Fahrenheit in a 30-mile wind, the cooling effect is equal to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. When dampened by snow, rain, or perspiration, the body loses heat faster than it would at the same temperature when dry. Taking a long warm-up and exercising caution can help those with cardiovascular disease or heart problems get through the winter.
Not only is winter the hardest season on the heart, it’s also the season when blood pressure is highest. Those with a reading over 140/90 mmHg have high blood pressure, and those with a reading over 120/80 mmHg are borderline or pre-hypertensive. Researchers using mice showed that at 41 degrees Fahrenheit, animals with no bedding to nest in could show as much as a 50 percent spike in blood pressure. Since there are few symptoms associated with high blood pressure, hypertensive and pre-hypertensive athletes need to become proactive in caring for themselves in cold weather and in seeking advice from their health-care provider.
Extremes of both heat and cold can induce asthma attacks, according to Austin asthma patient and Ironman triathlete Kim Gutierrez: “Sometimes, I just can’t catch my breath.” Cold air can cause spasms in the airways, which make it hard to breathe. Coughing, wheezing, and the inability to take in enough air are common symptoms that athletes with asthma experience. There are two main cold weather challenges facing those with asthma: spending much of the time indoors where triggers such as animal dander and household dust worsen the condition and exercising outdoors, where suddenly inhaling cold air can cause spasms. Doing a slow warm-up and keeping a scarf around the mouth can assist in warming the muscles and opening the blood vessels of the circulation system.
Athletes with arthritis, especially rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, have long known that their symptoms often seem worse in cold weather. They may experience particular difficulties in loosening up their joints and getting going in the morning. One of the reasons is that tissues surrounding the joints act as tiny balloons that expand when pressure is low—as it frequently is during winter. This slight expansion puts pressure on the joints, which can cause pain. Taking care to warm up slowly and using approved pain products can assist the arthritis-ridden athlete when exercising during the winter months.
Cold weather can cause pain in metal fillings (dental amalgam) and partial dentures that attach with prongs to sensitive areas of natural teeth. Ironman triathlete, Austinite, and dental hygenist Kim Hanford explained that the best way to prevent fillings from becoming cold enough to cause pain is to keep the mouth closed and breathe through the nose while exercising outdoors in cold weather. Hanford also noted that it’s “dry cold [that] can hurt your teeth” and recommended that athletes who need to breathe through the mouth can sip water to keep the area well hydrated.
Many athletes feel pain, tingling, and numbness in their fingers when outdoors in cold weather for a long time. But if these sensations happen from brief exposure to even the slightest cold—especially if the fingers change colors from white to blue, and then to red—the condition might be more severe. Raynaud's disease is a rare condition; cold weather can cause spasms in the blood vessels that weave intricately through the fingers, toes, ears, and tip of the nose. These spasms limit blood circulation to the affected areas and, in serious cases, an artery can be totally blocked, resulting in sores or tissue death.
Athletes who experience itchy, red, or flaky skin in cold weather can often solve the problem with consistent use of moisturizers. That is, unless an allergy-like reaction arises, a condition called cold urticaria. When urticaria patients’ skin comes in contact with the cold, it suffers redness, itching, swelling, and hives, and plunging into cold water can result in a whole-body reaction—fainting, shock, and even death. The best way to diagnose the allergy is to place an ice cube on exposed skin for several minutes. According to the Mayo Clinic, in cases of cold urticaria, a raised, red bump (hive) will form after the ice cube is removed. Parents might want to test their children for the condition, as most cases develop in childhood or young adulthood.
People without cold urticaria may also feel they are allergic to winter, and they may be right. Achy joints, bad headaches, sneezing, and other allergy-like symptoms can be brought on in cold weather not by such typical allergens as pollen but by sudden changes in temperature and humidity. This non-allergic rhinitis is best treated with spraying a saline solution in the nose (nasal irrigation), shrinking swollen passages with a nasal steroid, or taking decongestants.
Sunlight and skin—the two are a power couple when it comes to making vitamin D. To make up for winter’s deficiency in both, try incorporating foods such as fish, fish liver oils, egg yolks, beef liver, and fortified dairy and grain products. Taking a daily vitamin D pill can often prevent this deficiency. Athletes following a strict vegan, gluten-free diet and those with darker skin should be especially careful to consume enough vitamin D. Those with poor kidney function, a BMI over 30, or a digestive tract that can’t absorb vitamin D (Crohn’s disease) should consult a medical professional. Fatigue and mild depression are common symptoms and signs of a vitamin D deficiency.
Some athletes love winter and can’t wait to head for the ski slopes and other cold weather activities. Others may find themselves facing mental or emotional issues, such as loss of motivation or seasonal affective disorder (SAD). These issues can feel as serious as physical problems and can cause as much trouble.
Although it’s important to take rest days, recovery weeks, or off seasons in certain sports, it’s also important to avoid a sedentary lifestyle and remain engaged in some kind of active recovery or cross training. But when a rest day stretches to three or six, a recovery week spills over to two or four, or the off season seems to have no end, the wise athlete will address these symptoms of motivational decline, as long as an injury isn’t causing the inactivity. Athletes don’t have to be Yogi Berra to realize that “90 percent of the game is half mental.”
It’s always best for athletes to find their own way out of the muck of motivational loss, no matter what time of year. Some use inspirational music, books, and movies. Some promise themselves rewards. Some shop for new gear. Some use mantras, visualization, or pep talks.
SAD is a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year. Symptoms usually start in the fall and continue into winter, although a spring-onset version occurs in some people. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms include “depression, hopelessness, anxiety, loss of energy, heavy feeling in the arms or legs, social withdrawal, oversleeping, loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, appetite changes, a craving for carbohydrates, weight gain, and difficulty concentrating.” Treatment for SAD includes natural-light therapy, psychotherapy, and anti-depressant medications.