Six Exercises to Stay Strong this Winter
Norwegians have a saying that translates to “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothes.” Runners often embrace this maxim, believing if they bundle up, they can run outside all winter, no matter how cold it gets. Braving the elements can be a badge of honour, with many races celebrating the harshness of Canadian winters in their names. There are the Freeze Your Gizzard races in Montague, PE, the Frostbite River Run in Winnipeg, the Chilly Half Marathon and Frosty 5k in Burlington, Ont., and the Hypothermic Half Marathons in most provinces.
Winter running has its joys, among them empty trails framed by snow-covered trees, but there are risks to running in extreme cold, beyond frostbite and hypothermia.
University of Alberta physiologist Michael Kennedy has been researching cold-weather exercise and the effects on lung and respiratory function for years. He told me that anecdotally, he had observed many symptoms of respiratory distress among the competitive cross-country skiers with whom he worked. The skiers tended to have chronic coughs, chest tightness, wheezing and runny noses.
According to Kennedy, many winter athletes (and especially women, who have smaller lungs) develop exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (or eib). This means their airways get narrower and it becomes harder to breathe. Over time, their airways become chronically inf lamed and unusually sensitive to stimuli and, as a result, they narrow more often.
For a longitudinal study a few years ago, Kennedy researched how airway inf lammation changed for elite female cross-country skiers throughout their yearly training cycle. Not surprisingly, their airways were more inf lamed during the winter months, when they were spending a lot of time exercising in cold and dry conditions.
To zero-in on different temperatures, Kennedy spent months at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, where he ran an experiment in a climate-controlled chamber – picture a large walk-in freezer with a treadmill inside. He had 17 elite and recreational female athletes with mature lungs run for eight minutes at about race pace at temperatures of 0 C, -5 C, -10 C, -15 C and -20 C. Kennedy measured the athletes’ lung function before and after they exercised.
“At -15 C, a lmost a ll of t hem had sig nif ica nt ly reduced lung function,” Kennedy said. The distress was more severe for the participants who were elite cross-country skiers, or “high-ventilat ion at hletes.” Those were the athletes with more cumulative years of chronic cold exposure.
Rules used by Cross Country Canada, the national governing organization for cross-country skiing, state that competitions will be postponed or cancelled if the temperature is below -20 C. (For younger athletes, the threshold is five degrees warmer). Cycling Canada’s rules say cyclocross races may be cancelled if temperatures dip below -15 C.
Neither Athletics Canada nor iaaf have similar policies on cold temperatures, probably because most major running races don’t occur during the winter months.
None of the 14 race directors I contacted said cold temperatures have led them to cancel their races outright and several said their races went on despite cases of frostbite, icy roads, extreme wind chill and temperatures in the neighbourhood of -30 C. Some races have their own policies on what to do in extremely cold conditions – the Canadian Winter Revenge race in Edmonton, for example, allows runners to change their race distance and organizers stock aid stations with extra clothing for people who need it – but unlike skiing or cyclo-cross, there is no agreed-upon temperature threshold for cancelling a winter road race.
Without policies, runners are left to listen to their coaches and their own bodies when it comes to making decisions about exercising in extreme cold.
Kennedy has a few recommendations for competitive runners who train outside during the winter months. He suggests saving intense workouts for milder days (or the treadmill) and covering the mouth with a cold air mask or a piece of fabric.
“I always wear a Buff, even if it is 0 degrees,” he said. Madeleine Cummings is a journalist based in Edmonton. Her column appears regularly in Canadian Running.