Let’s face it: when most of us see the temperature outside dropping below double digits, our first instinct is not to happily run outside.
I was no different. I was a sedentary child who discovered my sport — rowing — relatively late, but as soon as I discovered it, I wanted to row the Saint John River in New Brunswick in the spring, summer and in autumn. Winter was an obstacle.
I feel very differently about winter activities these days. In my journey from sedentary teenager to Olympic athlete, I’ve realized that having the right supports in place can make a big difference, not only in people’s attitudes towards physical activity and sport participation, but also in their ability to identify and overcome obstacles. .
I have encountered some of these obstacles myself, especially when it comes to outdoor activities in the cold.
To not prepare is to prepare to fail
As a researcher and physician, I know how essential physical activity is for our health. So it became my assignment at educate health care providersto help people be more activecreate access to activity and provide tools to remove barriers — not just in elite sport, but even getting active in the first place. While the message often gets through to patients when the outdoors beckons in warmer weather, one obstacle often remains: winter.
The pandemic has been limited in many ways, but throughout it one of the freedoms many people have has been to exercise outdoors. And that’s what did this to me: the need to go outside every day, to breathe air outside of the masks, to create space and to feel normal again.
Yet as I watch the 24th edition of the Olympic Winter Games, I am in awe of skiers and snowboarders performing aerial feats, skaters gliding effortlessly across the ice, hockey players focused on the puck, all dedicating their lives to be excellent…in the cold. How do they do this?
That’s a good question to start with because maybe we can glean some gems from top-level sport to make the fun of the cold a little easier to imagine in our own lives.
Olympic athletes know they have to be ready to perform at their best despite the cold. If they don’t prepare for the weather, it can affect their performance and even their health.
Freezing wind is a big concern for alpine skiers and board sports athletes, while Nordic skiers and biathletes push themselves for hours in the cold. Exposure to cold transfers valuable body heat to the environment and can lead to hypothermia and/or frostbite. What is the Olympic solution that all these athletes have in common? Limit exposure to limit risk. In other words, cover up!
Many people will have heard how athletes train in the heat to acclimatize to it. Canadian athletes bound for Tokyo did so in the lead up to the 2020 Olympics. But can you acclimate to the cold? Unfortunately the answer seems to be no, although living in a cold environment can help your metabolism adapt. But if you’re rested, fit and wearing windproof clothing, you’ve got a head start.
Know the weather conditions before you head out the door. At the Olympic Games, these are measured and recorded before and during outdoor events. Officials monitor the weather and cancel the event if it gets too cold.
No bad weather, just bad clothes
Current recommendations include avoiding competitions if the air temperature and wind speed (including the competitor’s speed) allowed for an effective wind chill temperature below -27 C. While most of us cannot easily measure wind speed, a useful point is, once again, keep your skin protected. Even without wind chill, an ambient air temperature of −15°C or lower increases the risk of frostbite on exposed skin.
Modify your plans and avoid competition or exercise when you are sick. Intense and prolonged breathing in the cold can irritate your airways. Olympic athletes can be at higher risk for asthma and respiratory diseases, which can occur in more than half of elite Nordic skiers. Viral respiratory infections and not taking enough time to recover between vigorous physical activities in the cold tend to make matters worse.
A balaclava, neck warmer or heat and moisture exchange mask are good options to help protect the airways. Also, be sure to take time to fully recover between outdoor sessions.
Steps to Embrace Winter Like an Olympian
Plan your equipment. First, go to bed! Add or remove layers as needed, or do like our Olympic Nordic skiers who change their base layer just before the competition. Experiment to find the system that works for you.
If you’re trying a new sport for the first time, rent equipment and ask for help choosing the right sizes. Use a helmet and/or appropriate safety gear for the sport.
If you’re walking or hiking, use anti-slip devices, such as traction cleats or rubber grips, on the soles of your boots. They have been proven to reduce the risk of falling, especially in the elderly. Consider using Nordic poles. Here is some tips to make the most of your walk.
Enjoy! Yes, serious athletes have fun too! As an Olympic athlete, I had the most fun when I felt most prepared, physically and mentally. Many people find it fun to try something new and challenge yourself, but it will be even more fun if you are well prepared.
If you are already active in the winter, can you remove obstacles for a friend or family member? The pandemic has widened the gap in access to physical activity for many members of our population. This is the perfect time to reach out.
With the right preparation and access to physical activity and sport, we can all benefit. Let your own Winter Games begin!