Warming up to Performing in the Cold

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Dr. Bolin
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Roanoke, Va 24018
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Delmas Bolin, MD, PhD, FACSM

Director, Performance Medicine of Southwestern Virginia
Head Team Physician, Radford University
Medical Director, Roanoke College Athletic Training Program
Associate Professor, Via College of Osteopathic Medicine

One of the issues that comes up every year about this time is from parents – “shouldn’t my child wear a coat when it’s cold?”  I see a lot of teens and young adults every morning at the bus stop wearing short sleeves or even shorts when it is cold outside.  When it comes to playing in the cold – what’s the best strategy?

When it comes to cold weather, grandma was probably right – being cold seems to be associated with catching cold.  After all, that is why it is called “a cold”.  But, it isn’t very practical to wear a coat while trying to play ball outside in the cold.  The problem is that coats – and long “underwear” are bulky and limit your ability to move, so you’d prefer not to have them on.  While it is noble to sacrifice your comfort for mobility, there are probably a few things to consider about keeping warm.

Warm muscles perform better.  Warmth, besides just being about temperature, is also about blood flow.  When you are cold, your body shifts your blood flow to you inner organs and your brain, shunting it away from your arm and leg muscles.   You will notice this when you are warm but you notice your hands are cold – blood is being moved away from exposed areas with high surface area such as fingers and toes into your core.   When your core temperature gets to low, you start to shiver – your body’s random firing of muscles to generate heat rather than motion.  You can probably guess; if your body is more concerned with using your muscles to generate heat, it won’t be as concerned with using them to perform coordinated movements.  Muscle control and coordination is what makes pitchers pitch well and batters react well; lose some of it and…you may just lose.

A second issue to consider is that muscle coordination is actually important in preventing injury.  The order in which your brain tells your muscles to move in split-second time is important for moving your body in the correct way.  ACL tears, rolled ankles, and other injuries can result from muscles that don’t quite work in the correct order.  Keeping the muscles warm not only keeps them performing well but may also help you avoid injury.

So how can you keep warm in the cold? The key is insulation. Your body generates heat and sweat when you exercise.  This is part of why we “warm up” and “get our blood moving”.  When you first get to practice, start out with multiple layers.  Sweats or fleece is a good outer layer for warm up.  There are now all manner of spandex type under layers from t-shirts to long sleeve mock turtlenecks and matching long pants.  The spandex is form fitting and moves well with you.  It can be expensive, but it usually will fit under practice clothes.  There are multiple thicknesses to layers that you can buy and use according to the conditions.  If you can’t find them at the sporting goods store or online, look in stores that stock hiking gear.  Keep your layers on during warm up, and as your temperature goes up, you can quickly get rid of layers as you need to.

Multiple layers are a good idea.  Keep the tightest, form-fitting layers that wick sweat close to the body and cover your uniform with layers that you can shed as you get “warm.” Batting and fielding gloves are good protection.  Those disposable glove warmers are good to keep around on cold days to warm your hands when you are in the dugout or standing around.  Pitchers should mimic the pros and put a coat on, especially on the pitching arm if not the whole body, to keep it warm between innings.

What about hats?  If it isn’t sunny and you don’t need a brimmed hat, consider wearing a toboggan or “stocking” type cap.  We lose incredible amounts of heat through our scalps, where there is a very high blood flow.  This is why you see professional athlete’s heads steaming sometimes when they are on the sidelines.  Caps can limit that heat loss.

Finally, don’t neglect hydration during the cold.  When you are cold, you don’t think about drinking as much as you do during the summer; but, you are still sweating.  Replace fluids, but be creative.  Cold beverages cool down your core.  Warm beverages warm you up.  You’ve probably never thought of drinking warm Gatorade®, but it is a strategy to keep some in a thermos bottle to drink on cold days.  Remember that by the time you know you are thirsty, your body is already about 2% dehydrated and your performance has already started to deteriorate.

Performing well in the cold is not difficult, but it will take a little discipline to think and plan ahead.  It is our job as parents to coach you about wearing your coats and hats.  As athletes who want to perform at high levels, however, it’s up to you to take the active role in finding out about what conditions you will be playing or practicing in, having the right gear (and having it clean and ready to use) and having the right fluids to help you play at your best.  It is, after all, your game.