Does exercising in the cold damage your body? In short, no, so keep on running
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — There’s no question that running or biking in the cold can feel harder. Muscles feel stiffer, and that initial burn of frosty air on the back of the throat never gets any less agonizing. But do these sensations mean we’re damaging our bodies? Turns out, the answer is no.
There is always a risk of hurting oneself while exercising, but the cold doesn’t add an additional risk.
David Grinnell, a physical therapist and clinical specialist in orthopedics at the UCHealth Sports Med Clinic, emphasized the importance of warming up, but that goes for every day of the year, not just cold days.
However, during colder months, any warmup should be done inside if possible.
“The biggest thing with the cold, when you’re going out for exercise … it’s important to warm up,” Grinnell said. “Don’t go so hard you break a sweat but just enough to bring your core temperature up a little bit in preparation for the exercise.”
Once in motion, it may seem like the cold air is ripping through your body and compromising the lungs, but that’s simply not the case. The human body, specifically the trachea, is designed to warm and humidify air so its at body temperature by the time the air reaches your lungs. The body does have to work harder to humidify dry air in the winter, though, which dehydrates the body more quickly than some people may expect.
Wearing a scarf or a buff helps trap heat and moisture and makes this humidifying process easier for the body.
When it comes to muscles or joints, the pressure is the same in 80-degree heat or 20-degree cold.
A widely held theory is that being outside in the cold can lead to having a cold. Grinnell wants to debunk that flim-flam. In fact, being outside in the cold can make the immune system stronger.
“Moderate aerobic activity helps protect you and reduce your chances of colds and flus during the season because it helps strengthen the immune system,” he said.
Additionally, the endorphins produced by exercise help combat seasonal affective disorder.
Dressing properly can improve any discomfort, and in turn, it can improve one’s mental state while exercising in the cold. Learning what to wear is a process. It may take time to nail down how many layers to wear when it’s 30, when it’s 15 and when it’s windy.
“People can, if they’re not used to running in the cold, they can perceive it to be harder when they initially start,” said Steamboat Springs High School cross country and track coach Lisa Renee Tumminello. “That learning process helps people enjoy cold weather running because it can be so invigorating.”
Layers are everything. Wool or moisture-wicking materials are the best, since any sweat left on the skin can freeze and make the day seem a lot colder than it is. A windbreaker or waterproof jacket that can cut through the wind is a huge benefit as well.
For runners or walkers, traction can make a massive difference. Running on a slippery surface can cause people to alter their stride, which can result in additional soreness due to the small change. Slipping and falling also can lead to injuries.
When it comes to exercise, mental attitude is everything. Even the most disciplined of athletes may find that self-motivation is a little harder to summon in the winter.
Tumminello said the trick is finding ways to hold yourself accountable, including going with a buddy or having a strict schedule.
“Whether you’re recreational or a high school athlete or an adult or an elite athlete, everybody goes through the same mental conversation, I think,” Tumminello said. “What I’ve watched so many professional and elite athletes do really well is have a schedule. There is a time, and I’m headed out the door.”
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