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Has anyone Warned you off Running when its Below Freezing?


It’s that time of year where the mercury starts to drop below zero, and it has got me wondering whether or not it’s safe to get those early morning k’s in while Jack Frost is lurking outside waiting to assault you with his frigid ice daggers.

To be fully honest, the safety of running in freezing temperatures hadn’t really crossed my mind until a work colleague made a comment after one of my early morning runs. Up until this point I had always relied on another pearl of wisdom I had been told somewhere that ‘There is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing’. This tough-guy mantra sounded like an impressive line to regurgitate when someone went on about shitty weather, and so I did. I also made sure to wear appropriate clothing such as gloves, buff, tights, sometimes a beanie, and simply had to put up with the jeers from some of my running buddies that gloves are for pussies.

Yea, pussies with lovely toasty warm fingers!

The comment that got me thinking was ’You know you can get frozen lungs running in such cold weather aye?’

At the time I did think to myself that he was the pussy and cold weather might be bad for his delicate lungs, and that this know-it-all quip was really just another way for him to assert his superior wisdom. But the next time I went out on one of these ‘cold weather’ runs I couldn’t help but think about this throw-away comment. Of course I was fine, and in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t even really that cold, but I did some digging anyway;


Frozen Lungs?

I have always struggled to understand how Fahrenheit works so don’t really give it much thought, but apparently there is a point where both Fahrenheit and Celcius are the same. That is a bone chilling -40!

Word on the internet, is that it actually gets this cold where people live and run, and one article I stumbled upon made mention of marathons ran at both the North and South Poles at -50, and, no, no frozen lungs. Also, stories of climbing Mt Everest speak of the burn (similar to having boiling coffee poured down your throat) that one experiences at 26000 feet. It’s hard to talk apparently, but we can confirm that the lungs have not frozen (at least not while people are still alive).

I did find a couple of articles which identify a pesky cough which can affect  anyone, anywhere, given the right conditions, but particularly athletes who operate in the cold or at high altitudes. It is brought on as a result of dry, and/or cold air. This dry/cold air and heavy breathing causes spasm of the muscles surrounding the airway, and an increased production of mucous about the lining of the lungs. Its not thought to be a dangerous but does make for a naggy cough which will clear up not long after  you’ve removed yourself from the contributing conditions.

I feel that my morning jaunt at 200m above sea level in -6C should be fairly safe, but doctors, athletes, and adventurers who have experienced severely cold conditions do sometimes suggest wearing a buff or something over your mouth to work as a buffer between your air pipes and the cold air. This buffer can also help to protect your nose from the more sinister problem waiting for you in the cold, dark, winter air. The potential for frost nip, and if you’re really lucky, full-on frost bite.


Frost Nip & Frost Bite

Frost nip is the beginnings of frost bite, and usually occurs about the extremities (fingers, toes, nose, ears etc). Frost nip and bite starts when the body tissues drops below 0 degrees C, and will be sped up by wet skin and windy conditions. Frost nip is the freezing of the top layers of skin and will present as itching or pain to start with, then discolouration (white, red and/or yellow), and finally numbness. If the exposure to cold then stops this may be the end of the freezing. Gradual reheating of the area will help but it may take up to a few weeks for the skin to regain feeling.

When I got frost nip working in the freezer of a fishing boat at university, my fingers tips became calloused a couple of days after the episode, and didn’t regain full feeling for a couple of months after that. In my case, poor circulation in combination with wet finger tips of my gloves and a -18C freezer meant perfect conditions for freezing fingers.

If the exposure to cold is sustained, frost nip level 1 moves on to level 2 where deeper tissue is affected, right on through to gnarly frost bite where the muscles, tendons, blood vessels, and nerves all freeze and can have much more serious consequences. Like you see on the movies, the tissue can tun black and fall off, or become gangrenous and need to be amputated.

The best way to avoid these problems is simply to stay inside infront of the heatpump or log-burner, but thats not very extreme. Don you beanie, gloves, warm socks, warm undies, balaclava if its cold enough, head band, buff, whatever you need to cover and warm your extremities, and protect them from wind and water which will both accellerate any freezing. If you do find numbness occuring, finish you run by all means, but attend to your cold areas by removing any wet clothing, then gently and gradually warming. This can be done by wrapping in warm rugs or something similar, simply staying in a warm environment, or submersing in warm water (being careful not to burn yourself). Its not rocket science, but if you’re concerned at all with freezing tips, just go and see the doctor.


Getting Sick

Dodging the dreaded lurgy during the winter months is almost impossible for most people, and can be made even harder if you’re regularly training for extended periods of time in adverse weather conditions.

It is said that regular, moderate excerise of at least 45mins a few days a week can actually strengthen your immune system. However, for endurance athletes, particularly those involved in sessions over 90 mins, or of increased intensity, the risk of  infection is heightened for up to 3 days following the workout. It stands to reason then that if you’re doing these longer or more intense sessions a few times a week, your immune system is almost constantly at risk and you should be en garde.

The best ways to mitigate the risks to your immune system is to focus on a healthy diet. Vitamins and suppliments can help, but including foods high in vitamins and anti-oxidants such as beetroot, garlic, citrus, mushrooms, fish etc, all those super-foods we hear sooo much about, will give your body the edge it needs to ward off infection.

Also just be wary in those 3 days following your workout to look out for potential risks, snotty sneezy kids etc, not going out and getting hammer-time drunk, anything which might further compromise your system.


So What? Is it Safe!?

Come on folks, did we really think that it wasn’t safe, even for a second? And even if it wasn’t safe, would that stop you? Of course not – it just makes it more fun!

Get out there and run to your hearts content. in the wind, the rain, the snow, sleet and hail. Just make sure you wear the right gear and use your noggin when it comes to safety.

If you’re unlucky enough to get sick (as I have been for the last week or two) you might find yourself asking the next question we’re going to address:

When am I too Sick to Run?

Tune in next time for some tips on knowing when it might be a good idea to skip the run. Hard as it may be, sometimes it is for the best.