How cold weather changes the game for football players

By Jennifer Fabiano, AccuWeather staff writer

Body temperature regulation is a topic often discussed in science classrooms, but it is not often discussed from the football stands or field. Regulation actually turns out to be very influential when it comes to athletic performance in varying weather conditions.

“In cold or hot temperatures, your body is trying to maintain homeostasis,” said Brendon McDermott, associate professor of the Graduate Athletic Training Program at the University of Arkansas.

A normal body temperature is around 98.6 F, according to the Mayo Clinic. In lower temperatures like those we see near the end of football season, the body will adopt certain mechanisms, such as shivering, in order to keep warm.

James Carter, director of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, describes what happens to the body in the cold as “a fight over blood supply.” The active muscles need an increased blood supply, but in the cold, the blood flows away from the skin in order to protect the body’s core.

“You’ve got this shunting of blood flow away from the skin to the interior of the body,” Carter said. “So that essentially is increasing the energy requirements because the body is trying to keep warm and at the same time is providing increased energy for exercise.”

charles clay bills

Buffalo Bills tight end Charles Clay (85) scores a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the second half of an NFL football game in the snow, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Bill Wippert)

Other body processes, like hydration, are also disrupted by cold weather. While water loss from sweat is reduced, increased water loss comes from breathing. Athletes are also at risk for dehydration because thirst is blunted in the cold. Water is a factor in maintaining homeostasis, so dehydration is a risk factor for maintaining body temperature in cold environments.

“Hydration helps maintain our blood volume and we can sweat effectively and dissipate heat and still maintain performance in our working muscles,” McDermott said.

Exercising in the cold also means exercising under much more physiologically stressful conditions. These stressful conditions affect our bodies in various ways.

In general, colder muscles are less efficient muscles. Reactions in the body happen slower in the cold, and muscle contraction is a series of chemical reactions, according to Dr. Jonathan Finnoff, medical director of Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine.

Nerves that send signals from your brain to the rest of your body move slower when it is colder, which means that reaction time is slowed, Finoff said.

“Your muscles themselves become stiffer so they’re not as pliable and they can’t move as rapidly,” Finnoff said. “If you’re not delivering blood flow and nutrients to the area as quickly, then your muscles don’t have as much energy to do their work.”

Colder, stiffer muscles that aren’t working as efficiently are also more likely to tear, making strains more common in the cooler weather, according to Finnoff.

Experts from ESPN’s “Sport Science” have tested the effects of low temperatures on an athlete’s performance.

According to the video, there are various effects of low temperatures on an athlete’s performance.

First, low temperatures put a greater load on one’s metabolism and increased strain on one’s heart. In low temperatures, the body works harder to maintain a stable temperature. This increased effort requires more energy in order to generate more heat.

5 tips for football fans to brave the cold
How to prevent flare-ups of asthma triggered by cold weather
Skip the gym this season: Why exercising in cold weather is so beneficial for your health

While athletes' bodies are able to acclimatize to the heat, they cannot do the same as effectively with cold weather. Heat acclimatization is a practice in which athletes are gradually exposed to regular heat challenges in training over a period of 10 days. This practice allows athletes to perform better when forced to play in extreme heat.

Cold acclimatization has not proven as effective for preparing athlete’s bodies for playing in cold weather.

“You might shiver earlier, but you can’t shiver more or longer,” Carter said. “These adaptations are much less than the adaptations that can occur when you’re exercising in the heat.”

Carter said that there are ways to mitigate the effects of exposure to cold air during exercise.

Most importantly, athletes should not let their muscles get cold.

“Athletes should bear in mind that the halftime period, or any break, is an opportunity for the muscles to cool down,” Carter said. “Trying to keep active during these periods of downtime is going to be beneficial to keep the muscle temperature elevated before they go back on the field to play.”

Some teams go as far as to have exercise bikes on the sidelines for athletes who are not on the field. Other teams invest in warming technologies such as heated benches or “hot pants,” which are pants with built-in heating elements.

Report a Typo


Comments that don't add to the conversation may be automatically or manually removed by Facebook or AccuWeather. Profanity, personal attacks, and spam will not be tolerated.

More Weather News