Understanding Hypothermia: Essential Information for Endurance Athletes

January 15, 2024

As we brave through the cold weather, it's important to grasp the concept of hypothermia. This condition typically arises from exposure to low temperatures or cold water. Although you may be tempted to skim through, this article contains crucial information every endurance athlete should know. Plus, don't miss the golden tips at the end about layering for training and racing.

Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it produces heat, causing the core body temperature to fall below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. While this typically occurs with exposure to cold temperatures or cold water, hypothermia can also occur when the weather is not cold but you are exposed to wet or windy conditions for an extended period of time. This is a very important concept for endurance athletes to understand.

Endurance athletes are especially susceptible to hypothermia after completing a race. Since our core body temperature is raised and we sweat throughout the event, some sweat can linger on our clothes and skin after we cross the finish line. This, combined with being exposed to cold or windy conditions, increases our risk of hypothermia. Often, this occurs when athletes linger outside at the event and continue to cheer on their peers after their own race has ended. The combination of damp clothing, sweat, and chilly weather can cause a reduction in core body temperature that falls below a safe level.

To reduce your risk for hypothermia after completing an event, shower and/or change clothes directly post-race to remove the wet and damp clothing. Then, return to the race dressed in warm and dry clothes to encourage others to the finish line. This can be as simple as putting a spare change of clean and dry clothes in your morning clothes bag prior to the event and changing quickly in a port-o before returning to the finish line to cheer on your fellow athletes.

It is important to know and understand the signs and symptoms of hypothermia to help keep you and others safe in training, racing or general outdoor leisure. Signs and symptoms of hypothermia can include:

  • Disorientation, confusion or indifference
  • Glassy stare
  • Loss of ability to shiver as condition worsens
  • Slowing or no breathing
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Slurred speech
  • Slowing of heart rate
  • Body stiffening with rigid muscles
  • Shivering
  • Pale skin
  • Cold to the touch

Your best bet in reducing risk for hypothermia is to use good judgement on weather when training outdoors. In conjunction, it is important to dress in layers. When dressing in layers, wear a base, middle and outer layer plus accessories. Understanding the material for each layer is important. Below is a list of how each layer will help protect you in colder conditions plus specifics on what materials are best for each layer.

Base Layer

  • Helps regulate body temperature by wicking or drawing sweat away from the skin
  • Silk, merino wool and some synthetics are best at wicking
  • Cotton is NOT a good choice because it traps moisture

Middle Layer

  • Keeps the body warm by acting as insulation, keeping warm air trapped near the body.
  • Natural fibers like wool and goose down or synthetic fleece are excellent insulators

Outer Layer

  • Protects from the wind, rain and snow
  • Ideally this should be waterproof and breathable
  • Accessories
  • Hat, scarf, face mask, mittens (these are warmer than gloves), water resistant boots/shoes

In summary, use good judgement on weather before heading outdoors. Dress in layers, being specific with the materials for each layer to help reduce your risk for hypothermia. When completing an event, remember to shower and/or change into clean and dry clothes directly after the race. Then, return to the finish line to cheer on your fellow athletes.

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