We all know that when it’s really cold outside, it’s more difficult to get going. It’s good to know that this isn’t a psychological reaction to the darkness of the winters, it’s actually because the cold causes your muscles to contract and tighten, making you feel more sluggish and possibly sore, meaning they have to work a lot harder.
This is caused because when it’s cold, the oxygen in your bloodstream binds itself more tightly to the hemoglobin which carry it around your bloodstream. Because it’s more reluctant to let go, it makes it difficult to get oxygen into your muscles, with the knock-on effect of stiffness. (In warmer temperatures, the opposite is true, giving your muscles a rich and steady supply of oxygen, which is one of the reasons why you’re so willing to get up and go in the summer months.)
Cold makes you inefficient
According to technical writer Leonard Zinn writing in Velo, a magazine for cycling enthusiasts, “a one percent decline in local muscle temperature may reduce muscle force generation by up to ten percent, which would make the winter rides feel harder. The decrement in muscle force generation occurs despite an increase in energy cost as biochemical reactions within the muscle slow down and nerve conduction and fiber recruitment of the muscle also take longer, so that additional motor unit recruitment is required to generate the same force — leading to higher perceived strain for a given workload.”
In other words, in order to achieve the same result we’d achieve in warmer weather, we have to work harder when it’s cold.
Cold weather also has an adverse effect on our joints. The lower air pressure which results from the cold air causes the soft tissue around your joints to expand, putting pressure on the joints and causing problems for your muscles. In turn, this makes your muscles more prone to cramping and spasms, and you’re more likely to suffer from pinched nerves.
If you suffer from joint and muscle-related conditions such as arthritis or fibromyalgia, the cold will exacerbate your condition. When the soft tissue around the joints expands in the cold, it puts even more pressure on them, causing even more pain.
How to get better results
In terms of fitness, everyone knows you have to do warm-up stretches before you do any exercise in order to reduce the possibility of muscle damage as you exercise. Given that your muscles will have contracted in the cold, make sure you spend more time than usual getting them warm enough for exercise. This could be as simple as a few minutes of brisk walking which will raise your core temperature and get more oxygen circulating through your body.
It’s useful to know that when the outside temperature is above freezing, you need to do a ten-minute warm up. For every 5oC below freezing, add an extra five minutes.
Regular massages will also help because they warm your body and boost your circulation which will deliver more oxygen to those hard-working muscles. And getting osteopathy treatments can help aching joints by relieving the surrounding muscles, ligaments and tendons.