Nicholas B. Tiller

The blog that unifies scientific skepticism, critical-thinking, health & fitness, and the exercise sciences

  • Nicholas B. Tiller Ph.D.

#46: Reflections of an Englishman endurance training in -30 °C

I grew up in the temperate English climate where the skies have a year-round blandness and it snows for only three-weeks in the winter. Then, in 2019, I moved to California where the winters are something the UK summertime would be proud of, and I scarcely trained in anything more than shorts and vest. In the last 6 months, since my lab work in the States has been on hiatus due to #COVID, I’ve been living in Norway. Very little of my 30-odd years of outdoor experience has prepared me for this.

The summers here are glorious, but the summer-autumn transition arrives swiftly and without mercy. All around there’s a frenetic energy as everyone stacks away the deck chairs and begins restocking the firewood, locating the snow shovels, and changing to winter road tires. At the turn of the New Year, the sun pops its head just above the horizon to make a narrow arc in the sky that scarcely takes more than 5 hours to complete, before plummeting us back into darkness. The lack of daylight and the long nights jostle with your circadian rhythms. Moreover, the temperatures plummet to 20-40 °C below freezing.

The attenuated daytimes are worth it; the clear skies that predicate the cold weather reward you with wonderous landscapes and mythical skylines that could scarcely be seen anywhere else on earth. Snow covers the ground as far as the eyes can see. It’s a thick, clean snow with a relentless chill that prevents its gradual demise. Not like the wet, muddy slush that’s characteristic of the British winter. In Norway, the low position of the sun angles off the ground illuminating the white powder and the ice making it glisten and dance. The hazy air that forms in the sky creates a thick sheen partially blocking the sun’s rays, creating a skyscape worthy of another realm. It’s a thrill to be outside in the Norwegian winter. But it requires some planning.

No filter.

Training kit

The Norwegians say "there is no bad weather, only bad clothing". Standard running apparel won’t cut it. Late in the summer I stocked-up on tights and thermal tops by “Swix” - a Norwegian cross-country skiing brand. The material holds a layer of insulating air to help retain the heat, and they’re thick and durable. In total, I wear 12 separate garments with multiple layers so that little-to-no skin is on show: it can freeze and blister. From bottom to top, kit comprises:

- Knee-high woolen sports socks

- 2x lycra compression boxers

- Swix thermal tights

- Nike dry-fit under armor

- Montane dry-fit

- 2x Swix thermals (long sleeve / short sleeve)

- Woolen buff for neck

- Polyester buff for head

- Nike thermal hut and gloves

Ice in the eyes and nose

While running, cold air stimulates the tear-ducts to produce more liquid to lubricate the surface of the eyeball; repeated blinking wickers that moisture to the end of the eyelashes where it freezes. It’s common to return home with tiny icicles hanging from your lashes. On inspiration, the moisture in the nose readily freezes, hence the need to run with a face covering to partially retain some warmth in the inspired air.

Postural stability

The snow and ice on the ground provide a stiff challenge to the deep core and postural muscles. While the adductors and deep core are always stressed in running, especially when off road, they get pushed and pulled in entirely new ways when every step requires reflexive (proprioceptive) contractions to prevent you from slipping. Running like this builds a type of resilience.

Exercise-induced bronchohyperasthmaresponsiveness

We are all aware of the research showing high prevalence of exercise-induced asthma and/or bronchoconstriction in endurance athletes, but the prevalence is greatest in cold weather athletes; e.g., cross-country skiers. Some studies show the prevalence might be as high as 50% in this group. This is because the airways have an important role in warming and humidifying the inspired air. In cold and/or dry conditions, the capacity of the upper airways to accomplish this is surpassed, and the lower airways become exposed to cold and unconditioned air. As the airways become dehydrated, they release inflammatory mediators which begin a cascade of reactions that inflame and damage the airway smooth muscle.

I knew all of this but never really knew it until I trained under such conditions. The cold air feels like its freezing your lungs into icy blocks. It's physically uncomfortable to ventilate hard for more than 10-20 seconds without a face covering. I pull the buff over my nose and mouth and the recirculated air becomes slightly warmed which does just enough to attenuate the perceptions of cold. Moisture in my expired breath is retained in the buff which then inevitably freezes rock-solid; I have to break the icicles from my face covering before I can remove it.

Cold attenuates thirst

A further consideration is that the cold conditions blunt the thirst response. Although the sweat response is also slightly lower in the cold relative to warmer conditions, it's not a linear relationship; i.e., the degree to which sweating is reduced is smaller than the degree to which thirst becomes blunted. In longer sessions, therefore, its critical not to neglect hydration.

So, yes – there’s lot to consider when managing a transition to the cold. However, as you may have guessed, the adventurer in me, the novelty of the experience, and the incredible mythical landscape make it all worthwhile. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to live and train here.

"Ut på tur, aldri sur."