The weather is a national obsession – talking about it, predicting it, celebrating it and even surviving it! It’s the easiest conversation to have. It’s the common ground. Awkward silences are avoided because it allows moaning and complaining about the struggle caused by Irish weather. It’s a safe subject and allows contentious subjects like religion and politics to be avoided. But other than filling moments of uncomfortable silence, the weather, particularly bad weather like the snow we’ve just had can be a barrier to outdoor exercise and running.
It’s an easy excuse; it is after all, a health risk to exercise in cold, wet and windy conditions…. isn’t it? This query is not new; the weather has been blamed for everything from creaks in the neck to arthritic hips since the 5th century B.C., when Hippocrates suggested illnesses may be related to changes in weather. Since, the science of Biometeorology has studied the impact of climate on living organisms, including humans. Despite the common belief in the relationship between weather conditions and a number of musculoskeletal disorders including arthritis, tension headaches and back pain, a review of the literature reveals two things: The studies don’t support this hypothesis, but there isn’t all that many of them. In 1961, John Hollander used a climate controlled chamber and found evidence that the joints of patients rheumatoid arthritis experienced increased swelling and stiffness with a rise in humidity and a drop in barometric pressure (Hollander, 1961). However, most subsequent studies have established no relationship between weather and pain (Wilder et al., 2003)
The risks of exercising intensely in warm weather conditions are well known and easily recognisable. A build up of excess heat causes the body to overheat, pace to slow, headache, fatigue, profuse sweating, nausea, and clammy skin. For this reason close attention must be paid to hydration, and the warning signs of heat exhaustion watched for (Casa et al., 2005). But provided the intensity of the pace is controlled, running in moderately warm weather is pleasant and safe. Unfortunately, far more common in Ireland is cold, wet and windy weather and these conditions are dangerous too. Without adequate appropriate clothing, too much heat is lost during exercise (Noakes, 2000; Young & Castellani, 2007). Exercising in the cold and rain is also harder, much harder! The production of lactate (waste product) is higher for a given running speed at low temperatures, indicating that it requires greater effort maintain a given pace. Even muscle contractions are less powerful leading to decreased efficiency (Doubt, 1991). Not only does the body feel the pain of the miserable Irish weather, so do running shoes! Cold ambient temperatures may considerably decrease the ability of running shoes to absorb shock, potentially increasing the risk of injury in their users, particularly those with a history of lower limb overuse injuries (Dib et al., 2005).
So why bother, why not just exercise indoors and pound the treadmill. A treadmill set to a 1 per cent incline can accurately simulate the physiological demands of outdoor running (Jones & Doust, 1996). However, running on a treadmill changes running technique……. it’s not the same as running on land (Nigg et al., 1995; Mooses et al., 2015). Treadmill running changes the foot position on striking the belt, thereby changing the natural stride length and cadence of the runner potentially leading to injuries (Fellin et al., 2010; Heiderscheit et al., 2011; Sinclair et al., 2013). But there are far more overwhelming advantages to getting outside to exercise, even when the weather is awful. People enjoy the outside activity more, and when tested scored significantly higher on measures of energy, enthusiasm, pleasure and self-worth and lower on anxiety, depression and fatigue after exercising outside (Heiderscheit et al., 2011). Most discussions about the weather concern the potential challenges it causes us, rather we should focus on the opportunities it presents.
Casa DJ, Armstrong LE, Ganio MS & Yeargin SW. (2005). Exertional heat stroke in competitive athletes. Curr Sports Med Rep4, 309-317.
Dib MY, Smith J, Bernhardt KA, Kaufman KR & Miles KA. (2005). Effect of environmental temperature on shock absorption properties of running shoes. Clin J Sport Med15, 172-176.
Doubt TJ. (1991). Physiology of exercise in the cold. Sports Med11, 367-381.
Fellin RE, Manal K & Davis IS. (2010). Comparison of lower extremity kinematic curves during overground and treadmill running. J Appl Biomech26, 407-414.
Heiderscheit BC, Chumanov ES, Michalski MP, Wille CM & Ryan MB. (2011). Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. Med Sci Sports Exerc43, 296-302.
Hollander JL. (1961). The controlled-climate chamber for study of the effects of meterological changes on human diseases. Trans N Y Acad Sci24, 167-172.
Jones AM & Doust JH. (1996). A 1% treadmill grade most accurately reflects the energetic cost of outdoor running. J Sports Sci14, 321-327.