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Is there a greater risk of injuries when training in the cold?

Is there a greater risk of injuries when training in the cold?

Published: 21 February, 2024 | 8'

In this article, we explore the relationship between training in cold conditions and the possibility of injuries, with the collaboration of two prominent specialists in the field of health and sports. Dr. Yaiza Acosta, a sports physician, and Ruth Gómez, a triathlete, pentathlete, and coach, provide us with their knowledge and recommendations to better understand the benefits, risks, and prevention measures when training in cold conditions.

Effects of Cold on the Human Body

Humans are characterized by maintaining a nearly constant control of their body temperature (homeothermic), especially in the deep tissues of the body ("core").

Therefore, exposure to cold is not considered an obstacle to exercising as the physiology of the human body contains extensive thermoregulatory mechanisms that facilitate adaptability to cold environments.

If we think about cold, we can define it as environmental conditions with low temperatures that can also be influenced by wind speed, altitude, rain, or snow. It has been shown that at air temperatures below 28.5°C, defined as the "lower critical temperature," the body responds with a series of mechanisms to maintain body temperature.

In general, our body's responses to prevent excessive cooling are:

  • Peripheral vasoconstriction: the nervous system sends signals to the smooth muscles of the blood vessels in the skin, causing their contraction and limiting blood flow, which efficiently reduces heat loss.
  • Muscular shivering: muscles contract and relax involuntarily, resulting in an elevation of the heat production rate that can be 4 to 5 times higher than normal.
  • Thermogenesis: a mechanism activated by the nervous system that stimulates and increases the metabolic rate, causing heat production.

Effects of Cold on Our Bones and Joints

Cold temperatures can affect the bones and joints, such as the knees, ankles, hands, wrists, or neck.

Primarily, we will notice:

  • Muscular stiffness: due to the thermoregulatory mechanisms explained earlier, resulting in less blood flow and contractions with reduced functionality.
  • Nervous sensitivity: which can occur in previous joint injuries, and the sensation of cold "triggers" joint pain.

Let's see why it happens:

  • Air pressure or barometric pressure: which decreases during cold temperatures, causing the tissues of the joint to slightly dilate or expand, sometimes resulting in inflammation and increased nervous sensitivity. It primarily affects the knees, hips, hands, elbows, and shoulders, especially tendons and muscle fibers in those areas.
  • Increase in ambient humidity: the higher humidity that often accompanies cold weather causes stiffness and pain in cartilage and its bone connections.
  • Increased viscosity in joint fluids: especially in the knees and shoulders, where their function is lubrication. When viscosity changes, it causes discomfort, stiffness, and reduced mobility.

How Cold Affects Sports Performance

The aforementioned "lower critical temperature" threshold (28.5°C) is not a fixed number, but can vary depending on energy expenditure, clothing, body composition, among other factors. For example, at 5°C, a person may feel warm.

Therefore, "cold" is considered a physiological stress factor in which the environment can impair sports performance3.

At the bodily level, the effect of cold on athletes depends on: the capacity of the cardiovascular system and metabolism (oxygen and energy supply), the functionality of the neuromuscular system, and psychological abilities (e.g., cognitive function, motivation, pain tolerance)3.

In general, the performance indicators that are most likely to be affected are:

  • VO2 max (maximum oxygen consumption).
  • Cardiac output.
  • Exercise duration.
  • Power/sprint capacity.
  • Recovery capacity.
  • Strength and speed indices that are directly related to muscle temperature. For example, for every 1°C decrease in muscle temperature, these performance markers decrease by 4% to 6%2.
  • Diuresis (fluid elimination) increases due to the increase in blood volume from peripheral vasodilation. Additionally, up to 2 liters/hour of water can be lost through sweat if clothing is inadequate, and in the case of respiration, the loss is greater in relatively low humidity cold environments.

Which Exercises Are Most Affected by Cold?

training in the cold

Let's look at some performance factors affected by exercise discipline3:

  • Endurance: fatigue can occur if there isn't a balance between cold exposure and metabolic heat production.
  • Strength and balance: there are pros and cons within this discipline. Among the benefits are improved grip strength in terms of maximum voluntary contraction, unaffected force variability, and extended time to exhaustion. However, cooling of large areas of the extremities can negatively affect postural control and dynamic balance due to increased joint and muscle viscosity, which could compromise the ability to finely coordinate movements.
  • Warm-up: it is a fact that physical performance improves by 2-5% for every degree increase in temperature. Therefore, when facing cold temperatures, it is key to have insulating clothing that does not retain moisture during warm-up and is highly absorbent to maximize the benefits that an active warm-up could have on muscle temperature.

Benefits of Training in the Cold

As Dr. Acosta explains, training outdoors and in the cold, but in safe conditions, can have some benefits, such as "increased coordination, strength-speed, and endurance."

Regarding calorie burning benefits, the doctor explains that "the body needs to work harder to maintain its internal temperature in a cold environment, which can increase energy/calorie expenditure by up to 30% and promote calorie burning during exercise, depending on the type of exercise," she adds.

Similarly, as coach Ruth Gómez points out: "since training in the cold also carries certain risks, such as injuries, it is essential to listen to the body's signals and not force training in adverse conditions."

Risk of Injuries When Training in the Cold: What Are They and How to Prevent Them?

Common Injuries Associated with Cold

Despite the known benefits of exercise for health, environmental factors, including cold weather, pose associated risks. In the case of sports practice in cold environments, the changes can be considered short-term and long-term.

In the short term, as Dr. Yaiza Acosta explains, "injuries can occur during training, during, and after exercise, which may resolve hours or days after that session, primarily affecting the respiratory, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and dermal systems."3.

On the other hand, in the long term, sports practice in cold environments "requires closer monitoring of the respiratory system and blood circulation"3, she adds.

How to Minimise the Risk of Injuries When Exercising in the Cold

In general, it is possible to exercise safely in most cold weather environments without suffering injuries. The key is to be prepared and anticipate potential risks.

Here are some general recommendations:

  • Evaluate the Weather Conditions beforehand and be aware of the current and future weather conditions before training sessions or competitions. It is important to ensure that we do not train in extreme conditions where there is a high risk of hypothermia or frostbite.
  • Proper Warm-Up before starting physical activity, focusing on joint movements and gentle stretches to prepare the muscles and joints.
  • Wear Thermal Clothing to protect ourselves from the cold, especially sensitive areas such as the hands, ears, and feet, using gloves, hats, and thermal socks.
  • Proper Hydration before, during, and after exercise, even if we don't feel as thirsty as we do in warm weather. The cold can deceive the body and make us forget about the need for hydration.
  • Nourishing Bones and Joints through Nutrition is another factor to consider. A balanced and varied diet that incorporates certain beneficial nutrients for the osteoarticular system, such as vitamins, minerals, collagen, or hyaluronic acid.

Listening to Your Body and Respecting Individual Limits, Advises Coach and Triathlete Ruth Gómez

After analyzing the risks and benefits of exercising in cold temperatures, triathlete, professional coach, and Bachelor of Science in Physical Activity and Sport Sciences Ruth Gómez concludes that the most important factors are "proper warm-up, wearing thermal clothing to protect the parts most sensitive to the cold, and listening to our body to respect our individual limits."

Good Warm-Up and Exercises to Warm Up Quickly

As Gómez explains in more detail: "the warm-up activates blood circulation and prepares the muscles and joints for physical exertion. It is always important, but even more so in cold environments, starting from the ankles up to the neck, not forgetting sensitive joints such as the knees, hips, waist, or shoulders".

And once the exercise has started, "if there is pain, extreme fatigue, or signs of injury, it is important to stop and seek medical attention if necessary," adds the coach.

Recommendations from Dr Yaiza Acosta for Safe Cold Weather Training

The specialist in sports medicine, Dr Yaiza Acosta, agrees that "in cold conditions, proper warm-up before training is crucial to reduce the risk of injuries."

She also emphasizes the importance of clothing once again: "the feet, hands, and head should be the most protected from the cold as they are the most sensitive areas and where a lot of heat is lost".

Replenishing Nutrients for the Osteoarticular System

Furthermore, Dr Acosta, sports medicine physician and nutritionist, highlights the importance of a proper diet and incorporating nutrients that can help our osteoarticular system: "a proper diet plays a fundamental role in the health of our bones and joints, and there are specific nutrients that can be incorporated into our diet. Collagen is one of them, as it is the main structural component of connective tissues such as tendons and cartilage. We can obtain collagen from foods such as bone broth, gelatin, fish, and lean meat."

She also mentions that it is important to nourish and take care of our joints throughout the year "so that they are in top form when the cold weather arrives". In addition to "following a balanced diet and consuming sufficient amounts of nutrients that promote osteoarticular flexibility such as collagen, magnesium, calcium, or vitamins, we can supplement it with specific supplementation for the osteoarticular system", such as the MARNYS Bone and Joint Range".

For example, vitamin C contributes to collagen production and protects cells against oxidative damage, while calcium and vitamins K2 and D3 contribute to the maintenance of normal bones."

Other important nutrients highlighted by the specialist are "D-glucosamine and chondroitin, which are substances naturally produced in the body, present in cartilage, and help maintain its elasticity by lubricating the joints."

The doctor concludes that "it is always advisable to seek the advice of a professional nutritionist to adapt the diet to individual needs".


Content created by the Scientific Information Department of MARNYS with the collaboration of Dr Yaiza Acosta and Coach Ruth Gómez. This article is for informational purposes only and does not replace the advice of a specialist.

Dr Yaiza AcostaAbout the Specialist

Dr Yaiza Acosta @dra_saludable

The Dr Yaiza Acosta is a medical doctor, specialist in physical and sports medicine from the University of Barcelona, and a specialist in applied nutrition and dietetics. She also promotes a healthy lifestyle through her social media platforms as @dra_saludable.

Ruth GómezAbout the Specialist

Ruth Gómez

Ruth Gomez @ruthgomeza, has a Bachelor of Science in Physical Activity and Sport Sciences, and is a professional triathlete and pentathlete. She is a National Triathlon and Pentathlon coach, and runs her own Pentathlon and Triathlon club in Mieres (Asturias).

Health Specialists