With Pyeongchang set to be in single Fahrenheit figures during the 2018 Winter Olympics, the pressure is on for all those involved to ensure the safety of competing athletes.

Factors to consider in these colder temperatures include:

  • Hypothermia
  • Frostbite
  • Respiratory problems

How can physiotherapists prepare athletes for these colder conditions and therefore prevent the above?

Environmental measures, including acclimatisation and acclimation

Environmental factors should be computed with regards to weather conditions (eg. wind and air temperature), wind speed vs competitor speed and therefore windchill temperature for competitors. In calculating these figures, acclimatisation* and acclimation* can be undertaken to better prepare athletes. Acclimatisation and acclimation training techniques were first developed in the military but have been increasingly utilised as international sport (and therefore varied environmental challenges) has expanded (Périard, Racinais and Sawka 2015). Better physiological responses are seen when using these techniques with heat over colder temperatures (Bergeron et al 2012), however calculating environmental measures for colder climates is still beneficial for preparation of further preventative measures, such as protective equipment.

Advice on protective equipment

With higher wind speeds and lower temperatures, protective equipment such as thermal (yet breathable) clothing, fascial guarding and specially tailored swimming gear can be trialled and tested prior to the event itself. This ensures the safety of competitors in extreme conditions whilst keeping performance optimal.

Regular medical follow ups and managing respiratory issues

Early detection of frostbite and respiratory related conditions such as exercise-induced asthma, bronchial hyper-responsiveness and exercise-induced bronchoconstriction is key for efficient treatment that will prevent significant deterioration of health and performance. Early detection is also important given that some medications that would often be used outside of competition are prohibited on the World Anti-Doping Agency list, so sufficient time is required to ensure medical management abides by the rules set out to this standard (Bergeron et al 2012).

Parasympathetic nervous reflexes to colder, fascial temperatures have shown to increase the effects of exercise-induced respiratory conditions, despite the temperature of the air inhaled (Bergeron et al 2012). This demonstrates how colder temperatures are equally as important to consider as hotter temperatures when it comes to physiological responses under exertion and therefore performance and competition in sports men and women.

We wish all the athletes a safe and successful games!

*Acclimatisation = physiological adaptation to improve temperature tolerance when exercising in the natural environment
*Acclimation = physiological adaptation to improve temperature tolerance when exercising in a laboratory environment

Bergeron, M. F., Bahr, R., Bärtsch, P., Bourdon, L., Calbet, J. A. L., Carlsen, K. H., Castagna, O., González-Alonso, J., Lundby, C., Maughan, R. J., Millet, G.,
Mountjoy, M., Racinais, S., Rasmussen, P., Singh, D. G., Subudhi, A. W., Young, A. J. and Engebretsen, L. (2012). International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement on Thermoregulatory and Altitude Challenges for High-Level Athletes. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 46, pp. 770-779.

Périard, J. D., Racinais, S. and Sawka, M. N. (2015). Adaptations and Mechanisms of Human Heat Acclimation: Applications for Competitive Athletes and Sports. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sport, 25 (1), pp. 20-38.

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