Medical: How to adapt in the cold

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What can adventure riders learn from Arctic explorers and a Dutchman nicknamed ‘the Iceman’? Quite a lot according to our medical expert, Doc Edwards.

For many of us winter signals an end to the riding season, but it doesn’t have to. Much is written about dressing for cold weather, but not a lot is written about how to adapt your body to the cold and why this may help you on the motorcycle. Have you ever wondered how some riders do just fine when the mercury drops? It is possible to adapt to the cold and many actually find it addictive after conquering the elements.

Adaptation to the cold is a topic that has fascinated me since I was in medical school. It is not, however, a new concept in human health. Yet, if you were to take any random survey about cold adaptation, most people would likely give you puzzled looks.

Ice yourself down for better health? Crazy talk! Being cold-adapted will allow your cold-weather gear to go further and help you enjoy the experience that much more while cold intolerance can ruin a ride and sometimes even stop you altogether. You can use all of the cold weather gear and tricks you want, but if you are comfortable in the cold, then you are ahead of the game.

The ability to adapt to the cold has more to do with maintaining body temperature and not so much our perception to the temperature to which we are exposed. The early explorers of Antarctica are interesting examples of this. Take, for example, explorer Birdie Bowers who went with Dr. Scott to Antarctica in 1911.

Dr. Scott recorded in his journal that Bowers was the hardest traveller that ever undertook the polar journey and that he had never seen anyone so unaffected by the cold. It is also reported that Bowers would strip down naked each morning and literally throw buckets of ice water and slush over himself much to the horror of his companions.

A modern-day example of a person who has mastered cold adaptation is Dutchman, Wim Hof. He holds the world record for submerging himself in ice for over 1 hour and 44 minutes, has ran a marathon above the Arctic circle in Finland, and has climbed Mount Everest wearing only his shorts.

Recently Wim Hof and his colleagues completed a groundbreaking scientific study where one group used cold adaptation and breathing exercises and the other group didn’t. Each person was administered E. Coli bacteria intravenously. The results showed that the control group experienced the severe effects of the bacteria such as headache, nausea, vomiting, shivering, and malaise. The Wim Hof group, however, only experienced minor symptoms and many experienced none.

So, what does cold adaptation have to do with riding a motorcycle in the winter? For my Dakar athletes, it is a big advantage because they depend less on fancy cold weather riding gear and they decrease their chances of getting sick or succumbing to the cold weather while riding over the Atlas mountains of Morocco or the Andes mountains of Peru. For the average adventure rider, it means that the effects of cold and wind will affect you less and strengthen your immune system.

How does one take steps to adapt to the cold? It is not as hard as you might think…

Successfully adapting to the cold is much like exercise. Each cold exposure creates a stress on our body and we adapt to that in a number of ways. It’s not about taking a cold shower once in a while, rather regular practice is what creates the adaptive responses. Start with daily cold showers. While it may sound torturous, this is an easy first step, even if it’s only for a few minutes.

Go for walks outside without a jacket or jumper, usually for 10 to 20 minutes. Ice baths are an effective means to achieve cold adaptation, but don’t go at it alone as you can over do it and land yourself in the hospital with frostbite! Stay in for 15 to 30 minutes if possible. Remember that it takes time to become cold-adapted, often weeks to months, so practice regularly.

On the motorcycle, try wearing only a windbreaker for short periods of time and build upon that, but always wear gloves, not only for safety but because the wind chill is usually too much for the hands to tolerate affecting your ability to operate a motorcycle safely.

Lastly, you need to increase your caloric intake when you are exposed to the cold for extended periods of time. Besides carbohydrates, increase your intake of omega 3 fatty acids by eating plenty of fatty fish, seafood, oils, avocados, and broths like chicken soup. Improving your sugar metabolism will also improve the way you adapt to the cold.

Man’s greatest asset to combat cold weather is his ability to create a warm microenvironment, both through wearing appropriate protective clothing and becoming cold-adapted. Once you become cold-adapted, this will make you more ‘antifragile’ in a sense, allowing you to be able to use less in order to continue forward and enjoy the journey even more.

Hopefully, this will help you in your next winter adventure ride.

The Health Benefits of Cold Adaption

Allowing your body to adapt to the cold will not only make winter riding more enjoyable, but you could experience the following:

  • Decreased body fat
  • Increased hormone levels
  • Improved sexual performance
  • Improved blood sugar control
  • Decreased food cravings
  • Enhanced immune function
  • Improved deep sleep quality
  • Increased pain tolerance
  • Reduced inflammation