Don’t Get Burned By The Cold: The Cyclist’s Guide to Hypothermia

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The Cyclist’s Guide To Hypothermia

Braving the cold is a source of pride for cyclists of all kinds, from the commuter who yields to neither rain nor sleet, to the roadie who won’t let anything derail her training plan. But going outside in trying times requires more than guts. It requires proper clothing and preparation, without which we risk serious injury—specifically, hypothermia.

In general terms, hypothermia is a potentially dangerous drop in body temperature resulting from extended exposure to the cold that causes the body to lose heat faster than it can produce it. The human body is designed to maintain and function best at a specific temperature (around 98.6 degrees); hypothermia beings when your body’s core temperatures drops below 95 degrees, with anything below 82 degrees qualifying as severe hypothermia. If not treated, it can lead to failure of your heart and respiratory system.

Cold Weather Isn’t The Only Threat

Odds of an occurrence are higher in winter, but hypothermia can also happen in the middle of summer. If you’re riding in shorts and a short-sleeve jersey and a rainstorm rolls through where the temperature drops 10 degrees, you’ll probably start shivering. Age, body mass, body fat, and overall health can also tip the hypothermia scales against you.

Being able to recognize when you’re experiencing the less severe symptoms of hypothermia will help you avoid the most serious ones: slowed breathing, irregular heart rhythm, the halt of shivering, unconsciousness, and coma, which can lead to death. Here are the four key hypothermia warning signs to stay alert to, so you can avoid worse ones and keep riding strong.

Warning Signs

Shivering and feeling cold

If your body starts to shake uncontrollably in an effort to warm itself, watch out: This is typically the first warning sign of a mild case of  hypothermia. When you are cold, your body’s natural reaction is to save the heart and brain, so warm blood is shunted to the major organs and away from extremities. In order to stay warm, your muscles expand and contract rapidly to generate heat.

With blood concentrated in your organs, you may also experience numbness in your extremities and see a whitening of the skin on your fingers and/or toes.

Increased heart rate and respiration rate

You may notice that your heart rate and respiration rate do not recover after bursts of intensity like normal.

That means you wont be able to ride as efficiently as you would under normal circumstances.

Ramped up heart and respiration rates can also compromise performance on the bike because you will burn calories more quickly, which in turn can cause a bonk and loss of energy.

Poor judgment

A cold brain can impede basic decision-making processes.  The brain region known as the hypothalamus is responsible for regulating our body temperature; as your brain gets colder, it can start to malfunction. In turn, you may start feeling confused.