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The Sports Medicine Doctor: Staying Warm in Winter – Dressing the Part

By Andrew W. Gottschalk, M.D., Director of Sports Medicine

Champion Orthopedics & Sports Medicine at Cole Memorial Hospital

In 1924, George Mallory set off to climb to the summit of Mount Everest. His goal was simple: be the first person to reach it. We don’t know if he succeeded, because Mallory was never again seen alive. However, we do know something about the winter weather apparel of Mallory’s day. It’s surprising how little has changed.

Dressing the winter sportsman is more difficult than it sounds. The weather part is obvious: It’s cold out there. But a winter day can be 35 degrees or can be sub-zero. Furthermore, the cold weather temperatures are countered by the tremendous heat given off by the body as it mobilizes energy for activities with high physical demands like skiing.

Keep two key points in mind.

First: Dress in layers. I have never had to stop skiing because I was too warm. Layers give us the ability to thermoregulate. At the onset of physical activity in winter, multiple layers keep the body warm. As physical exertion continues, however, body temperature rises dramatically. The ability to remove layers — and put them back on later — allows a skier or an ice fisherman to remain comfortable and safely stay out longer.

Second: No cotton. Though much of what people wear day-to-day is cotton or a cotton-blend (jeans, T-shirts, dress shirts, khakis, etc.), cotton works against us as we exercise in the cold. Cotton sponges up moisture (like perspiration) and holds onto it. Against our skin, this moisture is cold and uncomfortable.

When dressing the trunk (the body’s core) and legs, the layer closest to the skin —the base layer — should be a thin wool, silk or a synthetic blend. Synthetic materials include polyester and nylon. Wool, silk, and synthetic fibers wick moisture (sweat, melted snow, rain, etc.) away from the skin. The drier the skin, the warmer and more comfortable a winter athlete will be.

The second layer is the bulk layer. This layer provides insulation and is commonly a fleece garment. “Fleece” used to mean literally the hide of a sheep or another animal, but now is a general term for a bulky layer made of almost any textile, usually synthetic fibers. On warmer days, this layer can also be a turtleneck or a sweatshirt. This bulk layer is the first to come off when a person begins to feel too hot.

The third layer, the shell layer, is both the most important layer and usually the most expensive. With skiers, this is the ski jacket and ski pants. We ask a lot out of this layer, as it needs to be insulated, windproof, and above all waterproof.

Perhaps surprisingly, the cold weather conditions of the world’s tallest mountain didn’t kill Mallory. A fall did. In 1999, Mallory’s chillingly well-preserved body was discovered, still dressed in layers of wool and silk. He was safe against the cold; he was dressed the part.

Here we are 90 years after Mallory attempted Everest. Although styles have changed, the key points have not. The well-prepared winter sportsman of 1924 used a similar strategy to the well-dressed winter sportsman of 2014. Mallory would have laughed at the silly colors we wear today, but the layers and the composition of our clothing would make him smile and be content knowing that some fundamentals of being a winter sportsman never change.

Every skier is different. “Cold” is a matter of perspective for every person who goes outdoors in winter. Experiment with the types of material, the thickness of the layers, and the number of layers you wear to find what is most comfortable for you.

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