Hypothermia In Any Season

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Spring weather has a way of teasing runners into thinking winter snow storms are a distant memory, and the sun is here to stay.  But those who’ve lived in mountain towns know better.  Come June or July, a passing storm could mean white-out conditions for unprepared runners. Those elements can be deadly for endurance athletes who are caught in unfortunate circumstances, putting them at risk for hypothermia – even in the middle of summer. Fortunately, there are ways to avoid bleak situations out on the trails.

Unless you’re a very experienced mountain runner, it’s hard to know what can happen when your body is unexpectedly exposed to low temperatures.  While preparing for longer training runs, it’s important to research weather patterns 24 hours in advance.  Severe changes in temperature can put a runner at risk for hypothermia in a matter of minutes. During a 24+ hour race, that can spell disaster.

Hypothermia has distinct phases that affect all parts of the body – and all symptoms should be managed immediately.  The first phase reduces blood flow to the skin, and then to the muscles and tendons.  The body responds with moderate to severe shivering to try and warm itself.  Severe hypothermia (when the body’s temperature falls to 95 degrees) stimulates the cardiovascular system, leading to a rise in blood pressure. But as the body’s core temperature continues to plummet, the heart rate slows dramatically, increasing the risk of cardiac arrhythmias and cardiac arrest.  Hypothermia is a quick decline – once you’ve lost feeling in your fingers and toes, your muscles will be begin to feel tight and rigid and the brain becomes slower with sluggish thinking or confusion setting in.

Once the initial shivering begins, the body has begun losing heat faster than it can produce it.  Which is why endurance runners must learn to recognize this symptom and be prepared to take action, knowing that loss of judgement and hand control will follow.  Here are some ways to prepare for the worst:

  1. Know where you’re going.  If you’re traveling to an ultra or running in a new place where extreme weather conditions are possible, study the weather.  Know what to expect so you can prepare accordingly.
  2. Wear extra layers of clothing so your body stays warm from the beginning, and carry an extra jacket and gloves for severe conditions.
  3. Bring extra calories to keep your body fueled – it’s working on overtime in colder weather.

If you begin experiencing the first signs of hypothermia such as shivering, act immediately:

  • Get to a warm shelter or source of heat as quickly as possible.
  • If you are unable to find shelter, add layers of clothing to warm yourself and consume calories to keep your energy levels up.
  • Continue to move as quickly as possible to a warm shelter where you’ll be able to drink warm fluids, change into dry clothing, and use a heat source to get your core temperature back up to 98.6 degrees.
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About Author

Amy Clark is the Editor of UltraRunning Magazine. She began her career at a small advertising agency in Bend, Oregon, where she enjoyed the fast pace and creative environment. For over 15 years, lunch hour runs were a ritual. Amy also joined the board of the local running club, became a race director and finished her first ultra. She has completed over 35 marathons and ultras combined, and continues to run long distances while encouraging both kids and adults to ignite their own passion for running.

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