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Cold-Weather Rowing Gear

February 01, 2013

Rowing in cold weather is a reality for many of us who enjoy and participate in the sport. Even in the west and south, winter mornings can be very cold and special precautions should be taken to make sure your workout is as safe and productive as it can be. Whether you are a novice or an elite-level athlete, one of the most important ingredients to having an enjoyable experience is to dress efficiently.

Back in the day when our parents all walked barefoot in the snow to school, uphill in both directions, chances are good they were also wearing cotton or wool to try and stay warm during their trek. A lot has changed since those days, hopefully including the stories we tell our kids about how tough our lives were when we were their age! One of the great evolutions has been in the fabrics used to make workout wear.

According to Catherine O’Brien, research biologist for the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, “the goal of a cold-weather clothing system is to create a ‘microenvironment’ that conserves heat while providing adequate ventilation to prevent moisture accumulation. Its function depends on using fabrics that insulate well and do not readily absorb moisture. Cotton and (traditional) wool readily absorb moisture and become heavy and bulky when wet. Polyester and polypropylene fabrics that are lightweight, do not readily absorb moisture, and wick sweat away from the skin to allow it to be evaporated from the outermost clothing layer.” On the natural front, some silk and wool products have been refined in recent years to successfully compete with the human-created products. Look for the word “wicking” when choosing these fabrics.

The American College of Sports Medicine and just about every other source out there agrees that layering is absolutely the way to go when exercising in cold weather, and the three-layer system works best.

Layer One – Wicking

This layer should keep you as dry as possible, which means getting the sweat off of your skin and away from your body so that it can evaporate at the surface. This layer is normally thin and snug, made of fabric that will perform this “wicking” action. When you think of cotton, think of your bath towel. Its job is to absorb water, which is exactly what it does on your torso – it absorbs it and holds it there next to your body, which will make you wet and cold. Don’t forget about your cotton underwear.

Layer Two – Insulation

This layer should be fairly loose, and will keep the air warm around your body while letting the moisture out. Lightweight fleece and wicking wool are good choices for this layer, and it can be either a vest or a full sleeved top – either will serve to keep the core of your body warm. A garment that is full or partial zip is great, as you can allow for more ventilation if you begin to get overheated during your workout.

Layer Three – Protection From Wind and Water

This layer can be lightweight, but should be water and windproof, and be breathable to allow the sweat to escape. Sweating can exceed this layer’s breathability, however, so getting a garment with zippers in the armpit area and other venting is a good idea, and this layer need only be worn when it’s raining or rough (or you and your boatmates create a lot of backsplash).

The Extremities – Feet, Hands, & Head

Because the body redirects blood to the core in cold weather to protect the internal organs, the feet, head and hands are vulnerable to cold and frostbite. Using the same insulating fabrics mentioned above works well in covering these areas, as it allows for moisture evaporation while preventing wind penetration. Cover your entire head and neck if it is extremely cold. Socks need to allow for proper circulation (not too tight when in shoes), and pogies or gloves with a waterproof, breathable covering are ideal.

Lastly, remember to rehydrate even though your body is less likely to tell you it’s thirsty in cold weather. And since alcohol dilates blood vessels and increases heat loss, it’s probably not a good idea to use it as a hydration source.

USRowing Safety Committee:
Casey Baker
Jim Cooper
Matt Lacey
Rachel Lemieux
John White
Margot Zalkind, Chair
Willie Black, USRowing Safety Liaison

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