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Choosing the Proper Cold Weather Gear

Rowing in cold weather is a reality for many rowers who participate in the sport. Even in warm weather locations, winter mornings can be very cold, and special precautions should be taken to make sure workouts are as safe and productive as possible.

Back in the day when 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. 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, agree 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 an athlete dry as possible, which means getting the sweat off and away from the 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 an athlete wet and cold.

Layer Two – Insulation: This layer should be fairly loose, and will keep the air warm around the 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 body core warm. A garment that is full or partial zip is great, as it can allow for more ventilation to prevent overheating during workouts.

Layer Three – Protection From Wind and Water: This layer can be lightweight but should be water and wind proof, 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 there is a lot of backsplash from the crew.)

Protecting 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. Covering the entire head and neck if it is extremely cold in important.  Socks need to allow for proper circulation (not too tight when in shoes), and pogies or gloves with a waterproof, breathable covering are ideal for hands.

Lastly, remember to rehydrate even though the body is less likely to tell signal dehydration in cold weather.

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

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