PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The Americans are wearing battery-powered parkas, while the Canadians are using heated snow pants. The Norwegians brought their own hot chocolate.
Then there’s the scene at the moguls skiing hill, where yoga mats — or things that look like yoga mats — are used to create a barrier between one’s feet and the freezing turf.
The conditions here are severe. The men’s downhill ski racing event, scheduled for Sunday, was postponed to Thursday because of strong winds and the unfavorable forecast. Some training sessions scheduled for Monday were canceled.
So at this unusually chilly Winter Olympic Games — with wind chills expected to make it feel below 0 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 18 Celsius) — elite athletes long accustomed to cold weather are trying anything and everything to stay warm.
Some are going high-tech. Others are using home remedies.
The most lasting images of these Winter Olympics may be the taped faces. Skiers from Slovakia and other countries are strapping sticky athletic tape across their cheeks and noses to protect their skin.
Whether any of this actually does much to warm the body — or make a difference between gold and 12th place — is another question. The scientific consensus is rather unscientific. If the Olympians think they feel warmer, they may feel less distracted and perform slightly better.
“You’re talking about really small margins, so if you’ve got them feeling comfortable, that’s a large step in the right direction,” said Mike Tipton, a professor in the Extreme Environments Laboratory at the University of Portsmouth’s department of sport and exercise science.
Dr. Lubomir Soucek, who works with Slovakia’s Olympic team, said his country’s biathletes were using both Vaseline and tape to protect their exposed skin. “The issue is serious in the Alpine skiing,” he said. “You have to protect your face not to have frozen skin.”
Experts say face-taping probably offers some degree of comfort during bitter weather conditions. Tape and Vaseline can add a layer of insulation to decrease the amount of sweat evaporating off the skin, Dr. Tipton said. But the benefit is mostly psychological — eliminating the distraction of a cold nose and cheeks rather than changing overall body temperature, which would have a much more significant effect on performance.
Nonetheless, the face-taping trend seems to have caught even the company that makes the tape by surprise. KT Tape, an Olympic sponsor, does not even know if it works. “KT Tape is in the process of testing for similar uses, but has not completed the research at this time,” said a KT Tape spokeswoman, Lisa Ramsperger.
Canada’s Alpine skiers have battery-heated pants to wear during downtime on the slopes. The defending giant slalom champion Ted Ligety of the United States has a pair, too. He said he also intended to spend a little extra time in the tent at the top of the course.
The United States delegation has jackets with battery-powered heating elements. Concern about cold conditions prompted the Italian team, which was 59th in the parade of nations at the opening ceremony, to advise its athletes to skip the entertainment portion of the ceremony.
“It’s the first time we decide this,” said Danilo Di Tommaso, deputy chief of mission for Italy. “Vancouver was covered. Sochi was not cold. Torino was beautiful. In the recent past, we didn’t have this problem.”
Some cross-country and biathlon athletes have been spotted holding a whistle-like gadget in their mouths as they ski. The device is a respiratory heat exchanger.
Aluminum coils inside of it capture the heat from an athlete’s breath. When the athlete sucks in cold air, the air is warmed by the residual heat so it feels less cold going into the athlete’s lungs. The Czech biathlete Eva Puskarcikova has been photographed using it. A team spokesman said it helped her breathing during the event. But the gadget looks odd, like a hunting whistle, and sometimes icicles made of saliva form on the end of it.
In 1988, University of Wisconsin researchers studied the device, called a Lungplus, when used by 91 subjects in various cold-weather conditions. Over all, Lungplus users reported more comfort breathing in very cold temperatures. The researchers noted that Lungplus breathing at minus 15 degrees Celsius received similar scores, in terms of comfort, as regular breathing in 20 degrees Celsius, according to the research published in Applied Ergonomics.
The Norwegian athletes, who are accustomed to very cold weather, have adopted several strategies to stay warm in Pyeongchang, according to the team’s chief medical officer, Dr. Mona Kjeldsberg. Members of the Alpine team and support crew use heated socks while they wait to compete, she said. Most wear wool undergarments and use tape and buffs to protect exposed skin on the face. To stay warm, “hot chocolate from Norway is a favorite,” she said.
Despite the bitter cold, the wind chill and temperatures in Pyeongchang have not dropped low enough to create serious concerns about hypothermia or frostbite for the athletes, experts say. (Frostbite risk becomes significant if the temperature drops below minus 13 Fahrenheit, or minus 25 Celsius.)
During competition and training, most athletes will generate enough heat to keep their internal body temperature at a comfortable level. Between events, athletes will need to keep moving to maintain deep body temperature. One mistake athletes and spectators can make is to focus on warming hands and feet, which often feel cold first, rather than warming the rest of the body.
“An old mountaineering adage is, if you want to keep warm hands, wear a hat,” Dr. Tipton said.
Athletes do best when they keep their head and torso warm. That’s because the body’s first defense against cold is to shut down blood flow to the extremities, essentially sacrificing the hands and feet to maintain the temperature of the heart, lungs and brain.
The temperature of the hands and feet, however, dominates a person’s perception of thermal comfort. In other words, the athletes may feel colder than they actually are.
For elite athletes, feeling cold can affect performance in several ways. The discomfort becomes a distraction. Hands and feet can become numb and lose motor function — a problem for biathletes who stop midrace to fire guns. Then there is something called “cold-induced diuresis” — as the body concentrates blood flow to key body parts, blood pressure rises and urination increases. That can lead to a corresponding loss in blood volume — a hazard for endurance athletes.
And if athletes get cold enough to begin shivering, that can spell real trouble. When shivering is induced in a research setting, the study subject typically feels extremely tired after the experiment and the next day as well, Dr. Tipton said, since it causes “muscles to work against each other in asynchronous fashion.”
Warm drinks do little to warm the body, but holding and sipping a hot beverage in the cold do offer psychological benefits. (In one study, just holding a hot cup of coffee not only made the study subjects more generous, but they perceived the people around them to be more caring and warm as well.)
“Warm drinks may make you feel better, but they don’t make a lot of difference,” Dr. Tipton said. “In a 70-kilogram athlete, 300 milliliters of warm drink won’t make much difference to body temperature.”
Susie Parker-Simmons, senior sport dietitian with the United States Olympic Committee, said winter athletes on the American team wanted a hot recovery drink similar to the sports drinks available during warm-weather activities. She tried some 20 protein powders, most of which clumped and turned drinks cloudy under hot temperatures. She finally found one that allowed her to make a visually appealing and tasty hot recovery drink with lemon tea, chai and apple juice flavors, although she declined to disclose her recipe.
“We encourage them to get recovery food and keep themselves hydrated,” she said. “Having warm fluids is very appealing to them.”
Martin Moller, a cross-country skier for Denmark, grew up in Greenland and recommends learning to love the frigid environment of Pyeongchang.
“If you think you are going to freeze, you’re sure to freeze faster,” he said. “Try to feel the clear, cold air and love its crispy flavor.”
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