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.”