running · skiing

Cold fingers and female athletes

There’s a line that makes me want to punch people. “You know what they say, cold hands, warm heart.” Yeah, that line.

For many years, I was just fine with winter. I love the snow. My first years in Canada–my family moved to this country when I was four–were spent in cold, snowy Newfoundland. I didn’t even mind, as a young person, the shorter days. I mind them now.

And then I started to get seriously cold and for a few years I spent most of winter inside. That drove me a little bit bonkers. I love the outdoors. So I started running. And cross country skiing. The really neat thing was that exercise kept me warm in a way down coats never could. I love being active outside in the winter. I love the outdoors and moving fast meant I was warm enough finally.

But then a new problem emerged, Raynaud’s phenomena. Or that’s what my doctor tells me it’s called. Since they can’t do anything and it’s more an inconvenience than a danger, modern medicine doesn’t have much to tell me other than a name. Thanks doctors. But I’ve been poked and prodded an investigated and that is what I have.

I’d start skiing and work up a good sweat but then my fingers would start to get really cold. They’d get lumpy and hard and I knew frost bite would soon happen. I had a few really scary run ins with frost bite. I’d be skiing and find myself with hard frozen hands miles from anywhere. I’d be running, even with the best gloves on, and start to get pain in my hands. Once I considered knocking on a stranger’s door and getting in out of the cold.

Now it happens even in just a few minutes, in the walk in from the parking lot at -5 for example. I’ve even had it happen indoors.

I have battery operated mitts for skiing. Oddly, the mitts themselves never feel warm but your hands never ever get cold. I also started skiing in loops around a fixed point so I’d never be too far away from warmth.

What is Raynaud’s phenomena?

A condition of unknown cause in which the arteries of the fingers become hyperreactive to the cold and go into a spasm. It is more common in women than men, and may affect up to 10% of otherwise healthy female athletes causing them great difficulties in cold environments. Warm gloves and calcium-channel blocking agents may relieve the condition. Read more:

Raynaud’s disease, also known as Raynaud’s phenomenon and sometimes simply Raynaud’s, is a condition that causes some areas of the body to feel numb and cool in response to cold temperatures or emotional stress, caused by a problem with the blood supply to the skin. Raynaud’s disease is a vasospastic disorder – spasms in the blood vessels lead to vasoconstriction (narrowing). What is Raynaud’s?

There’s not a lot you can do. My doctor’s advice: Plan to retire somewhere warm. Gee, thanks.

There is some concern that outdoor, winter exercise makes the condition worse. See here.

“Exercising may shift blood away from the skin to the muscles. During exercise, body parts, including the hands, are in need of more blood. Even though you may feel warm, if your skin is sensing cold, then the shift to the muscles and other parts of the body may be exaggerated.Exercising in a warm environment is recommended for people with Raynaud’s, and people with severe disease may not be able to safely exercise in the cold. To help, it is important that the central body and brain sense that it is warm, even if you are in a cold environment. This is done by using layers of warm clothes, including a hat to cover the head as well as gloves and socks for the fingers and toes. After exercise, it is critical to warm the central core temperature, and not just the fingers. Swinging the arms in a wide rapid circle can force blood to the fingers.”

I now spend more money on mittens that just about any other item of clothing. Maybe footwear is the only thing that costs me more. I read online reviews of mitts and I have alerts set up for medical literature on Raynaud’s.

I’m not going to stop playing in the snow. The photo below is from a trip to Algonquin a few years ago. Love it.


16 thoughts on “Cold fingers and female athletes

  1. Pleasantly surprised to hear you sometimes want to punch people!
    I wish I didn’t have a cold-related problem myself, and I do find myself both wishing to explain myself in cold situations, and wishing I didn’t feel I have to. I’ve gotten odd looks or misdirected scolding for not dressing right or moving briskly. I tell myself a good feminist shouldn’t justify her quirky physiology or feel bothered by misunderstanding responses.

    Funny, isn’t it, that the cold-related issues don’t feel like they go together with being fit or feminist? 🙂

  2. Loved reading this. I have Raynaud’s as well. Sadly was discovered when breast feeding, making my son’s early months very painful. Until this year I really was only aware of things during seasonal change especially when it was damp out. Now it seems to be year round and still very much affected by moisture. I spent a week in Winnipeg recently, they were colder but less moister and I was almost pain free the whole week. Stress is never something I’d thought of and will have to see if that plays into mine.

    Personally I find my toes are worse than fingers especially in the evening. . I was really surprised my new passion for activity didn’t seem to improve things as it was originally described to me as a “circulation” problem. I was given a low dose of blood thinners, that didn’t seem to do much and I wasn’t willing to up the dose. Now I just live with it and have lots of hot baths as that seems to be my quickest way to improve things.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Sorry to hear about the Raynaud’s. I have a female friend with it and Dan has it too. You didn’t mention problems with feet, but just in case (and you probably know this but maybe some of your followers don’t): for cycling, there are many options for winter cycling boots. Most people I know prefer Lake winter mountain biking boots, which are clunky, but you can put them on any bike and remain toasty warm. They are very pricey (over $300), but do the job. There are other brands as well (I hear Sidi winter shoes are not so good, despite the high price). For winter cycling hand problems, do you use Pogie’s or some such bar mitts? Several folks I know use them and report good results. For xc skiing, well, that’s tougher. Congrats for your persistence, and I hope this winter’s activities can be fun for both you and your hands.

  4. I hear ya on the Reynauds. My hands are the worst too and I’ve had a few winter biking episodes where I’ve had to stop because I am literally unable to feel my hands enough to brake safely. Once the spasm passes, they get almost too hot which is a treat when it’s cold. I’m very prone to it when stressed too.
    Good luck with the winter workarounds letting you keep playing in the snow for years to come!

  5. Cold fingers here too… Reynaud’s, probably, but mostly just plain old-fashioned miserable arthritis, because apparently my hands are 20 years older than the rest of me.

    I was reading a cycling magazine today and came across the next best thing to the Holy Grail: HEATED HANDLEBAR GRIPS for bikes. Road bikes get heated tape and flat bars get normal looking grips. Powered by a lithium-ion polymer battery and reportedly giving nearly two hours of heat… WANT!!

    No, I do not care that it is $200 US. Worth every penny.

    For now, though, for cycling, skiing, hiking, etc, I rely on merino wool liner gloves inside a pair of cross-country ski mittens that are windproof, water-resistant, breathable, and lightly insulated with fleece. (MEC Glide XC ski mitts). The mitts are thin and flexible enough that I can use my shifters without difficulty; they have leather palms, for grip on ski poles or bike handlebars, and there’s a nice soft terry nose wiping patch on the thumbs (machine washable, thank goodness).

    I can’t wear gloves at all – they are never warm enough!

    On really cold days I tuck a chemical handwarmer pack into the mitten between the liner and the mitt, on the back of my hand, or I tuck the warmer into the cuff of my sleeve so that it warms the blood in my wrist veins. (It works for ducks!)

  6. I have Reynauld’s Syndrome –for last 5 years. When I l lived and biked in Vancouver BC where it’s much milder in winter, my fingers turned white frozen even at only 0- -3 degrees C. So I have to wear lobster claw gloves if I go cycling beyond 3 km., even at those temperatures.

    Once I went to job interview where in the washroom prior to the meeting, I had to unbutton my dress coat. I spent 5 terrifying minutes trying to undo my coat buttons (I didn’t want to wear a long coat at a job interview!). It was because of Reynauld’s, I could barely manipulate the buttons.

    There’s not much I can do….I’ve been advised by 2 doctors (one of them, my sister) that I just simply have to be vigilant and keep my hands warm.

    When I snowshoe in the Rocky Mountains or any mountain area, where temperatures have dropped to -24 degrees C (like last year’s snowhoeing that we did in Lake Louise), I wear mitts and several glove layers.

  7. Thanks for your post. I have Raynaud’s, too, and am struggling to figure out mittens/gloves for winter biking in Minneapolis. I’ve just ordered some serious Gore-tex down mittens, but would love to know what brand or style of battery operated mittens you have. It’s definitely something I’ve thought about purchasing.

    My doctor diagnosed Raynaud’s several years ago, and while there’s not much I can do about it, I think it is helpful to have a name for it and perhaps a better understanding of my own body.

    1. I can’t find a brand name on them but they came from a ski shop on the edge of Algonquin park. I suspect they’re a common ski item. I have great gloves for cycling made by sugoi, think they’re the heaviest cycling gloves out there.

  8. I don’t know if it’s Reynaud’s, but I definitely have what my family calls Icy Fingers of Doom. It’s just my normal state, unless I’m hot.

    Never heard “cold hands, warm heart” before. That’s cute! Makes me happy as an owner of cold hands (and feet).

  9. I have this, too! It started about 5 years ago, and I do have a good way of dealing with it while running: I use hand warmers (those packets that heat up when exposed to air). I wear a thin glove liner, then the hand warmer, and then a mitten on top. I’ve never understood why mittens are not worm more by runners (since running doesn’t require the use of your fingers, you might as well keep them warmer in mittens). I actually wear mittens when running in the late fall and early spring–sometimes I’ll run in just a running bra, shorts, and mittens! And I use the handwarmers when the tems are in the low 40’s and below (which means all winter long). They really made a huge difference for me. They don’t work so well for other winter sports (I’ve tried them when cross-country skiing, but they don’t stay in place so well when gripping the poles).

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