Return to top
News

Environmental physiology class conducts research in Iceland to study effects of cold on physical performance

IcelandtripSpring13-Valahnukur
UNE faculty and students on top of Valahnúkur Mountain in Iceland
Team members ice-climbing with crampons, ice axes, helmets and harnesses

, Maine — One might think that the University of New England, like any college or university in Maine, would be a good place to study the effects of cold temperatures on athletic performance.  

But for Lara Carlson, Ph.D., CSCS, FACSM, assistant professor in UNE’s Department of Exercise and Sport Performance, and UNE student Cara Fowler ‘14, an applied exercise science major, the Maine cold was apparently not cold enough.

In May, Carlson and fellow chaperone Kash Dutta, associate lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences, took a group of 11 applied exercise science and athletic training students, including Fowler, on a six-day trip to Iceland to conduct research on the impact of cold exposure on physiological performance.

During the spring academic term, Fowler and her classmates Ellie Arsenault, Brianna Bisesti, Lindsay Calcaterra, Lindsay Ellis, Nicholas Gross, Stacey Howard, Morgan Humphreys, Molly Laubach, Olivia Lufkin and Sarah McLintock were enrolled in an environmental physiology course developed and taught by Carlson. The class focused on the various forms of environmental stress and how humans respond to them physiologically. Students learned how physical performance is affected by environmental stressors such as heat and cold, as well as hypobaric, hyperbaric, and micro-gravitational conditions. The students learned both in lecture and in laboratory, and there was an optional travel laboratory component -- in this case, a trip to Iceland.

Prior to the trip, Fowler submitted a research grant proposal to the New England chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine (NEACSM) with the hypothesis that an acute cold exposure will negatively impact athletic performance. She served as principal investigator of the study and led the research in Iceland. According to her, the effects of the extreme cold in Iceland were very apparent. “At first, the cold didn’t feel terrible and was almost bearable,” she shared. “It was around the halfway mark that the shivering and goose bumps really kicked in for me…My muscles were very stiff throughout the entire duration of testing in Iceland, and it was incredibly hard to even walk. It almost felt as though my legs were not attached to me because I had no control over where they went.”

“Research suggests that a cold exposure deteriorates short duration neuromuscular performance, such as jumping and sprinting; however, these previous findings are based on cold-water immersion or ice-pack application - not changes in the environmental setting. Therefore, we thought it was important to examine the consequences of acute environmental changes that athletes potentially experience during competition in cold climates.”
Lara Carlson, Ph.D., CSCS, FACSM, assistant professor
According to Carlson, despite vast amounts of research on the effects of a heat stress on performance variables, there has been significantly less inquiry focusing on the effects of a cold environment on athletic performance tests. While it is known that cold causes constriction of blood vessels to the skin, which in turn decreases blood flow to working muscles during exercise and consequently impairs muscle function, it has been reported that the cold may impair neuromuscular performance, as well. Carlson felt that these findings were somewhat limited, however.  

She explained: “Research suggests that a cold exposure deteriorates short duration neuromuscular performance, such as jumping and sprinting; however, these previous findings are based on cold-water immersion or ice-pack application - not changes in the environmental setting. Therefore, we thought it was important to examine the consequences of acute environmental changes that athletes potentially experience during competition in cold climates.”

Fowler explained how the team measured various athletic performance variables and plasma lactate values in both a thermo-neutral environment and in the frigid conditions in Iceland: “To measure athletic performance variables, we completed three tests to quantify the variables of agility (pro-agility test), speed (36.6 meter sprint), and power (vertical jump). We had each individual complete two trials of both the sprint and the pro-agility test and three trials of the vertical jump test.” In addition to testing the performance variables, Fowler also tested the study participants via finger-prick test for lactate measurements in the blood before and after each testing session, both in the thermo-neutral environment and in the cold.

The trip also involved plenty of exercise that was not part of the research. The group hiked to the top of Valahnúkur Mountain, ice-climbed at a sub-glacier of the Eyjafjallajökull Glacier, and performed a demanding hike along the Tindfjöll Mountains.

The team’s work continues now that they have returned, as they are completing the data analysis in preparation for a presentation at a regional and national sports medicine meeting.

(News release posted July 10, 2013)

A 2012 Trip

altitude_trip-(111)

In 2012, thirteen UNE Applied Exercise Science and Athletic Training students spent five days living and conducting research at Vail Pass, Colorado. More