How much does cold weather actually affect football?

Chuck Bednar for – Your Universe Online

This week, much of the U.S. has been dealing with cold temperatures and wind chill warnings and advisories. And as the weekend and the second round of the NFL playoffs near, the teams playing in Green Bay and New England will find themselves dealing with similar conditions.

In Foxboro, Massachusetts, where the Patriots will be hosting the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday afternoon, highs are expected to be in the mid-20s, according to Meanwhile, the National Weather Service is predicting a high temperature of 19 degrees during the day as the Packers play host to the Dallas Cowboys in the early game on Sunday.

Football players have a long history of competing in the harshest winter weather conditions. In fact, the 1967 NFL Championship game (ironically involving both the Packers and the Cowboys) was played in temperatures of -13 degrees with a wind chill of -48 below. That brutal contest, fittingly known as the Ice Bowl, was won by Green Bay, 21-17.

Even though they may be used to playing in the frigid cold, such conditions do have an impact on a football player’s performance, as by the ESPN Sport Science crew in a recent video. In the video, John Brenkus and his team start by collecting baseline measurements of his reaction time, his grip strength, and both his skin temperature and his core temperature.

Those baseline measurements revealed that Brenkus’s skin temperature was 72 degrees and that his core temperature was 99 degrees. He then entered an ice truck, where the temperature was 10 degrees, to simulate the cold-weather conditions faced by NFL football players.

After just 15 minutes, the skin temperature of his hands fell to approximately 35 degrees. This caused his grip strength to be reduced by more than half as his cardiovascular system began to pump less blood to his extremities.

Thirty minutes into the experiment, his core temperature remained unchanged, but at a cost. To maintain core temperatures, his body began to burn glucose five times faster than in warm weather, leaving less energy for performance and reducing his total reaction time by 45 percent.

So how do football players try to combat these problems? It varies from athlete to athlete. Some players have said they use petroleum jelly and muscular rubs for additional warmth, while others spray athlete’s foot medication on their hands and feet and wearing sterile glove. One player has even said he rubs cayenne pepper on his skin to keep its temperature from falling too much.

Many, however, rely on the more conventional method of running around, according to Jay Yarow of Business Insider. “Football is an active sport, and the more guys are running around, sweating, staying active, the less they notice the cold,” he explained.

Of course, the players aren’t the only one affected by the cold, Brenkus noted. Extreme cold temperatures can also have an impact on the football itself. In fact, a football exposed to 10 degree temperatures for just one hour got slightly smaller, and its air pressure reduced by one-fifth, and had a lower coefficient of restitution (in other words, it was less bouncy).

This causes the ball to come off the kicker’s foot more slowly. Overall, however, ESPN Sport Science noted that it did not have too much on an impact on the game. Punts travel an average of just three yards less in cold weather games, while passing completion percentage fell just two percent and the accuracy of field-goal kickers fell by a mere 1.7 percent.


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