Login | August 20, 2019

Knee care in the winter

Pete’s World

Published: February 11, 2019

Today’s column has its roots in an incident that occurred way back in the 1970s, when I was a young buck attending a bicycle race up around the New York-Canadian border.

And it went like this. I was a brash cyclist, who on a frigid March morning, sauntered into the event’s changing room only to be enveloped by an overpowering menthol aroma. I soon discovered the odor was BENGAY, an analgesic heat rub used for muscle and joint pain.

And inside that camphor tainted room were a gaggle of pro Canadian cyclists smearing glops of this analgesic gel all over their well muscled, cleanly shaven legs. And I’m talking ‘70s cycling luminaries like Tour De France rider Steve Bauer and world champion track cyclist Gordon Singleton. These guys were the real deal, and the first big-time cyclists I’d ever met.

After some rather awkward Q&A, I learned they did a lot of their racing and training in shorts, even on days like that 30-some-degree New York morning. The analgesic, they said proudly, tricked their legs into feeling hot. And strong, toned, bare legs, they believed, made for a nice little psychological advantage.

Now contrast their look with mine, me wrapped up like a Yankee sun bunny lost in the arctic, wearing thick wool cycling tights, wool socks and multiple long sleeve wool tops. I not only looked out of place, but I felt like a total frosh. And the sight of all those cycling upperclassmen, with their guns a blazing, well, suffice to say I was defeated before I ever took a pedal stroke.

Their belief was correct and the impression it left on me was lasting.

Unfortunately that impression was a bad one and I spent far too many of my early cycling years riding bare legged in the cold all the while believing I was in possession of a psychological advantage. I thought I was tough - and pretty hip to.

Now fast forward to today where my advice is just the opposite. Cover those legs when it's cold out - period. Don’t try to appear tough, don’t think it’s hip, and don’t buy into the psychological nonsense about bare legs denoting mental strength. In short, don’t be a knucklehead like I was.

Unfortunately, this grand revelation didn’t dawn on me until I developed an interest in sports science, strength and conditioning and human kinesiology.

Anyway, I’m recounting that incident because of the all the runners and riders I’ve been seeing out there in the cold with nil, nichevo, nada - nothing - on their legs. Now I don’t know what their reasoning is for doing this, but if you’re one of them, listen up.

Let’s start from the start. When warm, the tissues of the knee (muscle, ligament, tendon, cartilage) are more elastic; relax more between muscular contractions; and receive more blood flow. In addition, the knee’s lubricating synovial fluid is more viscous when warm - therefore it’s more lubricating. Quite simply, knees will perform optimally when they’re warm.

Now as the temperature drops, less blood is delivered to the peripheral regions of the body (knees, elbows, digits, etc.) so that blood flow can be increased to the organs. What results is less flexible joints.

So as these elastic tissues lose their elasticity via cooler temps and shunted blood flow, they can become more vulnerable to tearing - micro-tearing to be precise. Take cartilage for example, which does not contain blood vessels. These micro-tears create a slow healing, roughened cartilaginous surface which tends to get worse rather than better over time.

Repeated exposures to cold while performing the forceful movements involved with running and cycling can cause micro trauma to knee tissues such that they may develop chronic afflictions which are generally associated with tendonitis and arthritis.

Yup, medical and sports science researchers have provided us with a plethora of data since my ‘70s cycling days. And that’s great, because today we have much more information with which to make educated training and racing decisions. Which is why I’ve gone from bare knee knucklehead to knee-wrap scholar.

Over the last 25 years it’s become an accepted dictum among cyclists - pros included - that knee warmers/tights/knickers should be worn in temps below 60-degrees Fahrenheit. And I happen to apply this dictum to running as well.

So if you’re one of those people I’ve seen out there with no knee protection, don’t be a knucklehead - cover em up this winter.