The turn of the year in the National Football League brings with it not only the always-exciting spectre of the playoffs, but also the less exciting prospect (depending on who you ask, I suppose) – of playing games in freezing temperatures.
This past weekend, during the Wild Card round, the Buffalo Bills played in one of the coldest games in their history against the New England Patriots. The game-time temperature was in the single digits, with winds of over 10 miles per hour. There was specific concern for Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who’s struggled in cold weather games, reportedly due to circulation issues that make his hands and feet much more susceptible to the cold weather. Suffice it to say, hands and feet are pretty valuable for quarterbacking in the NFL!
In the end, the Bills found a way to not only keep Allen warm, but to also demolish their AFC East bugaboo. In running up an awesome 47-17 score line, the Bills personified legendary head coach Marv Levy’s famous line of “when it’s too tough for them, it’s just right for us”, scoring on each of their first seven (!) possessions.
This weekend, there’s one similarly frigid game on the docket, in Green Bay, with the San Francisco 49ers visiting the Packers on the aptly named “frozen tundra” of Lambeau Field. As kickoff is scheduled for 7:15 pm local time, the temperature is expected to dip as the game progresses, into the teens Fahrenheit, with a wind chill factor down near zero, and the potential for snow flurries.
Though the game pales in comparison to the legendary 1967 NFL Championship game dubbed the “Ice Bowl”, which was played in a temperature of -15 degrees F (-26 degrees Celsius), with a wind chill that dropped temperatures to an Arctic -48 degrees F (-44 degrees Celsius).
There’s significant risk – to both performance and bodily health – that comes with playing in temperatures that cold for an extended period of time. How is it, exactly, that NFL teams prepare to play in extreme cold? Well, the Green Bay Packers have gone as far as to install a heating system into their field, to help keep it from resembling ice-cold, concrete.
Beyond this, what exactly can players do to counteract the conditions during the game?
First and foremost, movement while on the field helps get blood players’ flowing and increase body temperature. However, what’s to be done when players are standing stationary on the sidelines – which can often be for over 15 minutes in real-time?
Heated benches and heaters
On the sideline, NFL teams maximise the use of technology to help their players stay warm. One of the key ways is via heated benched that also – when you look carefully – have slots for the players feet. Warm toes, happy body!
Additionally, teams will install heaters and blowers on the sideline to provide extra heat to their players.
Additionally, on the back of the benches, there are white, vertical poles that are heated onto which players can place their helmets.
Beyond this type of specialised equipment installed by teams themselves, there are additions that players can make to their uniforms and equipment to help fend off frigid temperatures:
Double gloves and socks
When in doubt, players can double up with gloves and socks. For gloves, a thinner base layer glove that fits inside a normal outerwear glove is common, Meanwhile, simply doubling up on socks helps to keep players’ toes warm.
Sweat can make the cold feel even colder so using antiperspirant – especially inside shoes – is a trick that some players use
Another trick is a good old fashioned jar of vaseline. Some players will lather vaseline onto their skin to help create a barrier against the cold. This is especially vital for players who don’t like to wear full sleeves.
Heated insoles and heat packs
Players can use heated insoles for their shoes to keep their feet warm. This is especially important when the ground is freezing cold.
Players also use battery-operated hand warmers to keep mobility in their hands. There are pouches that can be worn around the waist to help with keeping hands warm – these are especially important for quarterbacks, who must have some level of feel to throw the football. Additionally, there are also small warmers that are also usable elsewhere in a players’ uniform, like inside gloves, helmets and pads.
Speaking of full sleeves, there’s always the option of layering up with full sleeve shirts, fleece turtlenecks, and longer underwear/thermals to keep one’s legs warm.
Last but not least, many players say that they stick to a regiment of hot liquids both before a game and on the sidelines. These include hot chocolate before kickoff, and chicken broth during the game. Though helpful, this is a solution that must be deployed in measured doses, as beverages like these, in excess, can wind up coming back out. In a sport as physical as NFL football, this is a major concern.
Overall, the NFL has made strides in advancing player health, safety, and comfort. Dealing with cold temperatures is no exception. When you’re watching the Niners and the Packers this weekend – or any other frigid game in the future – keep a look out for the measures taken by teams and players to cope with the cold.
Dr. Rajpal Brar, DPT, (@3cbperformance) is a physiotherapist, movement expert, fitness trainer, sports scientist and mindfulness coach. He runs the LA and online based physiotherapy and athletic performance clinic 3CB Performance, and you can subscribe to his Youtube channel (which posts a variety of sports injury, performance, & skills content).