Winter is in full force here in Colorado. The trails are either slick with snow, sticky with mud or treacherously icy. On top of that, it’s seriously cold which makes running seriously tough.
Although research is limited, some studies support what my body tells me year after year: runners are at a higher injury risk during the winter months. Frigid temperatures tighten muscles and joints, making them more susceptible to injury. The winter dark means running by headlamp and the slippery, snowy, hard, frozen ground makes it easier to misstep, fall or slip. Without the heat of the summer, you’re running faster. And the faster you run, the more you risk injury.
Here are a few tips to keep you healthy when it’s cold outside.
Don’t Force The Pace or Workout
Snowy roads and windy winter days can ruin a workout. Trying to force the pace in suboptimal conditions is a sure way to get injured. Our ability to have powerful muscular contractions decreases when temperatures drop. Our body functions at an optimum temperature level. When it’s too cold or too hot, performance decreases. At the same time, cold weather poses increased risks for injury with ice patches that will to either slow you down when you avoid them or make you topple when you try to speed over them. That doesn’t sound like a great, quality speed session to me. Best to save the speed work for warmer days and inside.
When we get chilly, vasoconstriction occurs and our blood vessels contract from the surface of our bodies. Blood is shunted to your critical organs (brain, heart, lungs) and away from skeletal muscle and your extremities. Anything that compromises blood flow is going to have harmful effects on muscle function and healing. Cold makes muscles contract and tighten up. It makes connective tissue more brittle and rigid because it is starved of warmth and blood. Not only are you more prone to injury, but your injuries are harder to heal while your circulation is compromised.
I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t venture out in frigid weather. I’m saying you need to take active measures to avoid getting cold both indoors and outdoors. Wear socks if you are walking around on wood or tile floors. Don’t sit around in wet clothes and socks; change into dry layers immediately and get into a hot shower as soon as you can.
Proper running form is all about keeping your trunk (core and hips) stable while you move your arms and legs. The more stable you can keep your trunk while your arms and legs turn over, the more efficient you’ll be.
Gaining stability is easy but finding the right exercise for you can be tricky. There seem to be as many trunk stability exercises as there are runners. Find ones that challenge you that you enjoy doing. You’re more likely to stick to them. Then, as you get into your injury-proofing routine, you can advance the exercises.
Hips are a primary cause of running ailments, so strong hips are critically important for runners. The more injury prone you are, the more you need to work on hip strength and mobility.
When in Doubt, Wear Traction or Trail Shoes
On a Saturday morning after a Friday night blizzard, I set out for my planned twenty-two mile run with a 30-minute tempo. Despite the snowy trails and sloppy conditions, I was determined to get it done at all costs so I had time to ski the next day.
A week later, I was laid out on the couch with an irritated plantar fascia. If I’d only worn the appropriate shoes with traction such as Yak-Tracks or MICROspikes, I might have reduced the stress on my lower leg caused by slipping in the snow with every step.
Don’t make the same mistake. On icy days, wear slip-on traction over your shoes. Find an everyday trail shoe that can work for dry trails and slick roads. Having the right equipment for winter running could mean the difference between a healthy-build up to a spring race or a season in the gym instead of the trails.