February 23rd, 2021
Winter Running – Stay Safe and Healthy
If you’re gearing up for a spring race, or just running on a regular basis, you may be dreading the approach of winter. Between the snow, ice, shorter days, and the stresses of the holidays, it can be tough to keep your training on track.
While winter workouts do require a little extra strategizing, with a few simple precautions, you can increase your fitness, and stay safe and healthy until spring arrives. Here are some tips.
STEP OUTSIDE There’s no doubt about it, treadmills can be lifesavers when road conditions feel unsafe. But running all of your miles inside can lead to nagging aches and pains, says physical therapist and athletic trainer Greg Knapton, owner of Riverview Physical Therapy. Biomechanically, running on the treadmill is not the same as running outside. If you’re training for a long-distance race, like a marathon, “as long as you’re dressing appropriately in layers, and conditions are safe, get your long runs in on the road,” says Knapton.
TREAD CAREFULLY If you are logging lots of miles on the treadmill, watch your form to prevent overuse injuries. Resist the temptation to keep increasing your speed if the pace on the electronic display is tough on the ego. “I always think I should be running faster than what the treadmill shows,” Knapton says. Cover the display with a towel, and focus on running at a pace that you can sustain without holding on to the handrails. If you have to hold on, you’re running too fast. And watch your form on the treadmill. Avoid staring down at the electronic display on the treadmill—that can cause extra tension into the shoulders and back, and make running feel harder than it needs to. Instead, look straight ahead and keep your shoulders relaxed. If you’re running for an hour or more on the treadmill, take a break every 30 minutes to walk, stop, rehydrate, and stretch, just as you might if you were on the road, says Knapton. Avoid just punching in a pace, and zoning out for the rest of the workout. But when you’re running outside, your pace varies as you warm up, and you navigate undulations in the terrain. So inside, vary the pace and incline often to more closely mimic the way that you would run outside.
DRINK UP In the winter, it’s easy to let good hydration habits slide,since you’re sweating less in colder conditions. “People forget to hydrate in the winter,” says Knapton. Dehydration can slow you down, tire you out, and increase your perception of effort, making even an easy pace feels difficult. All that can destroy the quality of your workout. So make hydration a priority. Each day, aim to consume about half your weight in calorie-free fluids, like water. So if you weigh 150 pounds, aim for 75 ounces of water per day.Photo
DRESS RIGHT When you’re running outside, wear shirts and pants made of technical materials that wick the moisture away from your body so you stay warm. Dress in layers that you can shed as you warm up. For wet days, make sure to have a shell that will keep you dry and vent the moisture from sweat. Look for shells that are waterproof, but offer some breathability.
COVER UP Watch the extremities. “Don’t underestimate facial cover,” Knapton warns. The extremities—nose, ears, cheeks, fingers, and toes— are the first to freeze and the most vulnerable to frostbite. So find mittens, gloves, hats, balaclavas that are comfortable in various conditions, and you can regularly wear.
STAY DRY You’re most at risk for hypothermia when it’s rainy or snowy and your skin is damp. Sweaty clothing increases your heat loss. So if you sit around in wet clothes post-workout, you’re going to get cold fast. Be sure to have a warm, dry, change of clothing ready at the end of your run so you can warm up and get dry ASAP.
BE PREPARED FOR NEW ACHES AND PAINS When you have a slippery surface, or you’re running in the snow, stepping through deep snow, and you’re sidestepping tricky areas, it changes your gait, and stresses and works your muscles in new ways. All that can lead to tweaks and strains of hamstrings, achilles, and back, Knapton says. So prepare for those issues, and be sure to allow for plenty of stretching and recovery.
FOCUS ON EFFORT, NOT PACE Factors like snow, frigid air, and ice are bound to impact how fast you can run. So don’t be a slave to a prescribed goal pace for a workout or the numbers you see on your training watch. When temperatures and road conditions are dicey, it’s better to run according perception of effort, Knapton says. If an easy workout is on the schedule, focus on maintaining a pace that feels easy, sustainable and conversational.
BE FLEXIBLE If you’re preparing for a big spring race like a marathon, staying flexible about your training will help ensure that you get to the starting line injury-free. If you try to maintain an iron grip on your routine, you may end up hurt, sick, and sidelined. In any season, the runners who get injured are the ones who say ‘I have to do this because I have this time crunch,’ says Knapton. If you’re a morning runner, it may be safer to move your workouts to midday, when the sun is the strongest and you’re less likely to contend with risks like black ice. “Be willing to vary your days,” says Knapton. “If it’s negative 10 degrees and icy on the roads, you’re better off on the treadmill. Or it may be worth it to wait until tomorrow.”
MIX IT UP Having a non-running workout can help prevent injury, build all-around fitness, stave off burnout, and provide a fun alternative when running outside is unsafe. Substitute a snowshoe for a hill workout, or go for a cross-country skiing outing, Knapton recommends. Cross training with a spin class, pool running, or time on the elliptical can be a great alternative, says Knapton. If you only cross-train sporadically, it’s going to be a challenge to develop the fitness and proficiency to enjoy the workout, and get the cardiovascular benefits or the mental release that comes from breaking a sweat. Your workouts may feel chronically difficult and frustrating. It’s best to start training for those days when the roads are unrunnable by integrating one cross-training day into your routine each week.
LISTEN TO YOUR BODY Upper respiratory infections are common in cold weather, and it can be tough to determine when to run and when to stay in. In general, if you’re sniffling and sneezing it’s usually okay to workout—it might even make you feel better. But if you have a fever, full-body aches, and symptoms of the full-blown flu, it’s best to stay in. One day of rest won’t ruin your fitness. But trying to plow through a sickness when you are worn down can sideline you.
DON’T GO OUT ALONE There’s safety in numbers, especially when you’re running in the cold and dark, or in rural areas. “Run with a buddy or a friend,” says Knapton. Even if you’re a bonified solo runner, it’s best to make safety your first priority.
— Text: Jennifer Van Allen