As the nights start to draw in and the cold weather settles, you may find it harder to motivate yourself to get out and run; especially when you cannot for the life of you find your gloves, your trainers are still wet from last night’s run and ice and/or snow is paving the way of your usual route. There tends to be an increase in injuries at this time of year with muscle and tendon tears and stress fractures being more common. This is largely due to the direct effect of temperature on these structures, as well as the extra strength needed to deal with muddy surfaces and harder ground with a frost. However, with the right shoes, kit, training programme, and a few alterations in your pre and post running routine, you can keep up your mileage and achieve your winter running goals whilst avoiding the physio’s elbow.
If you’re warm and wearing the right clothes when you set out, you’re less likely to shiver in those first 10-15 mins and more likely to stay warm for the whole run thus reducing risk of injury. That stiff achilles or plantar fascia will take less time to free off and your less at risk of pulling or getting tight muscles. Pre warm your run kit in the dryer for a minute, and put your trainers and socks by the radiator as opposed to in the porch outside.
Wear long tights and long thin base layers which take moisture away as you sweat. This keeps your skin dry and warm reducing the risk of your tissues and muscles cooling down and getting stiff as you are running. A wind proof breathable jacket will prevent overheating as well as preventing the wind from penetrating your core. If you’re at a comfortable temperature whilst running your form will also be relaxed and more fluid. Running rigid and tense will increase forces through tendons and across joints.
It is worth saying that it is also easy to overdress so a good saying is ‘dress for the middle of your run’ not the start. You will naturally warm up and so you don’t want to be carrying your big heavy fleece lined waterproof for the last half of your long run.
Warming up before runs and races becomes more important when it’s cold and wet. In the summer less is more as we don’t want to overheat. While in the winter the most important thing is to make sure our muscles are warm and we have taken them through the desired range of movement before we set off. We may have been sitting at a desk in a slightly cold room all day, so muscles are going to be tight and not very pliable. However if it’s really cold, warmup indoors instead of outside.
Dynamic rather than passive exercises are a good way to warm up from the cold. Try a minute or two jogging on the spot followed by 3 sets of 10 of the following drills; walking lunges, bum flicks, high knees, skips and sideways skip. If you suffer with tight calves and Achilles do a couple of sets of single leg calf raises of a step. Follow this with some more passive stretches if you have particular tightness anywhere.
It is worth investing in some trail shoes if you enjoy off road running. This will not only help your grip and prevent you slipping over, it will also reduce the amount of work your lower limb has to do to keep you upright and thus reducing the chance of getting overused injuries especially to the Achilles and plantar fascia.
The change in ground surface to slippery or heavy mud and ice/ snow in the winter means the body has to work harder to stabilise and stay upright; running on mud, there will be a small but repetitive slip just before we push off with our toes, and this requires more work from our calves, feet, and puts more force through our tibia. As a physio I see lower limb injuries more frequently as a result. One or two thirty minute strength and conditioning sessions a week can really help to build our strength and endurance in these areas: oblique rows, single and double leg squats, heel drops, and single leg balance exercises on wobble discs (such as arch holds) are examples of good exercises to incorporate into your running programme.
If you tend to avoid the mud and stick to the roads in the winter, beware of running on the slopes of the road too much (most roads and pavements have a camber). If you have to, make sure you swap sides to balance it out during your run.
The winter is a great time to increase your leg strength by running on the mud and longer runs with hills. Find time to condition your core and lower limbs especially to cope with the increased demands placed on them on uneven ground. Warming up is more important in the winter and getting into the warm as soon as possible post run to stretch and get warm is really important. Invest in some good winter run gear and trail shoes to reduce the risk of injury from the cold temperature and muddy ground. Wear a head torch if you run in the dark. Above all enjoy your running and come seek physio advice if you’re struggling with a niggle or injury.