For many, nothing beats running outside. You get to feel the sun on your face and breathe fresh air while getting a good workout. Plus, there are endless things to look at – distractions that make it easier to meet your training goals since you’re not focused on your legs and lungs.
But as the days get shorter and colder, and the snowflakes begin to fall, it’s a good time to think about how you’ll keep your fitness level up during the winter months.
Running in winter can increase your chance of muscle, bone and ligament injuries to your knees, feet, ankles, groins, legs, hands and wrists. But it’s possible for runners to dash through the snow and still stay safe.
Read on to learn why running injuries are more common in winter, plus tips on how to avoid them.
Why running injuries are more common in winter
You can get running injuries anytime of the year – but winter increases the likelihood of common running injuries such as muscle and tendon strains and tears. There are a few reasons for this.
Winter conditions cause falls and accidents
In winter, the ground can be icy and uneven from thick snow. These conditions make it more likely you’ll slip and fall on the hard, frozen ground. Plus, you’re more likely to run when there’s poor visibility since there are fewer daylight hours and weather conditions like blizzards and freezing rain.
Changes to your running form increase stress on your body
You run differently in winter. To keep from slipping and falling, you’re likely to shorten your stride. It’s also natural to lean back slightly with each step as a way to ground your footing and keep from slipping.
These changes in running form cause you to depend more on stabilizer muscles such as those in the upper thighs and pelvis. These stabilizer muscles help you keep your balance. But if they haven’t been conditioned to withstand the stress of winter running, they are more likely to get hurt.
Cold muscles are more likely to get sprained or torn
Cold temperatures can make muscles tighter, affecting how well they work during activity. Warming up inside is important during cold winter months because it helps your body more easily handle the cold temperatures – we get into that more below.
Freezing temperatures can be dangerous
Cold temperatures are bad for muscles and exposed skin. But what temp is too cold to run? To some degree (pun intended), it’s personal. Many runners avoid running in temperatures below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit) because they have difficulty breathing or feel numbness in their toes or other extremities.
Runners with asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Raynaud’s syndrome and low body fat may be particularly sensitive to running in cold weather. The American College of Sports Medicine says that runners should be extremely cautious when running outside in windchill temperatures colder than minus 18 degrees Fahrenheit.
It’s easy to push yourself too hard when running
You can run faster in cooler temperatures, so it’s easier to overexert yourself. Although uneven terrain will likely make it difficult for you to max out your speed, overexertion can lead to tearing or overusing your muscles, tendons and ligaments.
Though winter running can be dangerous, you don’t have to hang up your running shoes until the spring thaw. There are good reasons to continue (or even start) a running routine during the winter.
- Winter running can be more comfortable – When you exercise in winter, you don’t get as hot. And by dressing in layers, you’ll be able to better control your body temperature.
- Winter running makes you slow down – In life, we’re always rushing from one task to another. In winter, the conditions typically force runners to slow down. You can enjoy the scenery (and all those beautiful snowflakes) while still getting a workout that gets your heart pumping.
- Winter running can make you feel less self-conscious – If you’re just starting a running routine, it’s easy to feel self-conscious. In winter, there aren’t as many people on running paths which means there are fewer eyes on you. This can make it easier to build up your strength and endurance without worrying about what other people may think.
9 ways to prevent winter running injuries
With the right amount of preparation and care, it’s possible to enjoy the benefits of winter running without hurting yourself. Here are nine ways to prevent running injuries.
1. Choose the right gear: What to wear running in winter
How do people survive running in the winter? A big part is selecting the gear that’s going to keep you warm, dry and visible on dark, snowy mornings and evenings.
It can be tricky knowing how much to wear since you’ll get warmer as you run. A good rule of thumb is to dress as if it’s 15-20 degrees warmer than it actually is. You will be a bit cold starting out, but you should be comfortably warm after about 10 minutes.
If your running gear is too warm, you can get hot and sweaty, which can make you colder. When sweat cools or freezes, it can increase your chance of hypothermia.
Of course, the cold isn’t the only danger for winter runners. Running when it’s dark or snowy can make it harder for drivers to see you, so make sure to wear reflective items or LED lights.
Winter running gear for your legs and upper body
When gearing up for outdoor winter running, you’ll want to dress in layers – that way you can remove items when you start to feel too warm. But you’ll likely need fewer layers for your legs compared to your upper body.
- Base layer – For both your legs and your core, you’ll want to start with a base layer of material that wicks moisture. Silk, wool and synthetic fabrics are good options – just skip cotton since it loses its insulating properties once it becomes wet with sweat. A mock turtleneck is a great choice for your upper body. Below the waist, choose thermal running pants with a waterproof outer layer and a brushed inner layer.
- Outer layer – Look for a thin, windproof jacket designed for cold weather. These jackets usually have more insulation for your core. For warmer winter days, you may not need an outer layer for your legs. But once temperatures drop below 10 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s best to throw a pair of windproof track pants on over your running tights.
Winter running shoes and socks
Many winter running injuries are caused by slipping. So finding the right footwear should be a priority. When buying running shoes, you’ll want to choose warm shoes with traction.
- Trail shoes – Even if you’re a road runner, it’s best to use trail shoes throughout the winter since they have better grip, reinforced uppers and better insulation. Some trail shoes even have a waterproof barrier to keep your feet and ankles dry no matter how slushy it gets outside.
- Traction cleat device – For added protection against icy conditions, slip a traction cleat device over your running shoes. There are options with coils, spikes or both – and you can find them at shoe stores or online. But not all traction cleat devices will work for all shoes, so make sure you do your research before buying.
- Winter running socks – You’ll want insulated running socks that wick moisture and aren’t too bulky. Also, look for ones that cover your ankles. For added ankle protection, consider wearing running gaiters over your tights.
Winter running accessories
You’ll need winter running accessories like hats and gloves to stay warm and prevent frostbite, windburn and chapped skin.
- Gloves for running – Look for thin gloves that wick moisture.
- Winter hat or headband – The type of protection you need depends on the temperature outside. If it’s above freezing, a lightweight hat is fine. If it’s below freezing, opt for a hat or a headband made of wool or thick fleece. And when it gets really cold (below 10 degrees Fahrenheit) switch to a full ski mask. If you’re still cold, layer on a neck gaiter. Good materials for hats and headbands include wool and fleece.
2. Watch the temperature and weather
With the correct running gear and a hearty constitution, you may be able to run outside most of the winter. But during Midwest winters, it’s possible for the temperature to drop to levels that are simply unsafe for running.
Pay attention to the weather forecast and try to plan your runs for when there should be sunshine and higher temperatures. But since meteorologists aren’t always correct, make sure you check the weather before heading out and, if necessary, change your plan.
It’s also important to avoid unsafe conditions such as blizzards and freezing rain. If you start to wonder, “Should I be running in this?” you probably shouldn’t. Head back home and finish your workout inside.
3. Warm up in a warm location
Your body always works better after a warm-up, but it’s especially important for cold-weather running since the extreme cold tightens muscles and increases the chance of injury. Before heading out, warm up for at least five minutes. Good options include lunges, jogging in place and foam rolling.
4. Pace yourself
It’s not fair to your body to expect it to match the speed and distance records you set earlier in the year. Even if you’re going slower, your body will likely be working just as hard. Worry less about your distance and speed. Focus instead on your heart rate and the duration of your workout.
5. Keep your body fueled and hydrated
There’s a lower chance of dehydration in the winter, but it still happens. Sweating is less obvious in winter, and it’s easy to forget that you’ve lost fluids that need to be replaced. But without proper hydration and nourishment, your body won’t work very well, and you’re more likely to get injured.
So, make sure to down a big glass of water and a small snack before you head out. When you return, focus on replacing lost fluids. Eating a post-run snack that’s a balance of protein and carbs will also help your body refuel and recover.
6. Be prepared for winter running injuries
We sincerely hope that you don’t get hurt this winter. But it’s important to know what you’ll do if an accident happens. It’s best to run with a buddy in winter – or at least let people know where you’re going and when you’ll return. And of course, bring your cell phone so you can call for help if you need it.
7. Don’t stop at the finish line: Post-run routine
Sudden changes in temperatures aren’t good for your muscles. In the same way that a warm-up is super important in winter, so is a cool down.
It can be tough to find the motivation to do much stretching after a long run. But if the choice is between some stretches or no stretches, even a few are better than none.
Aim for 2-4 exercises, stretches and massage techniques focused on an area that tends to get tight, sore or injured. Incorporating strength training as part of your post-workout routine can help you build up additional strength to help you power through the winter.
8. Pay attention to your body
You’ll likely have more soreness in different places, such as your upper thighs and hips. Make sure you don’t overexert yourself and, instead, run at a slow and comfortable pace a few times a week. If you have pain that doesn’t go away or your body feels run down and achy, it might be time to take a break from running and try something different.
9. Have a backup plan
If you live in the Midwest, it’s a safe bet that there will be times when outdoor running isn’t a safe option. But instead of skipping or delaying your workout, why not try something new?
Winter can be a great time to expand your exercise horizons, build up strength and flexibility, and injury-proof the areas of your body more likely to get hurt. Areas to explore include:
- Other ways to run – Get on a treadmill, try indoor running tracks or do short sprints in your house
- Cross training – Swimming, stationary biking and yoga are options to increase your fitness, endurance and flexibility
- Strength training – Building muscle in your legs can help prepare your body for the impact of winter running on your body.
When to see a physical therapist or doctor after a running injury
If you hurt yourself while running outside, don’t try to power through – if you have pain or swelling, it shouldn’t be ignored.
You should head to orthopedic urgent care if you are experiencing severe pain or having difficulty moving your injured body part, or it’s obvious that’s something is broken.
Other running pains can usually be treated at home with R.I.C.E therapy (which stands for rest, icing, compression and elevation) for 24-48 hours. But if your injury doesn’t get better in a couple of days, make a physical therapy appointment.
Stay active. Stay warm. Stay safe
Winter running does have some risks. But taking the winter off from exercise isn’t recommended since your muscles may not be ready when the warmer weather rolls around and you’re training for a spring marathon.
If it seems like you’re constantly struggling with aches, pains or injuries, it may be time for a different solution. The Running Program at TRIA can help you manage current injuries and prevent future ones. We’ll look at your running form and develop a running plan to help you heal after injury.
With some planning, you should be able to enjoy winter running without injuries – or find replacement activities that will help keep your running muscles strong, all year long.