Like it or not, winter is here. Whether you’re training for an endurance race or just a dedicated runner, New England winters are particularly challenging to one’s safety and resolve. According to Alicia Hirscht, DPT, SCS, CSCS, director of physical therapy at ONS/Stamford, snowy pathways and icy sidewalks, reduced daylight and frigid temperatures all present real risks for those who are willing to brave winter weather conditions to get in their run. But there are a few sensible precautions you can take to stay safe and warm.
“Experts agree that the trick to staying warm while you’re out in the cold is to layer, but not too much,” Hirscht said. Even though it’s cold outside, your body will generate enough heat to perspire, so it’s important to wear moisture-wicking inner layers to help your body stay warm and dry. Your outer layer should be made from a material like Gore-Tex which lets out the heat while also protecting you against the wind. When deciding how many layers to add, Hirscht suggested that you dress to feel a little chilly when your first step outside. “You will warm up as you get going,” she said. Bearing in mind that everyone’s tolerance to cold is different, in general, if the temperature is below 40, you’ll want two layers beneath your jacket – a light weight base layer and a light fleece top or vest.
We lose as much as 30 percent of our body heat through our hands, feet and head. A hat and running gloves or mittens are essential, again those made of wicking materials are the best. If your hands are particularly sensitive to the cold, Hirscht advised slipping disposable heat packs into your gloves or mittens. If you local running store doesn’t keep them in stock, you can usually find them in a ski shop.
Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid running in slush, but you can keep your feet warm and dry if you forgo light, mesh covered running shoes in favor of sturdier versions with breathable, waterproof uppers. If you don’t feel like buying winter trainers, treat your current shoes with a waterproof spray. If your feet are prone to blister, putting a balm on your feet will keep your toes and heels dry and minimize the friction between soggy socks and shoes.
Some people have difficulty breathing when they exercise in extremely cold weather, especially those with asthma or exercise-induced asthma. If you are breathing heavily, the winter air may induce bronchoconstriction due to the air’s dryness and extreme cold. That’s why Hirscht and other experts recommend slower, endurance runs in the winter instead of high velocity sprints. If cold air affects your breathing, consider wearing a thin, skier’s face mask or waterproof gaiter, or wrap a lightweight scarf across your mouth and nose. Breathing through the nose instead of the mouth will also help reduce the impact of bursts of cold air in your lungs.
It’s up to you to make sure that you stand out to distracted drivers and or those whose vision is compromised by snow, glare or shadows in dim light. It’s best to have bright, reflective outer clothing or accessories such as reflective wrist bands or clip-on lights to make yourself more noticeable, particularly if your route takes you off the sidewalks and into the road.
While we do sweat while running in the cold weather, we typically do not feel as thirsty to replenish those fluids as we do when running in warmer weather. Be mindful of this and remember to hydrate both before, during and after your workout. “As with any cardiovascular exercise, remember to continue drinking until you urinate after your exercise, and that the color of your urine is a pale yellow, not dark, cloudy or brown,” Hirscht said. For runners, the general guideline is to drink 16 ounces of water or sports drink before your run. Ideally, you should take in between 5 and 12 ounces of fluid every 15 – 20 minutes during your run, and another 8 ounces within 30 minutes after you stop.
If you are out on a particularly windy day, avoid getting a chill by facing the wind at the beginning of your run so it will be at your back when you make your sweaty return to home. If the temperature is at or below 0 degrees, or the wind chill is below minus 20, be smart and work out at the gym to avoid the chance of frostbite.
Regardless of the season, you should participate in a training program that consists of strengthening and stretching to avoid the types of injuries that can plague runners. This twice weekly program should include exercises for your core, hips, hamstrings and calves. Here are some injury prevention exercises for runners.