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How To Avoid Injuries During Winter Training

Learn tips on staying healthy and injury-free during your winter training season.

Most runners across the country are deep into the months of trudging through snow, ice and below freezing temperatures to get their miles in. By mid-January, the usual aches and pains, like extra tight quadriceps or a twinge in your Achilles, start to pop up due to these conditions. Icy roads and snow banks are anything but easy on your legs, so unless you’re training in warm weather year-round, it’s important to adjust your routine to your climate so you don’t end up scratching those spring racing plans. Here’s how to stay healthy and injury-free this winter:

Don’t Skip The Warm-Up

Whether you’re out the door at 6 a.m. or prefer evening miles after work, it’s important to integrate a pre-run warmup into your routine before exposing your body to the harsh elements. “Prior to a run, an intentional and thorough warmup routine, as well as a cool down post-run, can help runners prime their cardiovascular and neuromuscular systems to transition from a resting state to accommodating for more vigorous and demanding activity,” says physical therapist and co-author of Running On Resistance Dr. Joel Sattgast.

A dynamic warmup with flexibility and activation drills is one of the most effective ways of preventing injuries and eases your body into workout mode. When done properly, it also makes for a smoother transition to the cold. “By the time I finished warming up I would be so uncomfortably hot that rather than dreading the cold, I couldn’t wait to get outside to cool off,” says Canadian Olympian and former Saucony athlete Nicole Sifuentes. Over the course of her professional career, she developed a 10-minute, pre-run routine that she practices religiously which includes stretches, foam rolling and specific muscle activations.

Your Body On Winter Runs

Even if you regularly warm-up though, winter running is still going to put extra strain on your body, especially when it comes to stride and pace. “The change in surface and slippery/unstable conditions can cause runners to alter their stride to gain more balance and traction,” says Dr. Wes Gregg, Northern Arizona Elite’s chiropractor. “Because of the unstable and unpredictable surface, runners tend to shorten their stride to account for this to prevent falling. This often leads runners to noticing more soreness after running in the snow because they are using their stabilizing muscles more.”

Stabilizer muscles, such as your quadriceps and hip flexors, work overtime when running on uneven surfaces. While the root of many running related injuries can be traced back to weak stabilizer muscles, strengthening them is more manageable than other areas of the body which cannot be easily manipulated (e.g. high arches, pronation vs. supination). One of the most effective ways of strengthening these muscles is to develop a lifting plan that targets them.

Physical therapist and performance coach Nathan Carlson notes two routines for hip and glute strengthening: lateral toe taps and a bridge variation using a kettlebell. Both should be done after running when muscles are still warm. His approach to winter training also includes an increase in strength training with lower running volume.

“With my clients, we frequently prioritize two things in the winter: heavier, more challenging strength routines and varied athletic endeavors,” says Carlson. “Since the volume of running is lower and often not as intense, we can push the volume and intensity of our lifting routines to put our body in a good position for the increased mileage and workouts during the spring.”

Another concern during the winter running is the fear of falling on the ice and potentially injuring oneself. When approaching snow or ice, the body’s natural response is to shorten its stride, resulting in quicker, shorter steps. “Since running is a ‘one or none’ activity, where a runner is either in float phase or in a single leg stance phase of gait, exercise prescription should target single leg balance and strength,” says Sattgast. “This may include activities such as controlled marching, step-ups and lateral toe taps to more advanced strengthening techniques such as bridging, rear-foot elevated squats, farmers carry and single leg deadlift progressions.”

Spend More Time Cross-Training

If you’re still struggling to maintain consistent mileage throughout the winter, consider this a message from your body that you may need to integrate cross-training into your routine to stay healthy. Cross-training, such as aqua jogging or stationary biking, is a low impact alternative to running that’s easier on your legs without compromising fitness. Many professionals cross train to offset the impacts of high mileage or to recover from injuries, think Jordan Hasay’s pool workout during her stress fracture recovery this past fall.

Keep in mind that winter running is beneficial to your body for many reasons. For one, cold air contains little humidity, which is a major cause of dehydration and heat exhaustion in the summer. Losing electrolytes, salt and carbohydrates that are found in sweat takes longer in cold weather, helping you to avoid that burnt-out feeling a mile into your run. While lung damage is a common misconception about cold weather running, it is actually impossible for your lungs to freeze, even in the coldest climates. When you take a breath, your nose, mouth and throat warm the air before it reaches your lungs. By March, when the temperatures slowly start to rise, you may notice that your lungs feel great, as they had months of adapting to cold, dry air.

So whether you’re running 80 miles a week this winter or zero, remember to be flexible, allow your body to rest, and focus on a strength training routine that will prepare your legs for racing in the spring. “Winter can be a rejuvenating period of rest and it’s important for runners of all skill levels to take some down time,” says Sattgast. “The change in seasons can provide an opportunity for active rest and reflection, as well as renewed focus on strength, capacity, mobility and further performance variables of running.”