5 Tips for Running Outdoors in the Winter

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Written by: Jason Smith, Registered Physiotherapist, MSc(PT), CSEP-CPT, CIDN, FCAMPT

Let’s face it: Winter comprises a significant portion of our year in Southern Ontario.  Although it’s easy to stay cooped up inside, finding an outdoor activity that you enjoy can make the season so much more rewarding!  There are plenty of options of outdoor fun for everyone to enjoy.  This month, we are focusing on Running Outdoors in the Winter. GRSM Physiotherapist Jason Smith shares with you his tips for having a successful winter running season.

*This article is intended for educational purposes only and is not meant to replace an individualized plan from a running coach or Physiotherapist.  For recommendations specific to past injuries or individualized running plans be sure to consult a Physiotherapist or running coach respectively

1. Consider your footwear

Running in the winter means potentially slippery, uneven footing. This can lead to increased risks of slips or falls and the associated ankle and knee sprains.  Furthermore, we want to ensure our feet stay dry in cold and wet conditions.  Consider the following options for winter footwear:

  • Grip: Two main options exist for increasing grip on snow and ice. The first option is trail shoes with specifically designed soles to enhance grip on snow.  The advantage of this is a comfortable and integrated light weight shoe that allows you to run more efficiently on a snow covered trail.  The downside is that soles made of rubber will never fully stop you from slipping on ice.  The second more rugged option is a pair of external traction devices like running spikes.  The author is partial to ExoSpikes by Kahtoola for winter trail running, and Nanospikes for road running on icy sidewalks.  Both options will stay on your shoes and prevent slipping on ice. We are privileged in Kitchener-Waterloo to have access to great running and outdoor stores that can help with your product selection, including Runner’s Choice, The Running Room, Adventure Guide, and Mountain Equipment Co-op.
  • Ankle support: Higher cut shoes or ankle braces can be great options for runners with a history of ankle sprains to prevent another one from occurring (4). While higher cut shoes will gently increase ankle proprioception (our ability to sense joint position and movement), an ankle brace can stop the ankle from rolling outright beyond the safe stretch point for ligaments.  Ankle braces accomplish this by using rigid stabilization straps.  Studies show that ankle injuries can be reduced by up to 70% by wearing an ankle brace (4).  Consider using an option such as an ASO- Ankle Stabilizing Orthoses from MedSpec.  The only downside to these options is increased swing weight, which can lead to earlier hip flexor fatigue when running.  To learn more about Bracing at GRSM (https://www.grsm.ca/bracing-products/).  To book an off-the-shelf bracing consultation at GRSM (https://www.grsm.ca/appointment-request/). 
  • Water-proofing: If you’re running in any sort of snow, you’ll want a nice water-proof membrane on your shoes to keep the snow out.  Consider shoes containing gore-tex, or other water-proofing outer layers, to help keep your feet dry and warm.

2. Expect a Slower Pace

Running in the winter, especially trail running, brings new challenges that aren’t present in dry summer conditions.  Ice, snow, and cold weather all play a part in offering us completely new challenges.  If you’re expecting to run at the same pace from your summertime flat runs, consider throwing that plan out the window.  Uneven ground, slippery footing, deep snow, and hills can all add time onto your anticipated pace.  Consider using heart rate as a more reliable indicator of your intensity, rather than your pace.  Tracking additional variables such as distance and altitude on a smart watch, and documenting the trail condition after each run can help you notice improvements over time.

3. Dress Warm

Comfort is of the utmost importance, especially as temperatures drop well below zero degrees Celsius. When choosing clothing, remember that our body temperature will rise significantly as we progressively raise our heart rate.  Clothing that may feel comfortable upon stepping outside may leave you a sweaty mess 10 minutes into your run.  Consider the following items of clothing to help keep you comfortable:

  • Balaclavas, Buffs, and Headbands: Balaclavas and Buffs can keep both your ears and your breath warm.  Helping to warm the cold air that we’re breathing can also help reduce airway reactivity in runners who have exercise and cold-induced asthma.  This option is great for the coldest of conditions, especially on lighter intensity runs or during our warm-up.  As intensity increases, however, mouth and nose coverings will lead to higher respiratory rates and reduced air exchange.  Consider losing your balaclava after your warm-up, and warming your ears instead with a headband. This will keep your ears warm and allow much needed heat dissipation from our scalp to reduce sweating.  It’s also a great idea to carry a warm hat if possible in order to stay warm if you’re forced to stop your run for any reason.
  • Technical Base and Mid-Layers: Consider layering your next to skin and mid-layers with technical clothing that helps to wick moisture away from your body and keep you warm, such as merino wool, or other polyester-based synthetic fibres. Cotton is a faux-pas for winter activity, as it holds moisture which can lead to hypothermia.
  • Wind-Proof Outer Layers:  Exposure to wind can very quickly amplify the cold temperatures our body is exposed to, leading to hypothermia if unchecked.  For example, a temperature of -25 degrees Celsius and a wind of 20 km/h give a wind chill index of -37 degrees Celsius.  A good wind-proof outer layer can mitigate this effect, but may affect the ability of our underlayers to wick moisture.  Consider the intensity of your run, the amount of wind, and the temperature when deciding to use this layer.

4. Start Slow and Progress Slowly

Our bodies are generally able to perform at the level that they have been performing over the last 3-4 months.  Identifying yourself as a half marathon runner from past accomplishments is highly commendable, but if you haven’t run this distance lately, plan your entry point at a much lower distance.  Winter running can place much more emphasis on certain muscles than summer-time running.  Our hip flexors are an example of one such group.  These muscles (comprised of our rectus femoris, tensor fascia latae, and iliopsoas) generally work harder to lift our knees high through deep snow, and keep a higher baseline level of contraction when our foot contacts the ground to help stabilize our leg.  This means that these muscles will fatigue sooner than predicted based on our summer runs, effecting our overall potential for pace and distance.  Once you’ve found an appropriate entry point, a general rule is progressing overall intensity (through distance, tempo, and frequency of weekly runs) by no more than 5-10% weekly.  Programming in deload or recovery weeks once / month is also a popular and highly effective strategy to avoid plateaus in progress and to help mitigate injuries.

5. Consider Supplementary Strength Training

One of the number one factors that predict injuries across many sports is fatigue, and running appears to be no different (2). In order to mitigate fatigue, strengthening the muscles used during your activity can have a powerful effect.  Studies show that the effect of fatigue on running form is even more pronounced in novice runners compared to competitive runners (3). Supplementary bodyweight and resistance training for as little as two sessions per week can lead to huge improvements in running economyEconomy in this case refers to how efficient our stride is (ie. minimal energy expenditure per unit of distance traveled). Less energy expenditure means that we can save this valuable energy for later in the run.  We tend to gravitate towards single leg exercises, which help better mimic the demands of running.  Exercises should always be tailored based on an individualized assessment from a running coach, or a rehab professional such as a Physiotherapist.  As a general recommendation, try starting with 4 sets of 6-8 repetitions (with a 1-2 min inter-set rest) of the following exercises:

    • Lateral Step Ups
    • Single Leg Deadlifts
    • Psoas March with Mini-Band
    • Single Leg Heel Raises

Jason Smith GRSM Kitchener-South Physiotherapist
Jason Smith, MSc(PT), CSEP-CPT, CIDN, FCAMPT
Registered Physiotherapist, Certified Personal Trainer

Jay graduated from McMaster University in 2011 with a Masters of Physiotherapy. His previous education includes a Bachelor of Arts in Kinesiology in 2009 from Western University. Jason has obtained his FCAMPT (Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Manipulative Physiotherapy) designation. This designation is internationally recognized, and follows a comprehensive post-graduate training program that solidifies manual therapy skills, teaches advanced clinical reasoning, and allows him to perform spinal manipulation. Jay is also certified in Integrative Dry Needling, which he uses to release muscular restrictions throughout in the body. Jay is also a Certified Personal Trainer with the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP-CPT). He enjoys working with high level athletes, especially towards the later stages of their rehab as they approach return to sport.  Jay is the former team physiotherapist for the Guelph Gryphon’s Men’s Varsity Rugby team.  Jay is also certified in ImPACT Concussion Management, and is a Functional Movement Screen (FMS) Specialist. 

In his spare time, Jay enjoys rock climbing, trail running, hiking, camping, and spending time with friends and family.

Resources:

  1. Government of Canada. Wind chill index. 2017. https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/weather-health/wind-chill-cold-weather/wind-chill-index.html
  2. Gerlach KE et al. Kinetic changes with fatigue and relationship to injury in female runners.  Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2005, 37(4):657-663
  3. Van Fleteren R er al. Novice runners show greater changes in kinematics with fatigue compared with competitive runners. Sports biomechanics, 2018; 17(3): 350-360.

Margarita et al. A systematic review on the effectiveness of external ankle supports in the prevention of inversion ankle sprains among elite and recreational players. Journal of science and medicine in sports. 2010, 13(3):309-317

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