Runner Therapy: Running in the Cold, What Did You Learn? The Science
Running in the cold is another rare art form one must conquer to be successful. Like the heat, running in the cold brings challenges. However these challenges in the winter are placed more on the joints and soft tissue system than the thermoregulatory system. Not adhering and/or listening to Mother Nature will severely impact performance.
Joints and soft tissues do not function in an optimal state when cold. We can remember this because we know we are told to never stretch ‘cold’. The elasticity of the muscles and other tissues is severely restricted with low temps.
So what do we need to do to keep these areas happy?
- First, an adequate warm up somewhere warm. Running out into the cold and beginning at 20 degrees will not be the best warm-up. Indoor movements are much preferred.
- Second, we must cover the areas that are more susceptible. These are areas mainly going into the wind…the front of our ankles, toes, knees, hips, chest, neck, ears and head. However, the large muscle groups also need good cover…the calves, hamstrings and quads.
Starting at the bottom, a good quality wool sock is preferred, and must cover the front of the ankle. The rapid turn-over of the ankle means that this joint needs to stay warm and functioning well.
The calves, if problematic, need extra attention. Compression socks do a nice job of covering toes, ankles AND calves so for those of us with a history of calf problems, these may be a great idea.
The knees are often difficult. Although many of us run in shorts in the winter since we heat up, the knee cap joint right in the front is exposed first to cold, and is also not inherently warm due to its superficial position. If you do tend to overhead and wear shorts, I would suggest looking into a capri or 3/4 lightweight pant so the bony knee is covered.
Hamstrings also need adequate heat to stay warm. This is a huge muscle group and as such needs protection.
That said, running tights will cover all of these areas, and maintain the compression needed to keep the major muscles warm. Although I really think men look silly in these, they are preferred…invest in a good pair. And please, don’t try to look better with shorts over the pants…really, its just worse. For an alternative, many running companies and even Patagonia makes a lighter shell pant that is a bit loose. Since loose isn’t so good for warmth, consider a very thin tight layer under these pants. Patagonia makes Capilene, which is their base layer and it comes in several thicknesses. Fashion crisis averted!
The core is essential to keep warm…I’m partial to fleece vests. Patagonia makes some great ones. As for breathable tops, Lululemon makes a great quality long-sleeve made of a great no-smell material.
The fingers, ears, head and neck should be covered with something simple depending on the temperature. This is less important because of their use in running (they have none) but more because heat can escape easily through the body in these parts.
Ears should always be covered first and foremost. Even a dri-fit headband will do. And a Patagonia or other fleece will cover your neck. As an alternative, dri-fit skull caps can cover your head AND ears. You can take off these elements as you heat up, but be careful, it may lull you into a false sense of security. Especially if there is any wind. You may feel warm, but your body may not be.
Upon returning home, quickly warm your lungs, joints and soft tissues with a hot beverage and shower. The humidity of both will help your lungs from being susceptible to getting a cold, and the shower will warm up the body. Even a good hot chocolate is an alternative to chocolate milk in the summer. Consider doing your post-work out stretches in the shower. You will get more out of it and less chance of getting injured.
You may find if your skin is dry you need to moisturize and drink more water. The skins’ elasticity is important as well!
Follow these tips for more efficient running in the cold. Realize a cold joint or muscle can severely effect your performance.
What steps did you take this winter for cold weather running? How will you adjust your plan for next year? What do you do with all of your cold weather gear in the summer?
(Marisa, a MS PT SCS ATC, is a member of iRunnerBlog’s team and writes the Runner Therapy column, she is a physical therapist in private practice in midtown NYC called Dash Physical Therapy. She one of only a dozen or so physical therapists in the state of NY to be board certified in sports.)