How Do I Run in Winter Without Getting Injured?
A PT's tips for running through snow and ice without upping your injury risk.
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Running in winter can pose specific challenges: thick snow, cold rain, frigid temps, and wipe-out inducing black ice. Here are a couple things to consider when you find yourself looking out the window, unsure if you should suck it up and head outside or catch up on your latest Netflix show on the treadmill.
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Running in snow and ice does increase injury risk
As a physical therapist that works with many runners and triathletes, I see more runners in winter months with traumatic injuries due to slips and falls. This can be due to the slippery surface that snow and ice bring, and also the uneven surface from thick snow. The resulting injuries range from ligament injuries such as ankle sprains, to muscle strains and bone fractures.
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There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing
The most important thing to consider when running in winter weather is what to wear – even if that means taking 20 extra minutes just to get ready for your run. Having appropriate winter running gear makes all the difference to ensure your head, face, hands, and feet stay dry and warm. To avoid running on wet, numb feet, many shoe brands have Gore-Tex options which help keep your feet dry.
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Should I add extra traction to my running shoes?
When the snow starts to pile up, or when you are worried about icy spots it is best to add some sort of traction to your shoes. This includes adding a traction cleat device that fits over the bottom of your shoe. These devices can have coils on them, spikes, or a combination of both that will help you gain traction. You can also opt for dedicating a pair of your shoes for winter running and drill small holes for screws into the bottom of your shoes. Do your research on this though, as you need to have the appropriate shoes and screw length for it to work.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both systems and it might be a matter of trying different options to see what feels best to you. I don’t enjoy the added weight and clunkiness that the traction device brings. The spikes add minimal weight, and don’t feel much different than running in your normal shoe.
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Your running mechanics will change when running in winter weather
When running on uneven and slippery surfaces you will find increasing your cadence (step rate) will help you improve your stability and reduce the risk of slips and falls. Your cadence is a measure of the number of steps you take in one minute. By increasing your cadence slightly your stride length will decrease, which will help you land closer to your center of mass and reduce the risk of your foot slipping out from under you. This is especially true when running in traction cleat devices.
Also, you will be using different muscles when running over snow/ice, and the stress on your body might shift around a bit. It’s comparable to a runner who only runs on pavement going and doing a trail run. You might initially be sore in muscles that you haven’t felt in awhile. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and may help to address weaker areas, but monitor any pains/niggles especially if they are consistent to one area of your body and are getting worse.
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Should I worry about mileage and pace on winter runs?
Running in winter weather will slow your pace, but there isn’t any specific conversion to determine how many miles run on snow/ice equals miles in favorable weather, because that varies by person and even by the conditions. If you are concerned about the number of miles you have to run in the snow, then I would switch your focus to running based on time. If a 10 mile run normally takes you 80 minutes in favorable weather, then run 80 minutes in the snow, even if that means you are doing less mileage. Also, if you find the elements are slowing you down significantly, then don’t worry about your pace. Go off your heart rate or rating of perceived exertion (RPE) instead.
Hopefully this helps with your decision whether or not to head outside on your next winter run. With the appropriate gear, plus shifting your mindset to embrace the elements, I doubt you will regret running outside in the winter.
Hannah DePaul is a sports certified physical therapist at Adams Sports Medicine & Physical Therapy where she specializes in treating endurance athletes. Hannah is an avid triathlete and two-time Ironman World Championship finisher.