The Importance of Injury Prevention in Winter

Winter is a risky time for trail runners. Here's why, and how you can prevent injuries.

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Winter is a risky time of year.

“I simply must go run,” you might say in the doldrums of January.

“But, baby it’s cold outside,” your foot, shin or hip whispers back.

There are many reasons why your body might instinctively want to avoid running in winter. The frigid temperatures make muscles and joints tighter, and thus more injury prone. The darkness and the slippery, snowy, hard, frozen ground make it easier to misstep or fall. The cooler temperatures allow you to run faster than you would in summer, increasing impact forces.

While peer-reviewed studies on the subject are limited, a 2014 master’s thesis reviewed the literature and found that “the injury rate for musculoskeletal injuries was higher in the winter months.” That thesis project is by no means definitive. However, anecdotally, I have noticed a similar pattern for athletes I coach. Take these easy steps to prevent your body from rebelling.

1. Focus on a warm-up, and do it in a warm location

Starting a winter run cold reduces proprioception (ground feel), and subjects tight muscles and tendons to excess injury risk. Don’t wait for the first few miles to pass before you can feel your feet—start the workout inside instead.

Before each run, do a complete warm-up indoors, like this one combining lunges, leg swings, and light jogging in place, adapted from Coach Jay Johnson. Evidence indicates that warm ups may reduce injury risk. At the very least, it will make you feel less like an icicle and more like a well-oiled machine when you get out the door. To step it up a notch, run your legs under hot water in the shower pre-run.

2. Keep your feet, knees and muscles warm while running

Running with cold joints and muscles is like typing on a typewriter—it can work, but there is less margin for error and you’ll probably go slower, too. One study on rats found that muscles below core temperature were more prone to tearing. Across the U.S., stress fractures increase in winter (that statistic includes non-runners). Being cold is just plain miserable, too, unless you were born and raised in North Dakota or are an actual penguin.

During your run, err on the side of more clothes to insulate your feet, shins and knees. There is no honor in wearing shorts in freezing temperatures, and it could raise injury risk for some people. A base layer of flexible tights is a great option. 

3. When in doubt, use more traction

If I had a dime for every time I fell after thinking I didn’t need trail shoes or extra traction, I would really benefit from the new tax bill. All it takes is one slippery patch to ruin a season. Anecdotally, excess slipping with each stride (even if not accompanied by a fall) seems to increase risk of hip and low-back injuries in winter.

I advise athletes to find an everyday trail shoe that can work for dry and wet conditions. On extra-icy days, add a slip-on traction device. By taking out the daily decision-making, you can prevent yourself from making a poor choice that results in a faceplant or, even worse, a knee-plant or hip-plant.

4. Use a post-run routine to prevent injuries

After you finish a winter run, it’s tempting to go straight to the hot cocoa or hot toddy or hot coddy (hot cocoa with bourbon). But spending a few extra minutes on a strength and mobility routine can make you more resistant to injuries and improve your running economy by improving power transfer.

Coach Jay Johnson’s myrtl routine is a great place to start when developing your own plan. Add some relaxed leg strength work and 5 to 10 minutes of foam rolling, and you’ll be doing everything you can to injury-proof your running life.

5. Stay hydrated and fueled

Cold weather can throw everything for a loop. Hydration can feel optional (“I’m not sweating because it’s cold, right?”) and nutrition rules can get stretched (“Eggnog is basically a recovery shake, right?”). But hydration and fueling are two of the most important elements of staying healthy, and two that are completely under your control.

For hydration, let your pee be your guide. You don’t want to be peeing coca cola or vodka—a light yellow is perfect. Dehydration is bad for performance and injury prevention, but so is over-hydration, so just make sure you drink (water) responsibly.

Negative energy availability (not consuming enough calories for your activity level) is the biggest risk of all when it comes to staying injury free. Whenever you are training, keep the fuel coming and avoid stigmatizing any food. Work on getting plenty of fat, protein and carbohydrates. When in doubt, all food is good food for a runner in training, be it a stir-fry or a gingerbread house.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they answer training questions in a bonus podcast and newsletter on their Patreon page starting at $5 a month.

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