by Todd Schemper, PT, DPT, OCS
Running in the winter can be a wonderful experience. Breathing in the brisk air and seeing the beautiful snow are part of the sport. Maintaining your fitness throughout the cold months of the year is important for overall health. Whether you tackle running in the frigid outdoors, or prefer the indoor methods of treadmill, track, or pool running, winter running is a great way to keep up your fitness over the months to come.
Starting a running program or continuing your favorite sport during the winter does take some planning. Primarily, the clothing you wear will be a little different. But you may be surprised at how little you need to wear to stay warm. Using light layers is more suitable than wearing bulky clothes or lots of layers. The essentials include: running pants/tights, a moisture wicking long sleeve shirt, and a breathable/windproof jacket. Other items that help keep you warm are gloves or mittens and a headband or hat. Wearing traction cleats on your shoes also works well for safety in icy conditions. Taking along some ID and wearing reflective or bright clothing is also advisable. With this attire donned you should be ready for temperatures into the low 20-degree range.
The next step is to choose your route. It has been said that it is easier to run than walk on ice, simply because of where your center of gravity is in relationship to your base of support. Either way I recommend finding a road, sidewalk, or trail that has been cleared and is safe. Make sure to take shorter steps when you are on ice and slow down when turning corners to prevent falls. Take a few weeks to get used to the cooler weather, as it may be more difficult to breathe. Head out and enjoy.
Running on the treadmill is another common way to maintain running fitness during the winter. These machines come in many variations. Whether used at home or at the gym, working out on a treadmill can be an excellent way to get your heart pumping and your body moving. When starting out, make sure you are comfortable with your balance. On a treadmill you keep your body from being moved backwards, unlike on land where you are moving your body forwards. As you increase the amount of time you run, try running at a variety of paces and elevations to get a more balanced leg workout and to prevent repetitive overuse injuries.
There are a number of health clubs in the area with indoor tracks that are conducive for running. Tracks can be used on those really cold days or when it is dark. When running on a track remember to alternate the direction that you are running and run the curves as wide and gradual as possible to avoid any increased ankle, knee, or hip strain from taking tight corners. Try to run an equal number of laps clockwise and counterclockwise. Also, to avoid injury, try to balance your track running during the week with another mode of running or other aerobic activities.
Pool running is not only an important form of exercise for fitness maintenance following a running injury, but a great alternative to indoor treadmill or cold outdoor winter running. The most common way to pool run is to use a jogging flotation device (they can be found at most health clubs or indoor public pools). Strap the device on, head for the deep end, and start running. This is an excellent non-impact simulation of the running motion. Your body will not move very fast or far, but you can vary the speed of your running to change the workout intensity. Start with 15-20 minutes of exercise and see how it feels. To make the activity more of a challenge, pool run without using a flotation device.
If you are the racing type, having a winter race goal is a way to keep your workouts focused. Either pick out a local winter race or even better, plan a destination run vacation around an event located in a warm weather location. This just might be your motivator or reward for getting back into shape after the holidays.
Whatever type of winter running you choose, pick what you will enjoy and be consistent with it. Have a great winter and watch out for ice!