The Biggest Winter Running Mistake
None of the articles on winter running I read warned me about this
At the beginning of November, I wrote Here’s What I Bought For Running in the Winter. I thought I had all my bases covered. I had warm clothes, new “ice-proof” shoes, and a go-getter attitude. I’d done my research, and I read every article I could find about running in the winter. I was ready for colder temperatures, and the ice and snow winter would bring. I heeded warnings, warming up my muscles before going out the door with dynamic stretching and ensuring that it was bright enough out that I’d be visible.
It wasn’t enough. By the end of the second week in November, I had an interesting pain in my right knee. It wasn’t unbearable, but it was sore in a way it had never been sore before. I took three days off running, chalking it up to overworked muscles. The following days, I hit the road again. The pain turned into a pins and needles sensation. My calf and thigh muscles started cramping. Halfway through my run on Friday, November 13th, I had to stop, and I limped home. By Monday, with the pain only getting worse, I thought I’d pinched a nerve. Like an electrical shock, my knee would throb, and the pain would shoot into my hip.
While waiting to see a doctor, I messaged my friend who is completing her master's degree in physical therapy. She told me they hadn’t covered the lower body yet. But the next week, they were talking about running-specific knee injuries. How convenient for me. The facts on the PowerPoint slide she sent me slapped me in the face. Copyright allowing, I’d post it here, but it’s also in French, so I’d have to explain even with permission to share it.
First, the pie chart on the slide she shared makes it more than evident that forty-two percent of all running injuries are knee-related. No surprise, we know running is high-impact and rough on joints, especially knees. The second most common injury, at seventeen percent, involves the foot or ankle. Again, not surprisingly, another joint and the part of your body responsible for striking the ground.
The five most common injuries are plantar fasciitis, meniscus injuries, IT band syndrome, medial tibial stress syndrome (shin splint syndrome), and patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS, other known as runner’s knee/jumper’s knee). PFPS causes pain under or around the kneecap. Of all the injuries I didn’t want, PFPS was high on the list, up there with an ACL/MCL injury.
Now, what does this have to do with a winter running mistake?
Along with the picture of the slide, my friend said, “Most common injuries in runners, especially runners that just got new shoes and [during] change of season.” I wasn’t running in new shoes yet, but the change in season was sudden and severe. Temperatures averaged above 10ºC/50ºF one week to -10ºC/14ºF the next. Within days, the temperature had dropped 20º. The season, without a doubt, had changed. As good as I felt after my first run in the ice and snow, maybe I had injured myself. I had pushed myself and almost ran a PR. I wasn’t used to running in below-freezing temperatures or with a windchill.
With further research, it wasn’t hard to find articles and academic papers covering the higher risk of injury during seasonal changes, especially when that seasonal change is to winter. The Running Clinic writes, in an article entitled Running on Snow, “Warming up muscles, tendons and joints is more [difficult] and substantially increases the risks of pulled muscle, tendinitis, joint pain.” The Effect of Winter Versus Summer Running on Lower Extremity Musculoskeletal Injury Rate in Recreational Runners, by Elizabeth Frieseke (North Michigan University), argues that exposure to cold conditions increases injury rates. Frieseke found the knee was the most common to be injured, and tendonitis was the most common injury type.
The truth is, our bodies don’t comfortably move when we're cold. Expecting our bodies to be able to run as they do in above-zero temperatures is unfair and unrealistic. We also have to recognize that after running in the winter, we have to take extra time to stretch, rollout, and take care of our joints. Across multiple articles about winter running, the main advice is to change out of the clothes you ran in immediately. Articles recognized that staying in cold, damp clothing can be detrimental to recovery (as you cool down faster in the winter months). But the same articles failed to point out that the rate at which your muscles cool down is just as crucial as not staying in the same clothes. The clothes you change into and what you do after you change is also essential.
Here’s are some extra precautions to take when the season changes to cold:
- Ensure you warm-up your muscles properly.
- Wear clothing that wicks moisture but keeps your extremities warm. Don’t put this clothing on until you’re ready to go out the door.
- Start slow — do not go your usual speed or distance until you are accustomed to the elements.
- Change out of the clothes you ran in when you get home. Even if you’re hot, put on clothing you would normally wear in your house in the winter (i.e., clothing that keeps you warm).
- Make sure you cool down properly — slow and steady.
- Do strengthening exercises, especially those that help with joint stability. Prehabilitation studies have shown patients recover quicker from surgery with “pre-hab,” and though you’re not preparing for surgery, preparing for the possibility of an injury can’t hurt.
- If something hurts, rest until it doesn’t hurt anymore.*
- Know when it’s too cold, and when it is, take your run (or workout) inside, or schedule it for a warmer day.
*Not taking enough time off from running when I first felt pain was my biggest mistake. After two weeks of not moving, I already feel remarkably better and am a lot more mobile.
Next time I research a new activity, you better believe I’ll be trying to find as much information as possible on increased risk. Hot yoga, watch out; I’ll be researching whether or not you increase my injury risk next.
Now, I’ll continue waiting for x-ray and ultrasound results and my doctor’s go-ahead to start running again. When I can run again, I’ll be taking it slow and spending extra time warming-up and cooling down. I’ll also be establishing some much-needed strength training into my physical fitness routine and hopefully seeing a physiotherapist for some strengthening tips.
In case you missed it, the most significant winter running mistake is treating winter running like running in any other season. It’s not taking the time to warm up or cool down properly and treating below-zero temperatures the same way you would above-zero temperatures.