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Running in Cold Weather: Tips for Staying Warm and Preventing Injury for Long Distance Runners

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Working out during the wintertime can always be a challenge. Shorter days with colder temperatures make it harder to stay motivated and to spend time outdoors. Fortunately, there are ways to make your workout more enjoyable and safe in the winter. As a sports medicine physician and as a runner myself, I believe it's key to educate runners on the importance of a proper warm up before long distance runs—especially in the winter.

Warming up the right way is an incredibly important factor in preventing running injuries. Many runners jump right into their 'long runs', skipping over a warm up routine before hitting the track or pavement and, consequently, skipping the benefits to your body receives through a proper warm up.

Below are some guidelines and information on warm ups to keep in mind before logging your miles:

Three Warm Up Tips

The ideal warm up routine will raise your core temperature, increase blood flow to muscles and will engage the central nervous system – preparing the body for physical activity. There are three key elements to a beneficial warm up for runners:

1. Dynamic Stretching and Dynamic Movement

When stretching before a long distance run, there are two main categories of stretches: Static stretching and dynamic stretching.

Static stretching is probably what most runners were taught growing up. It involves stretching a muscle for 30 to 90 seconds. A common example is standing on one leg while holding your foot behind you to stretch the quadriceps muscles.

Over the last 10-15 years, dynamic stretching has grown in popularity as the preferred method for runners. The purpose of the pre-run stretch is to prime our bodies to function at an optimal level while running—dynamic stretching does exactly that.

What Is Dynamic Stretching?

Dynamic stretching involves active movements in which a muscle is brought into a stretch position, held only for a few seconds, released and repeated. Different muscle groups (e.g. quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and upper body) can be stretched with this method. Dynamic stretches will raise your core temperature and help activate your muscles. Each movement should be smooth, not jerky or ballistic.

Other dynamic movements are also important to perform before heading out for a long run, especially in cold weather. Examples include:

  • Running in place
  • Jumping jacks
  • Jumping in place: Bring the knees up toward the chest and repeat.
  • Gentle lunges
  • Leg kicks: Stand with feet apart with knees straight and stretching the right hand to the left foot, holding for two seconds, and then stretching the left hand to the right foot and holding for a few seconds.

2. Keeping a Warm Core

Of all of the components to a proper warm up, optimizing your core body temperature is probably the most important. During winter days, this can be particularly challenging. That said, proper clothing and (if needed) cold weather gear are key to helping you maintain an elevated core body temperature.

Layering around the torso is the best way to keep the core warm. The clothing layer worn closest to the skin is called the base layer and should be made of material that both provides insulation and is 'breathable'. Ideally, this material will also whisk sweat away from your body, which will prevent your own sweat from lowering your body temperature.

The next layer goes on top of the base layer. These layers should be selected carefully to keep you comfortable, taking the forecast into consideration, especially if there is rain or snow.

In addition to the torso and core, properly warming the head and the hands is important to maintaining the core body temperature. It's also key to keep the lower body warm in a way that isn't bulky or distracting. A way to do this is to wear running tights which will help keep the lower extremities warm.

3. Easing Into Your Run

Finally, opposed to short, more explosive type workouts, long distance runners have a built in advantage: We are able to warm up during our runs. So, take your time and ease into your long runs. Ideally, your pace at the end of the run should be as fast as (or faster than) your starting pace… and you will also have the added psychological benefit of knowing that you finished strong!

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