As we head into the new year things are getting mighty chilly out there. I know there are a bunch of runners still competing in last ditch efforts to get in an in person race this winter. Most of this year has been pretty sheltered and now that races are coming back to being in person, I see many taking advantage. This is a wonderful but for those who are both not used to racing in the cold but also training in the cold, things can get a little slippery (pun intended). Whether you are racing or just trying to stay in shape throughout the winter time, changing up your running game for the winter time is essential to ensure you get into the spring season without setbacks and/or injury
For those who run either recreationally or competitively, you can agree it is a part of us that we hold dearly. I have been seeing a good amount of campaigns, months, and challenges to get more people to run throughout the winter recently. I am all for it...even if it is an everyday of the month challenge....but going into it smart and prepared is always the right way I like to go into things. I hope after reading this, you will be more prepared yourselves.
The first and probably the most important tip I want to you to take from this post is make sure you are warming up...longer than usual. I know some of you out there forgo doing the warm up and get to it with your workout in order to save some time. Although this may be something that you can "maybe" get away with in the summertime and warmer weather. However, the winter makes it more difficult. Between the dryer air and colder temps this makes things a little more hazardous. I am not talking about the black ice on the ground either. The cold weather makes your tendons and other tissues stiffer and as a result can be more prone to strain, tendonitis, and tearing more than if the temperatures are normal. Therefore, ensuring that you are doing a warm up is absolutely paramount and even more so should be more gradual and extended compared to your warm up in the summer months. This is even if you are on a time crunch and can't get in the miles you want to. Overall, this will be better in the long run to stave off injury and help you be better prepared for when competition season approaches. Besides gradually increasing your pace during the warm up, making sure that you are doing some active stretching, mobility drills, and strides or mobility plyometric drills will make things even easier while improving/maintaining mobility.
As mentioned above, there are two things that come with winter....cold and dry air. Both are no good for our breathing. Our lungs respond well to warm, moist air. Without this, we have irritation and inflammation develop in our trachea (pathway that connects our mouth to our lungs). Preventing this irritation and inflammation can be halted in one of two OR both ways. When going out for your runs, make sure that you are covering your mouth and breathing in through your nose, out through your mouth. Now, some of us have become used to running with a facemask with everything going on with Covid-19 but I am not talking about that kind of mask. I am talking about a scarf, balaclava, or neck gator to act as a barrier to prevent cold air from entering your lungs. Having this barrier may make it a little harder to breathe just like any of you who have been running with a surgical mask or the like during the spring and summer. However, this barrier also helps keep warm, moist air in and around your mouth and at the same time dampens the bite that cold air can have when you breathe it in. Secondly, while running at a pretty good pace we transition from breathing throughout our nose to doing so with our mouths to have a greater transfer of oxygen to our lungs and thus to our muscles for continued effort. The drawback of this is, that our mouths have no way of warming that winter air and thus irritating our airway passages. Combatting this requires continued breathing through your nose and out through your mouth instead. In our noses there are structures called nasal conchae. These structures are ridges that increase the surface area of our nasal cavity, slowing down the air that is brought into our respiratory system and making it more turbulent. By doing so, it allows for the air inspired to become warmer as it travels through our system and into our lungs. Therefore, if the air is warmer, then less irritation to the lungs. This may require you to run at a slower pace in order you to maintain but that is okay. Usually there aren't many races in the winter so speed shouldn't be a focus at this time.
Building on top of the tip above is breathing controlled and relaxed. When we run, especially when going for speedier workouts, runners can develop very sharp, deep respirations to help sustain activity. Sometimes this can become uncontrolled where you are gasping for air and become "winded." The winter months may be helpful for you in this sense as learning to breathe in a more slow and controlled manner will again reduce the amount of cold air getting to your lungs and irritating the passageways as I mentioned above. Not only will learning better breath control help with this but it will also help you obtain better heart rate control as well. Again, you may need to slow your running pace down in order to do this but being able to obtain a better "base" level of strength and speed at a lower heart rate during the winter time will set you up for faster, and speedier times of running in the spring and summer months when it is ready to kick it in to high gear for races. Not only will the breath control training help you run better at higher speeds but you won't get gassed and max out your heart as quickly as you would have otherwise.
This next tip seems very intuitive but often gets forgotten because we may not be sweating as much or because it is cold it may not seem very important. The next point I want to make is you want to make sure you are staying hydrated before, during, and after your runs. We are always perspiring and losing water as we complete activity throughout the day, just at a different rate from person to person and from season to season. The cold weather and the winter months find us not wanting to consume that same cold, refreshing glass of water we usually do in the summer time. However, it is just as important to have it in the winter time (cold or not cold). Maintaining hydration during the winter months for runners is important for maintaining the flexibility of our muscles and tendons, appropriate regulation of our body temperature (even in the cold), and allows for improved performance through continued transfer of nutrients in our cells for food. Water is one of our most vital assets as humans, so don't forget to continue your daily routine of sipping from your water bottle or having that glass of water throughout the day as you would during the summer (you might just need a little bit less than usual).
Lastly, this final tip is something that some do but others I see continue to chug on from the fall and summer into the winter months. Make sure you are turning it down a notch on the intensity. I know this year has not been a big year for racing or competition for most of us and has caused some of us to fall off of the wagon with training. The winter months are meant to be about recovery, restructuring the training plan for next year, and obtaining a strong base so that things can become more specific and intense for when the next competitive season comes around. Don't get me wrong, I know some of you are still racing now and that is completely fine but at this point your training runs should be gentle and more about form/technique maintenance for when you race rather than trying to get faster. Running slower at this time of the year and still racing won't make you slower for when you race either...definitely not this late in the season. By taking the intensity down, it will help build everything and help you work on things I already mentioned above. Working on better fitness at a lower heart rate, decreasing irritation of our lung pathways, and preventing excessive strain on our tissues. Additionally, this will allow you to recover a little bit better if you have been doing more competitive training this past fall and summer. Lastly, taking down the speed will prevent you from slipping on the dreaded black ice that I have heard many athletes become unnecessarily injured on.
Winter training can be a great endeavor all on its own for those who do partake are brave souls. Being smart and prepared to do so is extremely vital in order to stave off any of what I mentioned above. Not only will these tips I have mentioned here not only help improve your performance in the cold but prevent set backs that may hold you off from progress you could have been making for a better season in the spring. I hope you found these tips helpful. If you have any questions or feel like you need some assistance in recovery during the winter months, feel free to reach out to Ascent Physical Therapy at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 516-387-4669. We will do our best to assist you with any needs you may have.