By Corey Lewis, CPT, CSCS
Running in colder weather and taking in the crisp air is part of my workout routine that I always enjoy. There’s just something about bundling up and setting off into the cold until my blood gets pumping and I feel energized during my run.
But sometimes I come back from a cold-weather run and have to suffer through the agony of leg cramps. Trust me—it’s not something I enjoy, and I’m sure you don’t either.
Embracing exercise in the winter can be challenging. Cold temperatures, brisk winds, and the presence of ice or snow can make it hard to run. Slipping and falling on ice can cause injuries, while not dressing warm enough during frigid days can lead to frostbite and other skin issues. But if you prioritize your safety on cold-weather runs, you can maximize your enjoyment in your workouts.
There are plenty of benefits to maintaining your running regimen during the fall and winter; you may even find that you’re able to increase your endurance and speed. Here are a few tips to keep in mind while running in cold weather to stay safe and increase the effectiveness of your workouts in the colder months.
Proper attire is important when running in cold weather. You want to make sure as much skin as possible is completely covered. Exposed skin can quickly become chapped or burned by the wind and frigid temperatures. Consider the following great options for cold-weather running clothes.
Heavy winter running gear isn’t considered optimal these days. Instead, you should focus on layering your clothes to stay warm and protected from the cold. How should you layer? Start with breathable and lightweight undergarments, and then put on heavier outerwear. When it’s extra cold, add a shell jacket or lightweight vest for extra protection. Choose synthetic fibers and wool; cotton items should not be worn, as they do not offer much protection and can become waterlogged with sweat.
You lose most of your body heat through your head, so you should dress for the cold weather by wearing a high-quality wool or synthetic hat that covers your ears. Gloves should also be made of wool or synthetic fibers, since the hands often get cold very quickly. On extremely frigid days, wear a bandana on your face to keep the wind away from your mouth.
Form-fitting pants or tights are the best options for running in cold weather. They help keep the lower body very warm while still permitting flexibility with your stride. Swap out your shorts for running pants as soon as the weather dips under 40 degrees.
Wintery weather can make it hard for drivers and pedestrians to see you running, especially if the day is a bit overcast. Before you set out for a cold-weather run, put on a reflective vest or clothing strip so others on the road or trail know you are coming.
Cold weather means you will have to be smart about how you warm-up and cool down. I certainly know what it feels like to start cramping up while running in the cold. Stretching is vitally important to help relax your body before exercise, reduce soreness and muscular tension, and make it easier for your muscles to actually move while running.
Before setting off on a cold-weather run, incorporate some stretching of your calves and legs into a “dynamic warmup,” where you start out jogging at a very slow pace before the run. Dynamic warmups help prime your body for physical activity.
Strive to stretch and loosen up your calves and legs before a run. Be sure to stretch both legs and calves in an equal manner, instead of stretching for maximum flexibility. Why? Because you run the risk for an injury if you are trying to run without being equally flexible on both sides of your body.
Stretches like toe touches, lunges, heel drops, and bent-over calf stretches are great options to target the lower body before exercise. When stretching, try to move as smoothly as possible without any bouncing on your feet. Bouncing can actually hurt your muscles and tighten them up. Hold each stretch for about 30 seconds while breathing in a normal and relaxed manner.
If you come back from a cold-weather run and have trouble with cramps, you might have a potassium deficiency. Cramps usually occur when the body is struggling with too little potassium and is not able to relax the muscles, or when there is an overabundance of lactic acid that can be amplified due to dehydration. Cramps can strike without warning and can be completely debilitating, to the point where you have to stop exercising.
Potassium is a critical nutrient that helps regulate muscles and fluid inside of the body. Many Western diets are extremely potassium deficient because natural foods are replaced with processed items. A time-tested treatment for muscle cramps are bananas, since they are filled with potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Other potassium-rich foods include sweet potatoes and avocados. Eating healthy foods high in potassium is a sound strategy to get rid of muscle cramps quickly. Just be sure to incorporate these types of foods into your normal diet to keep the chances of recurring cramps low.
Be sure to plan what to eat before and after your workouts to keep your body fueled and energized. Remember to allow time for proper digestion before starting any exercise.
Cold weather doesn’t mean you have to hang up the running shoes for the season. You can still enjoy all the benefits of exercising even when the temperatures get cold. Just be sure to dress properly for the season, stretch and warm-up strategically, and continue to eat a well-balanced and nutritious diet in order to maximize your winter workouts.