Keep Running All Winter Long In 2013: Physical Therapist Matt Mikesh with Somers Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine offers tips for staying safe on the roads
Runners can be divided into two groups: Those who run for a specific reason—to fit into a favorite pair of jeans, perhaps—and those who can’t imagine a life without running. But regardless of the motivation, committed runners will most likely find themselves slogging through the slush at least a few times this season. In most cases, that’s good news, as experts agree that running is one of the best ways to get and stay fit. “Running through the winter—with all that wind, snow and cold—builds your strength and endurance, both physical and mental,” says Matt Mikesh, physical therapist with Somers Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine. But it presents a unique set of challenges, and can lead to a unique set of injuries, he explains.
According to Mikesh, following are the top three perils of wintertime running—and how best to beat them.
Frozen Toes (and Other Parts)
Being cold is no fun, and getting excessively chilled can lead to scary things like frostbite and hypothermia. Mikesh suggests runners try to schedule their run for the warmest time of the day (early afternoon) and pick the sunniest route you can. Having the right clothing—and layering correctly—is also key to staying comfortable on a frigid run. A cardinal rule among seasoned winter runners: Dress as if it were 20 degrees warmer outside than it really is—after a mile or so, you should be comfortable and might even be ready to shed a layer or two. Be sure to wear a hat and gloves (preferably ones designed for running, which will “breathe” more than other models). On a very cold day, much of the body’s heat will be lost through the head, making hat wear essential. Socks and base layer clothing made of synthetic fibers are excellent for wicking away moisture and ensuring that skin stays dry and comfortable throughout a run.
In addition, Mikesh recommends warming up for at least five minutes before heading out. “Cold muscles and connective tissues are more prone to injury, and when you’re cold you’ll unintentionally tense up. But a proper warm-up will raise your heart rate and core body temperature and increase the blood flow to your muscles, which helps your body adjust to the stresses of exercising in the cold,” he explains.
Running on an irregular surface—like a crusted-over pile of plowed snow or sea of frozen footprints—can cause a runner to turn an ankle, which for most people will result in a painful sprain. A sprain is a very common running injury that becomes even more likely when runners are scrambling over frozen ground, Mikesh says. “Spraining your ankle means you’ve stretched or even torn the ligaments—the tough, rubbery bands that support and stabilize the joint—and will most likely result in having to hang up your running shoes for at least a few weeks,” adds Mikesh. To reduce the risk, runners should do their best to stick to smooth, flat surfaces. Try to run in the daylight—admittedly tough to do when the days get shorter—or stay on well-lit streets if you must run after dark.
Slips (and Spills)
Running on slick or uneven surfaces can lead to a slip—or even worse, a spill—that can leave a runner with a “pulled” (or torn) muscle, says Mikesh. And if they fall, they can injure their shoulder or even break a bone if they extend their hands it to catch themselves. Even the slips you don’t notice can cause problems. “That small, repetitive slip you make as you’re ‘toeing off’ on a slick surface can lead to stress fractures (small cracks in the bone) and Achilles tendonitis (chronic inflammation), which can take months—or even longer—to heal,” Mikesh says.
To reduce the risk of injury, do exercises in the gym or at home to build strength in the core, hips and lower legs. “Targeted strength training will keep joints in alignment and increase the muscles ability to work, which makes it less likely that runners will feel tired and get sloppy—and then get hurt.” Maintaining good running posture is a key element in avoiding injury. Many runners would also benefit from slight modifications in their running style, Mikesh says: Slow the pace a bit and try to take shorter strides and land as softly as possible. “Over-striding—taking extra-long steps—is a common mistake and can lead to injuries,” he says. Long strides and a patch of ice upon foot strike are a recipe for disaster. But research shows that shortening your stride by about 10 percent increases the turnover—the number of foot strikes you have—and can significantly reduce the impact—and stress—of running. Invest in shoes designed for winter running (or running on trails), and consider spikes or removable treads, which “grab” more on icy surfaces. In the end, sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, and occasionally a wise decision (on a really nasty weather day) is to settle for a treadmill run in a warm house or gym.
Somers Orthopaedic Surgery &Sports Medicine Group, founded in 1988, is one of the most comprehensive and specialized practices in the region. http://www.somersortho.com
Matt Mikesh, PT has been a physical therapist for thirteen years, focused on treating an orthopaedic and sports-related population. He works for Somers Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine physical therapy department.
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