Maintain your running schedule during the coldest months of the year with these safety tips

Running outdoors in the winter tends to raise injury risk due to the occasional icy patch or snowy stretch in Northern Virginia. Whether you’re running just to keep in shape or preparing for an upcoming race in the spring, with careful preparation, awareness of your environment, and adjustment in your training style, you can have safe, efficient runs even as the temperature drops. Here are some tips for winter running from Jeffrey Giuliani, MD, an orthopedic surgeon who is board-certified in sports medicine at Inova Medical Group.

  1. Focus on hydration: Just as with other seasons of the year, you should hydrate before, during and after exercising outside in the winter. According to Dr. Giuliani, it’s a common misperception that you should only hydrate when you’re thirsty. “Winter running may set you up to become more dehydrated than in the summer, since you may be less aware of how much you’re sweating,” he says. “Be sure to always have hydration with you and drink it regularly.”

  2. Stretch inside: Dynamic stretching and warming up are always important, and during the colder months, it’s helpful to do these indoors to get your body ready before heading outside to run. Dr. Giuliani recommends cross-training warmups, like using a stationary bike, elliptical or rowing machine for about 10 to 15 minutes to build up a light sweat.

  3. Layer up: One of the most important strategies for staying safe during a winter run is what you wear. Layers are critical, Dr. Giuliani says, because they help you regulate core body temperature even as you warm up from the activity — and as the temperatures drop outside. Thin layers with dry sweat-wicking technology can be easily removed and tied around the waist, he suggests. “Underdress by approximately 20 degrees,” he says. “You want to be warm but not too warm, because then you risk overheating, even in cold weather.” Another tip: Wear a hat and gloves, and cover exposed skin by using a scarf, if needed.

  4. Love your feet: “Wool socks are always a good idea,” Dr. Giuliani says, “especially ones that are 100 percent wool, since they keep your feet warm and wick away sweat.” However, he doesn’t recommend doubling normal running socks or sizing up in shoes, since this can throw off your gait. He also recommends not overstuffing your shoes with thick socks, since the extra material may cause constriction, restrict blood flow and make you colder.

  5. Prepare for a pace change: The hot-to-cold switch can be challenging for most runners, Dr. Giuliani says, especially for those with low body fat. “Don’t be surprised if your pace drops 15 to 20 seconds per mile,” he notes. “Your speed will return when your body adapts to the cold weather and will increase towards the end of your run.”

  6. Consider your route: “Trails packed with snow and ice can be more dangerous than clear paths, so make sure to take cleared routes instead,” Dr. Giuliani advises. Shoe covers that promise better traction have not been proven to lower risk, and if you take icy trails, you could be subject to falls, wrist fractures and ankle sprains.

  7. Know your heart rate: Being in the cold automatically increases your resting heart rate, Dr. Giuliani says. Prevent extra stress on the body by staying in the aerobic zone with beats-per-minute between 130 and 150. “It will feel much slower than the normal pace, but you are still getting cardio benefit,” he says.

  8. Limit exposure: According to Dr. Giuliani, skin damage from exposed skin is an issue with winter running. Wear sunscreen with sweat-proof protection and cover exposed skin or use Vaseline to avoid frostbite and windburn. He adds that you should get out of the cold immediately when the run is over and consider shorter runs in the winter — or split your sessions into two runs a day to avoid overexposure.

Above all, be prepared. Check the weather the night before, know your route, have your clothes and footwear ready, and plan to rewarm yourself in a bath or shower after the run. “Running in the winter can be fun, but it’s important to stay safe,” Dr. Giuliani says.


Learn more about Inova’s Orthopedic and joint replacement services. Find an orthopedic doctor, joint replacement specialist or sports medicine expert.

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