After the chief dangers of running in very cold weather–hypothermia, frostbite, and slipping on ice–there are a handful of lesser-known risks that can make the difference between being healthy or injured when the first robin of spring appears. The irony is that some of those risks are caused by your winter running gear.
According to Robert Rinaldi, DPM, “the most common winter running injuries are tendon and muscle tears caused by shivering, and metatarsal stress fractures, stress injury to the tibia, and Achilles tendon tendonitis, all a result of slipping on snow-packed roads.”
However if you’ve read my post on how to avoid slipping on ice you know that slipping often isn’t just a matter of a slippery surface. How likely you are to slip is very much affected by your running technique–specifically whether there’s any shear (or friction) at all when your foot meets the ground. Shear causes melting and puts a thin layer of water between your foot and the ice, and that’s what makes it slippery.
In that post I suggested working on your core action to reduce shear at footstrike. That is the most fundamental step you can take. However there are a couple of ways the gear you’re wearing to stay warm can actually increase shear and/or stress other places in your body. Let’s look at those now.
In very cold weather you need to keep as much of your face warm as possible. You’ll likely find yourself with some kind of collar that comes up over your chin, maybe even up to your nose. If that collar is attached to your jacket you’re probably retracting your head–that is, pulling it backwards slightly and possibly down as well–to keep it inside the collar.
This will increase your chances of slipping. That’s because it moves your body weight backwards slightly relative to your feet. Through the gait cycle that means you’ll overstride a little more than you otherwise would, with your foot sliding forward on the ground as it lands. That’s shear.
Then as you approach toe-off you’ll be unable to have your whole body participate as it should in the release of your weight from your foot. So you’ll still have a little too much weight on the foot as you are pushing up and forwards, and that either causes your foot to slip slightly backwards or, if you’ve got good grip, it creates an extra pull on the sole of your foot, stressing your achilles tendon and plantar fascia and potentially also your metatarsals. That’s why you don’t actually have to slip to develop many of the classic winter running injuries listed above.
To fix this: use a separate garment such as a neck gaiter to keep your neck, chin, and lower face warm. Make sure it’s soft, loose, and flexible and will stay on no matter how you move. If your jacket has a collar, fold it down or keep the top slightly unzipped and put the gaiter either over or under it, whatever works best for you.
Running headlong into precipitation (horizontal sleet and snow, anyone?) can also make you retract your head. In that case you need a hat with a brim to keep the weather out of your face.
The reason is that as they stretch to cover your hands they create a little bit of tension. This cues you to slightly retract your shoulder blades or hunch your shoulders. Pretty much everyone has felt negative effects of hunching your shoulders, so on the surface that doesn’t require much explanation.
But it’s important also to understand that this tension causes your upper body to turn less, worsening your balance. It also makes it harder to toe off properly, causing shear and foot stress just like I described above.
To fix this: If you have short arms and your sleeves are so long that they don’t have to stretch at all to cover your hands, then you don’t have a problem here. But if the sleeves are at all taut when you stick your thumbs through those thumb holes, take your thumbs back out again and don’t pull your sleeves past your wrists.
Instead get good gloves or mittens. If your wrists get cold you can also get wrist gaiters to wear with your gloves. (Are you starting to detect a theme here?) If it’s cute and cozy you’re after, go for a pair of handcrafted ones.
Heaven knows you’ve got to keep your legs warm if the temperatures are really low. But really warm running tights can fit like a wetsuit, clinging tightly to your body and creating resistance to joint movement.
The most common and problematic place for this is at your knees. Even the slightest resistance to your knees’ bending will cause you to bend them less, which results in your pelvis being behind your foot at midstance.
That has major consequences, the most common being knee pain (especially in the patellar tendon, just below the kneecap). Here’s how that works.
It also has the same effect on your gait cycle as retracting your head and/or your shoulders: shifting your whole torso back relative to your feet so you have increased shear at footstrike and near toe-off, raising your risk of slipping or, if you have good traction, your foot and ankle stress.
And to top it off, bending your knees even slightly less than you should increases your effort, either slowing you down or raising your heart rate higher than it should be at a given speed. Personally I find thermal running tights raise my heart rate about 4 bpm, which immediately drops when I pull the tights up to make them loose around my knees. Unfortunately they slide back down and I end up having to pull them up again a mile later, so this isn’t a sustainable solution.
To fix this: get tights that are very loose around the knees, or run in loose fleece pants instead. You might also be able to buy your tights a size larger so they’ll be loose instead of tight–just make sure they don’t grip your body. Aim to make your knees feel as free as if you were wearing shorts, but create a warm cocoon around them. This may take some experimentation to get right, but it will be worth it.
Or maybe–sticking with our theme–the answer is shorts and legwarmers!
Just kidding. Don’t do that.
It’s important to take care of these gear issues by making sure your garments allow proper movement, as I’ve outlined, rather than by cutting out items that are important for keeping you warm.
Cold has some movement effects that make proper insulation and a proper warmup really important. These include reducing muscle contraction force, reducing muscle and tendon elasticity, reducing circulation to your extremities, and slowing nerve impulse transmission. All of these effects will increase your overall injury risk, so be sure to dress warmly enough and take extra time to warm up before you start running. That may even mean taking time to get your heart rate up indoors before you go outside if it’s really cold where you are.
And finally, in this article, Reed Ferber points out the gait changes that people make when running in slippery situations–namely taking shorter, wider steps. He recommends gluteus medius strengthening to help you perform that weight shift better.
I completely agree with his analysis, but the bigger picture is that the gluteus medius functions as part of a whole-body coordination pattern. Improving that will make the glute med functionally stronger and significantly improve your balance. It also reduces footstrike shear in all directions.
Get the main Feldenkrais lesson I use to teach that here:
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Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.