Dangers of Extreme Cold Weather Running

Nicholas J. Perri MA, NASM-PES

I am a runner. But my philosophy or approach to running and most things I do, especially pertaining to exercise, is weighed carefully. I take a risk versus benefit approach. And if the risk is greater than the benefit, I find an alternative that offers less risk along with increased benefit. However, I find many runners don’t subscribe to this philosophy and will run in anything from rain storms to blizzards and extreme cold to extremely hot and humid conditions. I do not understand this philosophy…primarily because as an active individual…I want to do all I can to stay injury free and consistently active. Nothing worse for an active individual and/or athlete than to be nursing an injury.

Years ago, I knew a very good runner who decided to go out for one of her usual winter runs…dressed appropriately and prepared for anything…till she slipped and fell on black ice and shattered her ankle…putting her on the shelf for months. Since then, I have always been a fair weather runner and now cyclist. I go out during low traffic times between dawn and dusk with very few exceptions. Weather conditions are usually fair to ideal and I train indoors whenever necessary, without hesitation. If it is extremely cold out or roads are icy, I have absolutely no problem training inside. I lower my risk for potential slips and falls while increasing the intensity of my workouts (generally, extremely cold and/or icy conditions will not allow you to train as hard or as long). Staying indoors also allows me to mix things up a bit and get some cross training in…whether it is spinning, yoga or a high intensity strength training session. And to be honest, most runners could stand to run a little less and cross train a little more. You know who you are.

Here are a few other reasons to exercise indoors during extremely cold and icy conditions:

Breathing Difficulty: Cold air can cause bronchial constriction because of it’s dryness and temperature. Cold air can also aggravate an existing infection in your chest and throat. A chest cold or sore throat could quickly lead to pneumonia. Precautions can be taken by running with a ski mask or scarf over your mouth. But if you’re feeling a little under the weather, your best option is to not run at all.

Hypothermia: While precautions can be taken it is still a real danger and should not be taken lightly.

Frostbite: Again…precautions can be taken. If you are not an experienced cold weather runner, do your research before you head out to ensure you are wearing the proper cold weather gear.

Trench Foot: It is an injury of the feet resulting from prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. Trench foot can occur at temperatures as high as 60 degrees F if the feet are constantly wet. Injury occurs because wet feet lose heat 25-times faster than dry feet. Therefore, to prevent heat loss, the body constricts blood vessels to shut down circulation in the feet. Skin tissue begins to die because of lack of oxygen and nutrients and due to the buildup of toxic products (CDC-Cold Stress).

Slips and Falls: This is actually my number one concern. You can take precautions such as slowing your pace, watching your footing and wearing Yaktrax or sheet metal screws in your shoes but there is now way you can completely avoid a slip and fall on the ice.

My advice is simple. During extremely cold and/or icy conditions, train indoors. Live to run or train another day! Most runners I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with are very one dimensional in their training. All they do is run. Again…you know who you are. Use these days to add some variety to your training and in the process become a better and stronger runner. Take a yoga class to improve flexibility, balance and strength. Start taking a spinning class to help build power and strength in your legs, while giving your body and joints a break from the constant impact. Being a runner, I saw my running improve significantly after I started cycling and training for duathlons. And last but not least, begin strength training. Core strength is vital to the success of any athlete and runners are no exception. A total body approach to strength training with an emphasis on developing core strength and increased strength and power in the lower extremities would be ideal.

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