Safely exercising in wintry weather

With many parts of the UK gripped by snow, ice and cold, here are some tips to help keep you safely on your feet

man running in snow

by Trail Running |

Running in wintry weather presents a set of challenges, but if you decide that it's not going to hold you back from lacing up your shoes, what's the safest way to go about it? We asked Dr Eva Carneiro, TRR Nutrition’s sports medical advisor and former Chelsea Football Club first team doctor, to give us her top tips.

Exercising in the cold is good for most people - your metabolism has to increase to keep your core body temperature regulated so it can become a supercharged workout for your cardiovascular system. Studies have also shown that exposure to cold temperatures leads to more efficient fat metabolism.

In addition there are the mental and physical wellbeing effects of spending time in nature. It is associated with lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, which in turn boosts immune function. It improves mood, increases self-esteem and reduces anxiety. These are important considerations. Surface conditions may be less favourable to quicker, higher intensity workouts, but ‘’healthier’ does not always equate to faster or stronger.

What should you consider before a run if it's cold and frosty?

It’s important to say that people with pre-existing medical conditions, like asthma or heart conditions, should speak to their doctor before exercising in extreme weather. If you are unused to regular exercise, extreme weather would not be a good time to start.

There are several factors to consider when exercising in the cold. The change of surface from what you are used to training on is an important consideration in injury prevention. Snow and ice are constantly changing surfaces, depending on environmental factors like temperature and time of day. If the ground is hard and slippery, if it’s wet or frozen, this poses a risk of injury simply because your body will not have had time to adapt to it.

Not only can snow hide dangerous objects in your path, but it might adversely affect your shoes too. Strenuous walking is fine in the snow if you have the right footwear.

Also be aware of the wind-chill factor, which can cool your core body temperature quickly, especially if you have been sweating or if it’s been raining. If there is a cold wind, think about wearing a hat and gloves and layer up, removing layers as you heat up (to avoid sweating too much) and reapplying them when you start to cool down. Be sure your hands and feet are well insulated with protective socks and gloves as extremities can get cold quickly.

Should you warm up for longer when the ground is hard and frozen?

Yes, it’s a good idea to spend more time on your warm-up. In order for your muscles, ligaments and soft tissues to be able to respond quickly to the strains you are putting on them, and to prevent injury, they need to be warm and adequately mobilised before exposure to your new surface. When it’s colder, it takes longer for your bodily tissues to raise their temperature, so think about increasing the time you spend on your warm-up. Athletes like Andy Murray, who is one of our TRR Nutrition ambassadors, also opt for dynamic rather than static warm ups in the cold which get you moving more.

Start slowly - if the ground is hard, there is less ‘give’ so that will mean more impact through your body, adding stress on your bones and joints. Begin with a walk, then some high knees and slow lunges before you begin anything more strenuous. Remember to warm and mobilise your back as well. Proprioception is also good to practise - this is your body’s ability to perceive its own position in space. Try balancing with your ankles and feet on your chosen surfaces one leg at the time, bend your knee and correct your posture - this can markedly improve with daily targeted work.

Should you change your footwear?

Changing footwear should also be factored into your training modality. Always give yourself time to adapt to new running shoes. Shoes with a greater ‘grip’’ will help you avoid sliding (or slippage) over your training surface, reducing the risk of falling, but they may impose greater stress on your lower limb joints like ankles and knees, and if adaptation to surface and new shoes has been insufficient, this may raise the risk of meniscal (cartilage) injury, for example.

Keep your feet dry and warm and make sure you replace your shoes if you notice the grip is wearing.

Which surfaces are safer in wintry conditions?

This will largely depend on the exact sort of surface. You are less likely to slip in fresh snow but it can become more hazardous when it starts to ice over or thaw. In the case of the latter, you will often find that pavements and roads are icy while grass is safer.

However, always be on the look-out for patches of ice, particularly black ice, and make sure you are visible to other road users with appropriate clearly visible clothing. Plan for changing weather conditions and consider slowing or stopping if surface or climatic conditions suddenly become unfavourable. You might be disappointed to slow your time or intensity in the short term but an injury can delay your personal exercise goals and enjoyment and is rarely worth the risk.

It’s also worth saying that in very cold weather, it’s advisable to stick to routes you know and consider doing a few short circuits rather than one long run, as if you do encounter any problems or slip and fall you’re closer to home. And always take your phone just in case!

Any other tips for exercising in these conditions?

Always stay hydrated - you lose water even in the cold, so make sure you have drunk enough the night before you exercise with small sips of water often, and stay hydrated throughout your session.

Adding nutritional supplements to your diet during the winter is worth thinking about. Vitamin D is good because of the reduced exposure to sunlight in the winter; probiotics, vitamin C and zinc can boost your immune system, and PRO Advanced Collagen will help to protect your bones and joints and prevent inflammation if you are exercising on hard, frozen ground.

The main thing to remember is that exercising outdoors has many benefits even in the winter. It is good for your mental wellbeing, reduces stress, boosts your immune system and keeps your heart healthy. So even if it’s cold outside, as long as you are careful, you can still go for that run, enjoy the outdoors and reap the benefits!

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