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How to stay fit and prevent running injuries during the winter

Information provided on the blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or offer treatment plans.

Do you brave the dark, cold, snow, and ice and head outside, retreat to a treadmill, or take a break until warmer weather returns?

All of these are fairly common options, but there’s more to consider.

What to do about winter?

Winter months in the Midwest can pose a dilemma for runners. Running outside poses injury risks from fall on ice, uneven terrain, or repetitive running on hard or frozen surface.  Treadmill running can be monotonous. Hibernating from running can lead to loss of fitness, weight gain, and increased injury risk when returning to running.

Let me introduce you to a possible solution called periodization.

Periodization – Switch up your workouts

Elite athletes use the concept of periodization to break up the training cycle. Your body adapts to stress and if you keep the same routine, you will see diminishing returns in fitness and performance. By creating a training cycle (periodization) and focusing on different elements at different times of the year, you can actually increase your overall fitness and avoid many overuse injuries.

Great time for a change

You can use the winter months as a runner to your advantage.

This is a perfect time to change your routine. You do not need to stop running completely, but now is the time to focus on strengthening, flexibility, and cross training, while cutting back on your running. This will help keep your legs fresh for the spring, summer, and fall, when running conditions are more ideal.

By addressing any strength or flexibility deficits, you can also work towards preventing injuries when you increase running intensity during the next phase of training.

Here are some ideas for mixing it up during the winter months:

  1. Increase flexibility with Yoga
  2. Improve your core strength with Pilates or other fitness classes
  3. Hit the gym for weight lifting to strengthen upper and lower body muscles
  4. Try swimming, stationary bike, or other aerobic exercise to cross train
  5. Play an indoor sport such as basketball or soccer
  6. Cross Country Skiing
  7. Use a combination of all of the above

Depending on your training goals, 3 to 5 days of aerobic exercise and 2 to 3 days of strength training during this phase of your training cycle are recommended. Ideally, stretching and flexibility should be incorporated with each work-out session.

Common tight or inflexible muscles to work on with stretching:

  • Calf muscles
  • Hamstrings
  • Hip adductors
  • Hip flexors
  • Piriformis muscle
  • IT band

Common weak muscle to focus on with strengthening program:

  • Gluteal muscles
  • Anterior tibialis and peroneal muscles at front and outside of leg
  • Vastus medialis (medial quadriceps muscle)
  • Core musculature

Embrace the winter

By taking this approach to winter training, you can avoid the mental and physical burn out from year round running. You will look forward to the start of the spring running season and have a solid fitness base to build from. You can even help prevent injuries when you get back to your full running routine.

For a more specific individualized flexibility and strengthening program, you can consult with a health care or fitness professional and consider a video gait analysis to identify any problematic running mechanics.

Have questions?  Ask in the comments or call RunRight at 815-484-6990.

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Ryan Enke, M.D.

Dr. Enke is a muscoloskeletal specialist, focused on providing non-operative treatment and rehabilitation of musculoskeletal injuries and pain. He has a particular interest in the treatment and rehabilitation of runners and endurance athletes, Electrodiagnostic medicine (11EMGs), and comprehensive spine care and rehabilitation. Oh, and he''s a crazy fast runner.


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