IT’S THE FIRST OFFICIAL DAY OF WINTER! Whatever the temperatures may be in your location, the date is associated with the onset of cold weather. Having lived in both snowbound, lake effect regions of Michigan and Ohio, and coastal, marine- layer areas of the Pacific (California) and the Gulf of Mexico (Texas), when the thermometer shows a significant DROP in any location north or south, IT FEELS COLD.
Is it safe to run in the cold? It depends how you are dressed and how wet you become, according to comments from experts provided in an article by Kelly O’Mara for running.competitor.com, “How Cold Is Too Cold to Run?" It seems the mostly commonly feared consequences, injury to muscle or lungs, aren’t significant concerns.
“You should wear layers, particularly layers that stay dry. Once clothes get wet they can freeze and become dangerous for an athlete.” Other dangers discussed in the article include frostbite in severe conditions, and falls. Specific advice on layering is provided that’s worth the read. The answer to the question posed by the title seems to be that there are very few situations in which the coldness itself would be dangerous to health, if steps are taken in advance to dress appropriately.
The best tip of all in the O’Meara article is that mittens are warmer than gloves. Coming from Michigan, the “mitten state”, I know this. But many do not. The heat generated from individual fingers warms them all when held close together in the mitten. Separated from one another, fingers in gloves do not enjoy the warmth radiated by their buddies.
Earned Runs thinks that runners and walkers should pay attention to these factors:
Distance: cover less. Bundled in more clothes, struggling against wind and a slippery wet or snowy surface, will likely require more energy and potentially leave you too tired to maintain a constant pace. Once you slow down, the amount of heat generated by an initially fast pace will decrease. There’s the possibility you will be miles out from the shelter of your car or home when you begin to tire and feel cold.
Routes: repeat a short stretch. A run or walk in an exposed area can be much more difficult and risky than one in a sheltered neighborhood. I loved my long route along the Lake Erie shore, west of Cleveland. But it wasn’t a bright idea to run this wind and snow-blasted area in all weather conditions. Multiple short loops on a quiet narrow street lined by homes and trees makes much more sense on a cold rainy day or a frigid winter morning. Such streets tend to have less traffic and it’s possible to claim the center of the road on weekend mornings.
Wind: a good reason to run or exercise indoors. Most of us are familiar with the meteorological term “wind chill” temperature. Recently this has been translated to “feels like” temperature. Regardless, we know this degree number is always lower than the actual temperature. So, the clothing layers chosen for a run or walk may not be sufficiently protective on a vary windy day, even if with an wind-breaker outer layer . That’s reason number 1 not to run outside.
When facing a cold, wet, driving wind, running and walking form can change. At least in the portions of the session that it’s not aimed at our backs. The benefit to training seems minimal if form is poor. That’s reason number 2 to choose another workout or run/walk indoors.
Uneven slippery footing: injuries await. Falling isn’t the only danger. Other soft tissue and joint problems can arise from repeatedly covering ground with uncertain footing or for long periods of time. I have personal experience in this area! Unfortunately, outdoor paths may not be clear of black ice or painful slush-hardened-into-ice for months in the northern most areas of the country. The solution is to scout other areas and find routes in which surfaces are sufficiently cleared, smooth, and safe for the duration of winter.
Bottom line is that cold weather should not discourage runners and walkers from getting outside if care is taken to dress wisely, choose appropriate routes, and modify training to avoid injury. It’s also best to know when to take ourselves out of too-cold weather, just as we do in too-warm weather, especially if we are attempting a high quality workout.
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Running, walking, and fitness activities enable us to experience our physical selves in a world mostly accessed through use of fingers on a mobile device.
EARNED RUNS is edited and authored by me, runner and founder. In 1978 I began participating in 10K road races before 5Ks were common. I've been a dietitian, practiced and taught clinical pathology, and been involved with research that utilized pathology. I am fascinated with understanding the origins of disease as well as health and longevity.
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