Revving up your winter run for safety

By Shanley Chien

As temperatures drop, so do the number of people running outdoors. People increasingly move their workouts to the gyms or other safe havens from Chiberia, but dedicated runners willing to brave freezing temperatures to clock in the miles should consider a few extra safety tips.

Liliana Zecker, associate professor of language and literacy at DePaul University and an avid Evanston runner, refuses to let cold temperatures prevent her from doing what she loves.

“The cold weather doesn’t affect me,” Zecker said. “In fact, I look forward to running in the cold. The first thing I do when there’s about to be a snowstorm is to plan my run around the time it’s going to start snowing.”

Chicago running coach Brendan Cournane advises his runners to shift their focus from running in warm weather to cold weather by concentrating on time instead of distance.

“Many runners think they have to go out and run for five miles or 10 miles or x-number of miles,” he said. “But they don’t realize that in cold weather their bodies are working harder and, therefore, they [should] think about how long it would take you under normal conditions to run five miles. That’s the maximum amount of time you want to run in the cold temperatures.”

According to a report published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine, approximately 50 percent of runners experience running-related incidents and the likelihood of injury increases in icy conditions. To ensure a safer run this winter, Cournane suggests a few other best practices for winter running.

Pay special attention to your running form

Icy pavement poses a big slipping hazard in the wintertime, so it’s important for both inexperienced and veteran runners to be aware of their gait. Running forms differ by the season: Runners often employ techniques to get higher knee lifts in warm weather, but the wintertime necessitates a type of running “shuffle,” which amounts to shorter strides, to prevent slipping.

“You want to keep your feet closer to the ground, not have such a high knee lift, so — if your landing foot slips — the other foot is still close to the ground and you can put it down for balance,” Cournane said.

Some runners can benefit from special traction devices that attach to the soles of their shoes in snowier conditions, such as Yaktrax. But Cournane, who wore regular running shoes in Antarctica, assures runners that “it’s more about changing your running form than what you’re wearing on your feet.”

Runners should also make sure that they keep their bodies loose and break the habit of tightening their extremities. The common misconception is that the closer runners keep their arms and fists to their bodies, the warmer they’ll be, when the opposite is actually true.

“Internally, the blood circulating through your body is the primary source of warmth for your organs,” Cournane said. “Tightening up makes it harder for you to get blood to your fingertips and legs.”

Wear the proper clothing

Runners who are accustomed to cold weather know the importance of dressing in multiple layers, but it’s also important to wear thermal socks and mittens to prevent frostbite. In addition, protect your head by using a running cap and facemask.

Remember to hydrate

Cournane advises runners to drink four to six ounces of water every 15 to 20 minutes during their workout to prevent dehydration. Some people make the mistake of overlooking their water intake in the cold and may not think they’re losing as much fluid because they’re not sweating as profusely as they would in warmer conditions.

“The vapor you exhale is moisture and you want to make sure you’re replenishing those fluids the same way you would in other times of the year,” he said.

Time properly

Cournane encourages runners to schedule their runs during daylight hours and to stay in the sunlight where temperatures are slightly warmer. If you plan to run when it’s dark, wear a headlamp to illuminate the path in front of you — this will help you identify patches of black ice to avoid.

Another best practice of running in winter conditions is to always bring a cell phone with you or tell a friend what route you take in case of emergencies whether you plan to run in the day or at night.

Common sense prevails

Runners have to be smart about how they prepare for a cold workout, but it’s also important for them to know when to draw the line.

“One of the theories is that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing,” Cournane said. “That’s true to a point, but I caution runners against running outdoors when the temperature or wind chill get below zero degrees.”

Cournane said that he cancels his group training classes when temperatures get dangerously cold for safety reasons because runners can quickly contract frostbite and other cold-related illnesses in those types of conditions. Runners with a history of cold-related conditions — such as frostbite and hypothermia — should be especially careful when exposing themselves to freezing temperatures because they are more susceptible to a recurrence.

“There’s no universal answer to how cold is too cold,” Cournane said. “It all comes down to personal preference and being smart.”

Photo at top: A runner jogs on an icy path along the lake. (Shanley Chien)