Andrea Metcalf by Andrea Metcalf

When temperatures drop and winter sets in, running outdoors may not be as appealing as it is during those temperate spring and fall days. Fortunately, running outdoors can still be part of your program—you simply need to take a few precautions and choose the right gear. And if you just can’t stand the cold, there are plenty of ways to stay in shape, even if you don’t like running on a treadmill. 

But first, how cold is too cold to run outdoors? According to John Castellani, an exercise physiologist at the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, the highest risk for injury while running in cold temperatures is frostbite, which occurs at 17 or 18 degrees below zero. So, as long as the temperatures are not that extreme, you should be O.K. running outside, so long as you have the right gear to keep you warm. 

Running Outdoors

When running outdoors, dress in layers, keeping wicking layers close to the body. Wool is a good fabric choice for the base layer. Next, wear a cotton or fleece layer, which will provide insulation under your top wind-resistant layer. Because frostbite is more likely to happen to the extremities and exposed skin, it’s a good idea to wear gloves and wicking socks, and cover your head and face in dropping temperatures. 

Geared up and dressed for an outdoor run isn’t enough, however. A proper dynamic warm-up is key to preventing “cold muscle” injuries—something that can occur indoors as well. A dynamic warm-up consists of exercises in a dynamic or moving pattern that mimic the movement patterns you’ll be performing during your workout. Runners should perform leg swings front to back and side to side, and lightly jog in place to increase core temperature and prepare muscles for the work. Calf raises and toe lifts are also a good dynamic movement stretch to perform before a run. Once you’ve warmed up, you’re ready to run.

Indoor Running Ideas

Because treadmill running has a different feel than running outdoors, many people abandon their running programs when temperatures drop, preferring instead to wait for warmer weather. Others don’t like the monotony of running in place. Additionally, treadmill running doesn’t offer the wind resistance of outdoor running and you expend less energy running indoors, which results in fewer calories burned. To keep up the burn, simply raise the incline to a 1 to 2% gradient. 

If you can get acclimated to it, treadmill running offers many benefits—the temperature is consistent, many treadmills offer viewing options of television programming or virtual runs, and the grade and speed can be changed with a touch of a finger. But if you’re still not convinced that running on a treadmill can be good for you, seeking out an alternate activity may be a better option.

Step it Up

Stair climbing is a great complement to running. Both a stairwell and a step machine offer roughly a 65% grade, which can’t be matched by a treadmill. Stair climbing also has a plyometric component, which builds strength in the hip stabilizers and increases lung capacity. Short bouts of stair climbing can improve your VO2max (this is the ability to use oxygen more efficiently while working out). In fact, according to a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, women who performed stair climbing five days a week for eight weeks improved their VO2max improved by 17%.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Rowing, which is a total-body workout, is another great substitution or complement to your running program. You pull with your upper body, push with your legs and maintain core with good posture throughout the movement. For this reason, rowing can actually help improve your total running performance. Plus, because it’s performed from a seated position, rowing gives your joints a break from the impact of running—this makes it a great recovery or low-impact workout.

Strengthen and Stretch

Take this time to get your whole body in shape with strengthening and stretching. Hiring a personal trainer to evaluate your posture, alignment and running form while on a treadmill can help you develop the right routines and identify specific exercises to improve your running. 

Winter is short and spring will be blooming before you know it. Take advantage of the inside time and keep your gait strong.

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