As winter weather arrives for us in the Northern Hemisphere, I see lots of neighbors getting ready. Snowblowers are reawakened. Shovels are readied, and winter gear moves front and center in closets.
For the runner, training changes as well. As the days get shorter, some of us run in the growing darkness of the early morning and late afternoon. Some of us move our runs to midday, requiring a rearrangement of our normal workday routine. And all of us spend time evaluating the benefit of the run versus the risk of a fall on slick surfaces.
I used to think of winter as a season when my running suffered. Now I see it as a time when I can injury-proof myself to get ready for faster racing in the spring, summer and fall. After all, I’m inside more, there are fewer daylight hours, and I often have to miss runs due to poor footing anyway. Why not work with this reality, instead of against it?
Use this time to establish and refine a routine that will last throughout the year. Done correctly, you can easily injury-proof yourself over the winter and surprise yourself at the quality of your training (and then racing) when the weather warms.
Here are the four areas that I address in my winter routine:
1 – FLEXIBILITY/MOBILITY
As we run, the soft tissue in our legs stiffens. This is a positive training effect, as the stiffer tissues help to store energy, then return it to help propel us down the road with less effort. But stiffness can go too far, causing dysfunction that, if not corrected, may lead to injury. As a result, every runner needs a flexibility routine to help keep soft tissues from getting too tight.
Winter is the perfect time to create, refine and finalize your flexibility routine. Create a “quick” routine for when the schedule is tight and a “full” one for those rare days when you have plenty of time.
My experience has been that active isolated flexibility is the best for runners and can be used before and after running, though I typically work on flexibility only after my runs. The Wharton routine is easiest for me, and then I add a few yoga poses that seem to help loosen me up. Experiment and see what works for you.
While the research is inconclusive on the value of flexibility in preventing injury, I certainly find that when I consistently work on my flexibility, I feel better training and have fewer injuries.
2 – STABILITY
Running, at its simplest, is about holding your trunk (core and hips) stable while you move your arms and legs. The more stable you can hold your trunk while your arms and legs are doing their thing, the more efficient you’ll be. Many therapists believe that an unstable trunk is a leading cause of injury from the feet to the hips.
Gaining this important stability is easy and requires just a few exercises. There seem to be as many trunk stability exercises as there are runners. Again, find ones that challenge you and that you enjoy doing. You’re more likely to stick to them. Then, as you get into your injury-proofing routine, you can advance the exercises.
One note: The growing body of evidence points to the hips as a primary cause of running ailments. It is critically important that runners strengthen their hips. The more injury prone you are, the more you need to work on hip strength and mobility.
3 – SPECIFIC INJURY AREAS
We all have our Achilles heel–an area of weakness that often gets injured or threatens injury. For me, my hips (weakness) and calves (tightness) are my areas of concern. For my training partner, it’s his plantar fascia. I suspect that you have a problem area as well. Develop focused injury-proofing for that area, and don’t let up. Don’t work on it only when you’re hurting. Work on it year-round. Let’s commit to addressing our oft-injured areas. For most of us, two to four exercises, along with stretches and massage techniques, could help those susceptible areas become more resistant to injury. Read more in Coach Lemon’s article on The Importance of Prehab.
4 – RUNNING FORM
Have you seen yourself run? You should. All of us could benefit from cleaning up our running form. Better form may not only help prevent injury, but may also hold off fatigue in training and racing. Winter is a great time to work on running form. You can easily do running drills in a small space (a hallway or garage works); if you have an indoor workout location (track, gym, etc.), all the better. If the weather (or more importantly, the footing) is dangerous for a run, substitute some running form work. It’s easy to do, and at least you know you’re working to improve your performance, even if you can’t run. You can find dozens of drills to improve your form (here’s my Form Drills routine). Select some that will work for you and do them, consistently. You’ll be surprised how much you can clean up your arm swing, body position and running motion with just a few weeks of form drills.
Check out all of McMillan Running’s Strength and Prehab routines.
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