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Tips for First Time Runners in Winter

As restrictions continue to fluctuate and rules around gyms and fitness spaces change, many of us have taken to pounding the pavements. But Physiotherapy expert New Victoria Hospital offers advice on everything you need to know on running through winter.

The number of people using the ‘Couch to 5k’ app has increased 92% since 2019, with March to June alone seeing over a million downloads, according to NHS England.

Given that the UK has spent much of the last year under some form of restriction, it’s unsurprising that the popularity of running has surged. 

Physiotherapy Manager, Chinyelu Obi of New Victoria Hospital warns that people need to ensure they’re properly prepared this winter in order to avoid injury – particularly if they are first time runners.

New Victoria Hospital, a leading charity-led healthcare facility in Kingston-upon-Thames, has seen its fair share of running injuries over the course of the Pandemic.  Chinyelu shares concerns of a spike in patients who have been holding back from coming forward due to Coronavirus.  Here she shares her tips on how to prepare the body correctly so that your running experience is as enjoyable and injury free as possible.

Common misconceptions

The biggest misconception around running, Chinyelu says, is that most people believe that it is enough to do just that – run: “When most people take up running they primarily think of getting fitter (improving their cardiovascular fitness) and don’t normally consider the effect it has on other structures,” she observes.

“As cardiovascular fitness improves quicker than the length of time it takes cartilage and joints to improve, it is important to improve muscle strength as well to help protect the joints.”

This is also vital as the load going through the joints can be between 5-7 times your body weight. “If there are any existing weaknesses things are more likely to fail at that point. Pre-existing abnormal biomechanics of the lower limb can be exacerbated with running and lead to injury.”

Ground Running

Running in winter provides a new level of challenge. “The ground can be uneven and slippery thanks to wet or cold weather and the drop in temperature puts extra strain on the lungs and muscles to keep the body warm,” says Chinyelu. “Add to this the fact that people sweat less in cold weather, so assume they don’t need to hydrate as much as they should do which exacerbates the cramping that cold muscles are prone to.

How this can lead to common running winter injuries

Given the factors mentioned above, the most common running injuries seen in the winter are:

•        Achilles tendonitis (Achilles tendinopathy)The Achilles tendon connects the calf muscle to the calcaneum (heel) and can get irritated and inflamed. It is common in runners especially after a sudden change in duration or intensity of their running.

•        Plantar fasciitis: usually presents as heel pain and is due to inflammation of the plantar fascia which is a thick ligament in the sole of the foot. Running (high impact) puts increased stresses on the fascia especially if you have a flat or high medial arch.

•        Patella Femoral Pain Syndrome: Running puts increased compressive forces through this joint and any weaknesses can lead to mal tracking of the patella. Also, tight quadriceps muscles can affect the normal movement of the patella as the knee flexes.

•        Iliotibial band friction syndrome (ITB): this occurs due to friction between the lateral epicondyle of the femur and the ITB.

•        Shin pain: can be due to inflammation at insertion of the muscles or bone stress. The muscles of the lower leg are enveloped by fascia into compartments, that may become swollen and painful as a result.

How to ensure you prepare for safe running in winter

Aside from ensuring you have the appropriate clothing, footwear, gear and assessing the terrain, Chinyelu explains that there are several steps you can take to ensure you are well prepared for running through the winter:

•        Warm up and cool down correctly: It is important to do a pre-run warm up indoors if possible as this helps to increase the circulation to the muscles and gets the body ready for exercise.  For example, dynamic stretching before a run helps to optimise joint movement and increases blood flow to the muscles. Static muscle stretching after a run can help to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

•        Ensure you are well hydrated:  Stay hydrated. We are prone to drinking less water during winter. When muscles become dehydrated the blood flow to them reduces, causing them to cramp and tighten. Tight muscles are easier to injure. Energy bars can also be helpful on longer runs.

•        Strengthen and stretch your muscles: Strengthen your core and lower limbs, particularly your gluteal muscles as this will help to maintain a stable pelvis whilst running. Practice regular stretching to increase flexibility which will help prevent muscle pulls/cramps. 

•        Rest: Rest days are just as important as run days. Ensure you have a rest day  in between run days and don’t run when injured or if niggles start to present themselves.

Physiotherapy options to help prevent or treat injury

New Victoria Hospital offers several Physiotherapy services to help prevent or treat running injuries, which include:

•        An assessment with one of our MSK Physiotherapists so they can assess your movement and strength. We can also assess your running on the treadmill to help correct any faulty patterns.

•        Massage therapy to help with releasing tight muscles

•        Extracorporeal Shockwave Therapy (shockwave therapy) which has been shown to be beneficial in promoting tissue regeneration, especially with chronic conditions such as plantar fasciitis.

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