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Running in the snow: Is it worth the risk?

Image courtesy of Dr. Nadya Swedan.

We all know running is phenomenal cardio. It’s convenient, requires minimal gear and can’t be beat as a way to get a good calorie burn, endorphin rush and beautiful legs. But in snow and ice, it may be wise to reconsider your workout plans.

If you’ve tried to run over snow and ice you know the feeling: An uneven and slippery surface results in uncertain foot placement with each step. This destabilizes your ankles and knees – the joints most commonly injured by running. An icy slip can cause a twist to the ankle or knee resulting in sprain, ligament/ACL  tear, meniscus tear or even a fracture. Wrist and shoulder fractures are also possible.  

Running on an uneven and slippery surface can also cause or reactivate back issues as you lean forwards or back to correct your balance. As you run, your stride is shorter and your foot strike is altered, potentially leading to tendon and muscle sprains and strains. The wider stance that is typical when moving over icy surfaces can lead to ITB issues and outer thigh and leg pain.  

Also, consider the more serious health hazards associated with the elements of winter. Head injuries are possible due to extreme falls or when wind suddenly brings down snow-covered branches. Falling backwards on black ice can cause you to land on your rear, possibly leading to spine, pelvic or tailbone fractures.  

Frostbite is another serious concern in under 5 degree wind chill and can even result in amputation. Asthma is made worse in the cold, and any lingering upper respiratory germs can spin into serious infections. Winter is unfortunately the season heart attacks and sudden deaths are most common, possibly due in part to constricted arteries and increased blood pressure with decreased blood flow to the heart.

Truthfully, there are seldom smiles on the faces of runners in extreme cold. The body is tighter and stiffer than usual and the cold makes it hard to stay loose and maintain a good running cadence and arm swing. The cold air can feel as if it burns your lungs and numb feet just feel weird beneath you.  

It would be wise to view winter storm days as “snow days” for your body: A day off to rest and catch up on alternative activities. Most runners can use that rest to prevent overuse injuries and overtraining syndrome.  

If you must exercise and can get to a gym, experiment with the elliptical or bike - both excellent ways to maintain cardiac fitness and super strong legs. Of course, the treadmill is an option. But running on a treadmill can causes differences in stride length, which can result in hip labral tears and leg and foot tendinitis. Neck and back pain is also common with treadmill use due to poor spine position and posture.

If you’re surrounded by snow and want to be outdoors, try snowshoeing or cross country skiing for a powerful lower body work out. If you must run outside, change your route to cleared roads.  

Make sure you are wearing reflective gear or a lamp if it’s cloudy or dark;  and keep an eye out for vehicles - they may be sliding on ice as they turn corners.  

As long as you don’t live in an arctic zone, the pavement will soon reappear and you can get back to risk-free running. Until then, enjoy exploring other ways to keep and stay fit. 

Dr. Nadya Swedan is a New York City-based physiatrist and is on the medical staff at North Shore University Hospital/LIJ Manhasset. She wrote "The Active Woman's Health and Fitness Handbook" and "Women's Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation." Visit her website at http://drnadya.com or follow her on Twitter @DrNadyaSwedan