Some of you may not be lucky enough to experience the invasion of the "polar vortex". I, for one, think this is what winter should be like and is reminiscent of winters past. You may think winter is too cold to begin with, let alone this particular winter, to get out there and log some miles on the roads and trails. I admit it's not for everyone but I find cold weather running rather invigorating. (I also despise treadmills so that limits my options anyway.)
When you're talking about single digits, teens and into the 20's for air temperature, as it has been for my recent runs, speed work and interval training are not easy to do. Running faster especially if there is any kind of wind automatically makes it feel colder so it usually isn't the most enjoyable thing to begin with. Physiologically it is generally more difficult because your body uses more energy (read: oxygen) to maintain its core temperature and muscle efficiency decreases. (1) For most people this means more work for the same results in warmer temps.
So what is a runner to do?
Instead of hammering out intervals, winter can be a great time to focus on the fundamentals of your technique as it can have a dramatic effect on your performance. After that initial shock of the cold air, I like to start at the top and analyze all the way to the bottom:
For me that means using my ears and listening to my cadence first. If you missed my post about the importance of your auditory organs as a runner you can read that here. Your cadence should sound relatively symmetrical regardless of foot strike preference. (That's another topic for the future.)
How's your head position? Straight and stable? Good.
What about your shoulders? Are they back and relaxed allowing you to maintain an upright posture and promote good lung function or are they tense and shrugged up to your ears? No bueno if it is the latter.
How are your hands? Clenched like a death grip and creating tension throughout your whole upper body or gently flexed like you're holding an egg?
What are your arms doing? Are your elbows comfortably bent? Is your arm swing compact and moving forward and back for the most part rather than side to side? Is one arm doing something the other arm isn't?? This is often a place where energy is wasted as the arms can do interesting things and take away your forward momentum.
Onto the lower body. Are you getting hip drive with every step? Is one knee clipping your leg with each swing...maybe both? Are your feet clipping your legs...maybe one more than the other? Hint: this will waste energy and efficiency also.
What's going on when your foot hits the ground? Does it feel like (sound like) you're landing relatively symmetrical each step? Are you transitioning all the way through the big toe so that you have maximal forward propulsion every step? Do you find you push off more to the inside of your foot? This is another example where energy can be lost and decrease performance.
There you have it...a quick checklist of things to dial in on as you rack up your mileage so that you come out of winter as an efficient runner ready to dominate your goals and races. This is by no means an exhaustive list as each component could be broken down further if need be and usually requires another pair of eyes for observation and analysis. In most cases everything will probably check out and you can be on your merry way to enjoying some cold weather runs. If something is off or you're dealing with a nagging injury that won't go away no matter what you do, consider consulting with a physical therapist knowledgeable in running injury and performance.
Happy running, embrace the polar vortex and see you out on the trails!
1. Nimmo, M. Exercise in the cold. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2004 Oct; 22(10) pp:898-916.
What do you listen to when you run? Are you singing along to your favorite '80s mix, rocking out to Metallica's greatest hits or catching up on your favorite podcast? All of these actually sound like pretty good options but do you ever take your earbuds out and just listen to yourself run? There are a variety of ways to analyze running performance but using your auditory organs isn't commonly on that list. And unlike some of the others like video analysis or a biomechanics evaluation, you can perform an auditory analysis on your own and on any surface inside or out. Sound is a powerful tool and is something I use often with my clients and certainly for myself when I am running.
For the purposes of this discussion, the assumption is that there are no significant asymmetries (structural or functional) or previous injury, prosthesis or orthosis that prevents symmetry of the body in stance or with movement.
The first, and probably easiest thing, you can key in on is the sound of your cadence. You should sound like a metronome when your feet hit the ground. There should be equal time (or silence) between each foot strike as well as equal time (or sound) when each foot is in contact with the ground. The latter can be a little more difficult to discern because the transition over the foot is generally quite quick. If there is a difference between foot strikes, then that may suggest possible issues like inefficiencies in your running mechanics or imbalances in higher joints which could lead to nagging injuries or limit your mileage or pace. Without overhauling your technique see if you are able to tweak your cadence first so that it is more even the next time you run.
Assuming that your cadence is symmetrical, the next sound(s) to listen to may be a little more challenging: how your feet actually strike the ground. Are you a heavy hitter with a solid impact each time or are you light like a gazelle? Is one foot heavy and the other light? Depending on how light or heavy you land (and also which source you read), you are landing with 1.5 to 3 times your body weight on a flat surface. That is a lot of energy and it has to go somewhere. The Earth is certainly not going to budge which means all of that energy is translated into your body. If you land on the heavy side, injuries could pop up generally more structural in nature like stress syndromes and stress fractures. If you land exceptionally light or soft, this could actually mean that you're absorbing so much energy that you lose some efficiency in your technique and soft tissue injuries like tendonitis is more likely to show up. For instance you may bounce up and down more with each step rather than using that energy to move forward. There's a delicate balance between landing too hard or too light and listening to your foot strike can help you find that sweet spot. If you're lucky, you've got it already.
Another sound to listen for is the foot slap. For those unfamiliar it almost sounds like two impacts when you land: first with the heel followed quickly by a loud "slap" by the forefoot. This is not to be confused with regular heel striking with a smooth transition versus other styles of landing. (That is a completely different discussion which will be covered in future posts.) This pattern generally describes someone who is over striding. When the foot and leg are too far out in front of your body and center of mass, it is difficult to transition smoothly and it is a less stable position which results in the distinct foot slap sound. The "easy" fix for this is to shorten your stride which may feel a bit awkward at first but long term will feel more smooth and comfortable when you run.
Lastly, breathing. This encompasses all runners regardless of your cadence or foot strike patterns. Without getting into any specific technique (there are several out there but this is also a different discussion for another day), the one thing that they all have in common is rhythm. Make sure your breathing is consistent and has a rhythm to it so that you are constantly getting the oxygen you need to perform.
Should there be any noticeable differences that persist and you are unable to correct them yourself or you develop pain, consider consulting with a physical therapist knowledgeable in running injury and performance to review your technique and history.
See you out on the trails!
If you found this to be helpful, please share!
Dr. Greg Cecere
Your personal physical therapist, movement educator and knowledge dispenser.
Newsletter Sign Up
Enter your name and email to get Momentum PT's Movement Manual delivered straight to your inbox! It's your free monthly newsletter and guide to moving better, feeling better and living better!
The contents of this blog is meant for educational purposes only. Momentum Physical Therapy of New Paltz and Dr. Greg Cecere are not responsible for any harm or injury that may occur due to any information on this blog as it is by no means a substitute for a thorough evaluation by a medical professional.