Running and staying healthy winter

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The Fields of Athenry 10K road race in Galway, Ireland on a cold December’s weekend. Photo: Peter Mooney via Flickr

Many athletes at all levels struggle to navigate the winter season without picking up injuries and illnesses along the way. Missing training, losing fitness and sometimes motivation as a result aren’t the extra hurdles you want ahead of a new season. So here are a few tips to help you steer clear of the common cold.

1. Understand how the temperature affects your breathing:

The air can be brutally cold and dry during the winter months. The body naturally heats air before it enters the lungs, although increased breathing rate reduces its ability to warm the air, resulting in cold air irritating the bronchial tubes, lungs and mucous membrane.

Athletes suffering with asthma-related conditions may also experience tightening, inflammation and swelling of the airways as well as increased mucus production. Although breathing via the nose helps to heat the air more effectively, the presence of cold air in the nasal cavities causes the body to flood the nasal tissue with warm blood, causing inflammation and congestion.

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2. Invest in appropriate clothing:

Winter training can be grueling and energy draining, and cold conditions can really work your body overtime to keep warm. Lack of energy, especially after sessions, reduces the efficiency of your body’s immune system; leaving you vulnerable to all sorts of bacterial and viral infections.

Neck warmers are a great piece of kit for all winter runners, helping to keep the neck warm and heating the air before it enters your body. For those who struggle with nasal congestion during dry and cold conditions, nasal strips can be an effective solution. You should also have a thick, waterproof, insulated coat to wear before and after cold sessions, a warm thermal base layer (tops and bottoms), and perhaps a humble hat and gloves to reduce the sting of the cold.

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3. Warm up before freezing sessions:

Warming up is an essential part of injury prevention and performance maximisation, even more so for those sub-zero days. Decreases in body core temperature may cause muscles to contract and tighten, increasing the risk of muscular tear or strain whilst pushing the pace. A simple warm-up including aerobic activity, dynamic stretching and sport-specific drills help safely lengthen muscle fibres, reducing the risk of injury. If possible, changing into dry, warm clothes after the warm up (before the session) can be a great way of staying warm during session.

Athletes may also want to adapt their diets during the winter season to make sure they are consuming foods that fuel their immune system. Vitamin C is thought to increase the production of white blood cells that fight off infection; foods high in vitamin C include: citrus fruits, bell peppers, strawberries and black currents.

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4. When all else fails, head indoors:

Even for the most hardcore endurance athletes, icy trails and roads may leave us looking like Bambi on ice trying to get a run in. Heading for an indoor track or treadmill can be the safest and most beneficial option on the worst winter days. Indoor tracks are often 200m loops and may have sloped bends; those turns pose some injury risk. Be sensible with session plans and listen to your body, if a niggle occurs mid session, take a break. For those jumping on treadmills, the lack of any wind resistance combined with propulsion provided by the constant movement of the belt makes the biomechanics of the running stride differ slightly. You should warm up as usual and could set a gradient of one per cent to create a more realistic feel.

Finally, there’s no shame in taking a rest day when feeling ill or during treacherous conditions. Stay safe, stay healthy and enjoy the new year!