Running Away From Hypothermia – How to train safely in the cold

Michael Sean Huffman – MS, ATC, PT Fit For Life Physical Therapy

While training for a marathon or half marathon, it is important to continue with your running and walking plan, even when the weather turns cooler. During the frigid winter, if you can overcome your desire to stay inside next to the fireplace, and you do not wish to run on the treadmill, this update should help you run safely outdoors and avoid symptoms of hypothermia.

Hypothermia is technically when your body temperature is 95°F or lower and can be fatal if untreated. Conditions that predispose you to hypothermia include low air temperature, high wind speed, and heavy precipitation of wet snow or rain.

Based upon aerobic fitness and body fat levels, environmental conditions affect every runner or walker in different ways. While running, hypothermia symptoms can include shivering, a slower pulse, lethargy, and diminished alertness. As decision-making can be affected when any of the symptoms are found in combination with one another, running with a group of people who can help keep an eye on each other while exercising in the cold is a great idea.

To be safe, and to help prevent hypothermia, please stay hydrated. Please continue with your usual heavy doses of water or electrolyte beverages to maintain your natural hydration levels. Even though it’s cold outside, you will continue to sweat and when you do so you are prone to dehydration.

Please avoid wearing a base layer of cotton. Cotton clothing does not wick away your sweat as rapidly as technical gear, and wet skin can lose 25 times more heat than dry skin. A layering system will work well to keep you warm and will allow you to remove layers as conditions change during your run or walk.

To dress appropriately, wearing layers of technical clothing with sweat wicking material next your skin - including socks - is the safest way to bundle up. Don't overdress because your body will heat up as you exercise. Prepare as if the air temperature is about 20° warmer than it actually is when you start your run or walk.

Please don’t forget your head & ears, hands, lips, and eyes. You can always stash hats, gloves, lip balm, and sunglasses in your pockets later if you warm up.

One more thing about layering, have extra clothes ready to go as soon as you are finished exercising. To avoid chills afterwards, change all your clothes - including all undergarments - as soon as you can.

No matter how many layers you add, please stay visible. Our Marathoner In Training Medical Director, Dr. Darrin Bright, emphasizes this at every one of his MIT talks for a specific reason: It is NOT enough that you can see where you were going, it is even more important to BE SEEN. Oncoming pedestrians, cyclists, and of course, motor vehicles drivers need to see your lights, reflective gear, headlamps, etc.

Let the sun be your friend. Try to let the day’s temperature warm up, in turn allowing the roads to clear a bit. But, don’t forget the opposite is also true: as the sun goes down, the weather will cool and your body will cool even faster.

Be aware of your footing. This can include choosing a path that is often treated, plowed, etc., but can also mean getting a grip by wearing your Yaktrax to prevent slipping during your exercise.

Ease into your run. Get a good warm-up mile under your belt before hitting your goal pace that you are going to maintain for most of your run. And, when you’re done, get inside for your cool down and stretching.

Be flexible with your pace and mileage. Realize that you may need to back off with your goal pace a bit depending on the climate and the footing conditions. Be prepared to adjust mid-training session if conditions change. Just be safe and enjoy your run or walk.

Sean Huffman delivers +32 years of experience in physical therapy and athletic training to Fit For Life Physical Therapy. He has completed +38 marathons and has been a 9:00 minute pace coach with Marathoners in Training for the last eight years. Sean studied physical therapy and athletic training at The Ohio State University and earned a Master’s of Science in Health Administration at Oklahoma State University with a Master’s thesis regarding the role of custom foot orthotics in preventing leg injuries for athletes.

Fit For Life Physical Therapy is proud to be Fleet Feet + FrontRunner’s physical therapy partner. We will keep you moving – no matter what you do. Contact Fit For Life Physical Therapy at (614) 981-1979 or with your injury prevention, maintenance, or rehabilitation needs!

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