Dr Kevin ODonnell

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Mercy Health System Orthopedic Surgeon and Sports Medicine Specialist Dr. Kevin O'Donnell has tips to kick start winter running habits as the new year comes around the corner.

Whether an athlete, casual runner, or someone looking to get a jump start on their new year’s resolution, running in the winter is a good way to keep fit.

Staying nestled under the blankets on the couch while streaming Netflix may be warmer and comforting, but a run is a run no matter what the temperature.

“If you’re out there running a mile, or running 5 miles, you’ll probably expend just as much energy give or take maybe a couple tenths of calories,” said Dr. Kevin O’Donnell, orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist with the Mercy Health System about running in the heat or the cold.

But running outside when it’s just about freezing out, if not colder, comes with its own set of cautions over the summer, says O’Donnell.

Some of the tips he offers include knowing your route and their conditions, know the weather, use proper footwear and knowing how to dress for cardio exercise.

“When you run outdoors during the wintertime you’re really encountering an environment that you’re not seeing in the summer. It’s the same activity, but a different set of rules apply,” he said. “A lot more preparation needs to go into outdoor running than it does in the summer … In the wintertime it’s a totally different animal: The sun sets at 4:30 p.m.; you may have some ice on the ground; you won’t be as visible to the people around you; the wind can become blisteringly cold if you’re not dressed appropriately.

“It’s not until you get that first mile or half mile down until you can really start warming up and at that point you’re in something too bulky you may over heat.”

Knowing how many layers or garments (hats, gloves, shirts) to wear is up to the runner and how well they can gauge their body temperature as they progress through their workouts. The right garments will be able to keep the body warm, but not hold onto the moisture that will make it a cold, damp piece of clothing from the sweat.

O’Donnell recommended, at minimum, a moisture-wicking or synthetic base layer.

The Mayo Clinic cites a lack of appropriate clothing as one of three causes for frostbite.

“Risk increases as air temperature falls below 5 F (minus 15 C), even with low wind speeds. In wind chill of minus 16.6 F (minus 27 C), frostbite can occur on exposed skin in less than 30 minutes,” states the clinic’s frostbite information page.

Staying out in the cold and wind too long, along with touching ice, cold packs or frozen metal are other contributions to frostbite.

A Dec. 2018 article published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention addressing people who work in cold environments says, “Whenever outdoor temperatures drop significantly below normal and wind speed increases, heat more rapidly leaves the body. Serious health problems can occur when the body is unable to stay warm enough.”

O’Donnell said that a 0-degree wind chill may be the ultimate threshold by which someone should not go out for a run. Simply, “if it’s too cold, it’s time to come back in.”

Getting (back) into the habit of running at the start of the new year with new fitness goals fresh in our mind may be a cold reality check of the grit and determination to build up our bodies. O’Donnell addressed the comment that summer bodies are made in winter and how there are no “quick fixes.”

“If you’re running to stay active, for exercise, cardiovascular health, for overall mental well-being and you want to incorporate that into a healthy diet, that’s great. That will potentially accelerate the results,” he said. “The other saying you may hear is you can’t outrun a crappy diet, you just can’t.”

Initiating a two-week schedule for regular runs is a good start to establishing a longer-term training program or making goal-reaching initiatives.

“As much as I don’t want to do this today, I’m going to do it,” said O’Donnell about those first two weeks. “For two weeks no matter what … if you really want to do it, commit to it unfalteringly for two weeks and see if you can establish that goal. At the end of those two weeks it will become a lot easier for that habit to take hold and develop.

“To run outside in the mornings now I find it a challenge, but I also enjoy that. There is that nice camaraderie when you see other people out there, too, like a secret club. You’re the people who are, for what it’s worth, crazy enough to while it’s still dark, cold out to go for a run.

“There’s that exclusivity for winter runners,” he said.

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