Conquer the Cold

by Dr. Megan Meislin Conti Mica, MD

It’s time to brace ourselves for another season of wintertime running.  Freezing temperatures, snow, ice and rain can make outdoor running daunting. But if you are well prepared and dressed appropriately, you can brave the weather and even have an enjoyable run here in the Chicago tundra.

Be prepared
Do your due diligence and check the weather report.  Specifically, look at the temperature, wind speed, possibility of snow or rain, and moisture level. Based on the weekly forecast, plan to run on days that are going to be warmer, snow/ice/rain is not expected, and wind speeds are reasonable.

Orthopaedic surgeons see different fracture patterns depending on the season; winter’s icy pavements lead to an increase in distal radius (wrist) and ankle fractures.  Wear shoes that have appropriate traction and stay on paths that are salted and dry.

On windy days, keep your face covered and moisturized to prevent chapped lips and skin.  Plan to run into the wind first and return with the wind on your back.  Don’t forget sunscreen;  the sun reflects off snow and can cause an awkward runner’s tan that might take the whole summer to even out again.

Dress appropriately
Let weather conditions guide your clothing choices and number of layers. As you run, vasoconstriction of your fingers, nose, and ears occurs to keep your central body temperature up.  Hats, wicking socks and gloves (sometimes two pairs are appropriate) should be part of your running uniform to help prevent hypothermia and frostbite.

Frostbite is damage caused by freezing tissue that usually affects the extremities.  While frostbite is most common in males ages 30-49, it can happen to anyone. Risk factors include wind, cold temperatures, inappropriate clothing, humidity and over exertion.  The first stages of frostbite include numbness, clumsiness and loss of fine motor skills.  Second- and third-degree frostbite causes blistering.In fourth-degree frostbite, the most severe form, affected tissue is hard, bluish and numb.

As the degree of frostbite increases, the depth of tissue injured increases as well.  Primary treatment is rapid rewarming using hot baths.  Unfortunately, sometimes that is not enough and surgical intervention is needed to remove damaged tissue. In some severe cases, amputation is required. As surgeons, we never want to take these steps or even see you in the ER.  The best way to make sure we don’t is to be aware of your body while running and take the necessary steps to avoid frostbite.

Stay connected
Finally, keep a phone and an identification card with you during your runs.  Even the most prepared runner might run into an unexpected event and need assistance.

Winter runs can be beautiful.   Don’t let the challenges scare you off the trails.  Our wish is that you get out there completely equipped to find that fulfilling run.

Megan Meislin Conti Mica, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Chicago Medicine. She specializes in the treatment of adults and children, including athletes at all levels, with injuries or disorders of the hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder.