8 ways to prevent winter exercise pain and injury

Winter is a double whammy for exercise enthusiasts. Not only do more injuries occur during the winter months, weather-related factors can increase the perception of pain, which can affect both performance and recovery. Reduce injury risk and master winter pain with these science-based tips and tricks. 

For many people, winter marks the return, worsening or onset of aches and pains. Pain from minor or niggling injuries or regular delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) may feel worse than it did in spring and summer. There are plausible reasons why you may feel pain in the colder months. There are also sound explanations for why injuries are more likely to occur during the chilly season. Fortunately, there are also simple DIY ways to reduce injury risk and pain. 

Pain reason: Air pressure

Some research and experts suggest that changes in barometric air pressure may cause tissues to expand, placing pressure on joints. This has particularly been explored in conditions such as arthritis, which many people report worsens in winter.

Solution: Warm up. When spending time outdoors (even when exercising), dress in layers to ensure your joints and muscles stay warm. Compression support cuffs and sleeves may help to ease pain in sore joints. Also make a point of performing a decent warm-up before your session as heat relaxes muscles and can help to soothe pain (see our warm-up hints below) . If you’re not sure of the best exercises to prepare joints and muscles for your activity, ask your physio or chiropractor for a warm-up routine. When you’re indoors, keep ambient room temperature at around 20 degrees and consider a heat blanket to warm the bed or over your knee on the couch.  

Pain reason: Inactivity

Inactivity in winter due to poor weather or lethargy can set you up for pain. Without an adequate amount of regular movement, joints can become stiff and muscles lose condition, meaning that when you do return to activity (or even beforehand), you’re at greater risk of pain or injury. 

Solution: If you can’t continue your summer exercise regimen in the colder months, swap it for a winter-friendly routine you can maintain, comprising both aerobic and resistance or weight-bearing activity. Think indoor gym work and swimming or water aerobics, yoga and treadmill runs. 

Pain reason: Pain memory 

Memories of painful winters can create an expectation of pain, which can actually ‘create’ the experience of pain (as though the experience is stored away, ready to be reactivated with a reminder or cue). In fact, neuroscience research suggests that the brain may not be able to tell the difference between thinking about, or imagining pain, and pain caused by responses to tissue damage. In studies using functional MRI technology, simply thinking about pain has activated the same brain areas as those activated by an ‘actual’ pain experience. 

Solution: Practising mindfulness, focusing on sensations in the here and now, may help to offset ‘remembered’ or ‘expected’ pain and replace it with more realistic perceptions. One way to do this is to perform a ‘body scan’, where you spend a brief time focusing on each body part from your feet (how do they feel on the floor or in your shoes?) up to the top of your head. While exercising, you may choose to focus on your breathing.

Pain reason: Winter blues 

Factors including mood, confidence that pain will resolve or can be treated and stress levels can impact the pain severity we experience. Why? One reason is that ‘feelgood’ mood and mood-related brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine are adversely affected by winter conditions including increased darkness, lower activity levels and less engagement in rewarding activities. Lower levels of these chemicals may correlate with increased perception of pain. Subsequent inactivity, due to pain itself or low mood, may further exacerbate pain and fuel a kind of vicious cycle. 

Solution: Push yourself to keep up activities that bring you pleasure and joy. Feelgood activities such as catching up with friends, indulging your passion for cooking or art or spending time with a pet will benefit mood, which may indirectly help to lessen the severity of the pain you experience. Of course exercise is a proven way to stimulate feelgood chemicals, so even if pain or injury prevents you from vigorous training, make a point of undertaking a gentler activity such as walking each day.

Winter injury prevention

Now to the bit about why Australians experience more sport and exercise-related injuries in May, June and July than in the warmer months and how you can reduce your risk of being one of them. One risk factor for winter injuries is cold muscles, tendons and ligaments, which are especially prone to sprains and strains. Simply, they are less flexible and elastic than warm muscles, tendons and ligaments. So what’s the best way to warm up before exercise to prevent winter injuries? Try these simple safeguards.

  1. Boost your warm-up and cool down

While you may be able to get away with a brief warm-up in the warmer months, winter demands a more disciplined and prolonged approach to warming up before sport or exercise. A good warm-up should simultaneously prepare the body for your activity, increase core temperature, elevate heart rate, increase breathing rate and stimulate flexibility and power. Moreover, it should improve nerve conduction, which assists with fluid movement, and prepare the cardiovascular and metabolic systems to deliver blood and oxygen to working tissues — which assists with both injury prevention and performance.

Warm-up/cool-down ground rules 

Broadly, your warm-up should include movements that mimic those you’ll perform during sport or exercise and include a combination of aerobic activity and stretching. For structuring your warm-up, perform the aerobic component of your warm-up before stretching as stretching a cold muscle may cause damage.For duration, consider doubling your usual warm-up period (e.g. 10 minutes instead of five). Similarly, you’ll need to factor in a considered cool down period and regimen to help muscles, tendons and ligaments to recover and acclimatise to stopping the activity and to the cool temperature. A cool-down returns muscles to resting length. You can replicate exercises from your warm-up and/or low-intensity movement such as walking or jogging. Aim for a minimum cool-down period of five to 10 minutes. 

2. Adapt your wardrobe

When you’re dedicating such effort to your warm-up and cool-down, it doesn’t make sense to undo the effects or increase the effort required by wearing clothing that exposes muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints to the cold. Consider investing in full-length compression skins or leggings and a fitted long-sleeve top, ideally with moisture-wicking properties. Remaining dry by wearing clothing that wicks perspiration will also help you to maintain warmth.

3. Maintain hydration 

It may sound counterintuitive, but winter brings a greater risk of dehydration due to factors including not feeling thirsty and drinking hot caffeinated beverages, which have a diuretic effect. For athletes and exercise enthusiasts, even minor dehydration may cause muscle cramps. Strive to drink water continuously throughout the day and boost your intake during and after exercise. 

If you’re not sure how to optimally warm up and cool down for your sport or exercise type, consider a consultation with a physiotherapist, who can recommend a personalised program to prevent injuries and improve performance.

Winter physio and chiro on call: Save on staying injury free with a 3-month sports membership

Whether you are carrying a recent or old injury or just want this winter to be free of annoying layoffs, regular appointments with a Soaring Health physio, chiro or both can help. For just $10 per month* billed quarterly, our sports membership enables you to access reduced-fee appointments whenever you need them. This applies to all private services including dietetics. There’s no tricky fine print. You’re not locked in. When spring arrives, you can decide to renew or not. What have you got to lose, except winter injuries, performance lags and pain? 

For details of member discounts and terms, click here. To join, simply book an appointment here or by calling 9013 5987 and we’ll take care of the rest.


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