Cold Weather Care
Published November 28, 2016
Cold Weather Care
-by Rachel Binette
As the cooler weather arrives, athletes may begin noticing changes in how their body feels-- and I don’t mean just “cold.” Stiffness and muscle tightness tend to become worse during the winter months, making working out more uncomfortable than usual. As we may know, that stiffness can put us at higher risk of injury, so staying limber is important if we want to continue training. Prioritizing our recovery and learning some new techniques for getting warm can help. Lastly, getting sick can impact our training, and figuring out whether we should work out or rest depends on the illness.
A Myo-Fascial Tissue Primer
Myo-fascial tissue is what holds our muscles in their shape. It wraps each muscle, as well as individual muscle fibers and smaller groupings of muscle fibers as a form of protection. If you’re completely unfamiliar with myofascial tissue, this is a great resource for understanding exactly what it is and what it’s purpose is-- I’m somewhat squeamish and I was able to watch it, but here is your warning: there are cadavers. Myo-fascial tissue can become thicker in certain areas of our bodies, due to repetitive motion or as a response to injury. This build-up can create range of motion issues, which can cause pain or negative changes in mobility.
In addition to this build-up, our myo-fascial tissue reacts to our temperature. To demonstrate this, picture a plastic bag from the grocery store: in hot weather, when we stretch out the bag, it pulls apart easily. The material is extremely malleable in the heat. But in cold weather, we have a different story. When we try to pull apart the bag in winter, it is much more stiff and inflexible-- we won’t get nearly the same stretch out of it that we did when it was warm. Our myo-fascial tissue behaves a lot like our plastic bag. In the winter, when it is cold, it does not respond to manipulation as well as it does in the summer time.
Thankfully, we aren’t powerless when it comes to caring for our myo-fascial tissue. Follow this link for a great article explaining Self-Myofascial Release (SMR), including information about foam rolling that might surprise you, and read on for more tips on staying warm and limber during the winter months.
Warm Up at the Gym!
Most of us will need extra time to warm up during the winter, but coaches only have 15 minutes of our hour together to spend on warming up. One way we can help ourselves is to come in a little early and perform some pre-game warming up. Here’s the proper order for a good warm up:
- 1:30 - 2:00 of elevating our heart rate. Row, run, assault bike, burpees, jump rope, or any combination at an easy to moderate pace.
- Joint warm up. Perform joint circles, prioritizing where we feel the most tight. Otherwise, we’ll start from the ankles and work our way up.
- Training specific dynamic stretches. Whatever muscle groups we’ll be using in the WOD need to be activated and stretched (briefly, for 1 - 30 seconds). We can also prioritize where we are feeling most uncomfortable. You’ll notice two things: 1) this is very similar to the warm ups our coaches run and 2) there is no foam or lacrosse ball rolling. It’s Ok to essentially repeat the warm up that our coaches run for us. The second time through, in class, we will probably feel significantly more limber.
While rolling out is very important (most of the rest of this article is dedicated to it), we need to understand what we’re accomplishing when we roll out. Foam rollers and lacrosse balls can be used to achieve different goals, and in order to make the most of our time, we need to know what to do to achieve them.
Pre-workout: Foam rolling can help to break up “the fuzz,” which is the myo-fascial tissue that has grown overnight as we’ve slept.
Post-workout: Rolling the muscles we’ve just used with a foam roller has been shown to relieve later muscle soreness and improve range of motion.
What we most often hear is that foam rolling is for SMR, but unfortunately, a foam roller is not effective at releasing myo-fascial tissue. The displacement of pressure across such a large surface makes it ineffective at releasing trigger points.
So, post-workout, yes, use that foam roller! Pre-workout, it’s not as necessary as we’ve been led to believe.
The lacrosse ball is different-- with a much smaller point of contact, we are able to achieve trigger point release, but, trigger point release takes time. Time which would be better spent getting the whole body warm and moving. Additionally, releasing a trigger point and then working out at high intensity is a lot like getting a car detailed and then immediately driving it through a monster truck course. Myo-fascial tissue needs time to acclimate to the new orientation created by SMR, so save it for after workouts or on rest and active recovery days.
We are better served by saving our recovery work for at home, rather than squeezing it into a 5 minute pre-workout routine. We can get warm much more easily at home, and therefore achieve better trigger point release and stretching than we can in the few minutes we typically have before we work out.
Here are some warm-up tips for at home:
-Warm Baths or Showers - Warm water is like medicine. After baths or showers, try stretching immediately after for 2 - 3 mins in each position.
-Heating Pads - Microwaveable or electric, these are great for really stubborn spots, like our IT bands. Heat muscles and connective tissue first, then roll out. It will be less painful and more effective.
As mentioned, trigger point release takes time, sometimes up to 2 minutes for one stubborn point, and there are often multiple trigger points along a band of muscle. Post heating is a great time to get SMR work in.
When we get sick, we’re often questioning if we should work out or if we should stay home. That all depends on the illness, and so understanding the balance we want to create to get our bodies well faster is key to making the decision. One the one hand, fighting an infection requires energy, which is why we often experience fatigue when we’re ill. Using our energy to work out could be diverting resources away from our immune system. On the other, fighting an infection also requires white blood cells to move freely through our bodies. Muscle contraction circulates lymph, the fluid that contains white blood cells, so working out can help us to clear infections faster. It takes practice, but eventually, we can develop a good sense of whether we need to work out at a moderate pace to feel better, or if we need to take some extra time to sleep and recover.
All of this said, never work out while you have a fever. An elevated body temperature indicates a more serious infection-- allow your body to rest.
Building New Habits
Recovery takes a little bit more effort in the winter time, but perhaps this is the best time to build new habits. We’re indoors more, and not traveling nearly as much as we were in the summer, so why not use this time to create new, positive routines? Here are some ideas:
- Post-shower or bath, commit to holding one stretch for 2 minutes per side.
- Come in 5 minutes early to class once per week to go through the self-guided warm-up.
- Come to ROMWOD, Sundays at 9 AM.
- Buy a lacrosse ball for use at home or at work.
- Commit to 5 minutes of SMR before bed 3 times per week