Muscle Injuries in Cold Weather

Many athletes in Central Oregon participate in outdoor sports during the winter when temperatures reach freezing, or even dip below. Muscle injuries in cold weather are a common occurrence. It’s important to understand why they happen and how to prevent them.

The Cause of Muscle Injuries

Is cold weather causing muscle injuries? The answer is yes and no. The temperature outside does not cause a strained muscle. However, there is a risk, and it comes from muscles that are not warm enough to participate in the upcoming activity. Winter sports often have periods of downtime when the athlete is not moving. They may be taking a break, sitting through time-out or half time, or waiting for their turn to compete. Regardless of the reason, the athlete’s body cools down rapidly during inactivity in cold weather. When the body cools down, so do the muscles.

Most people agree that going from resting on the couch to doing full sprints is not a good idea, even on a warm day. Plus, when athletes are outside in the cold, they tend to try to get warm in ways other than moving. When you have been stationary prior to exercise, you don’t have enough blood in the muscles you use for your sport. You are now at risk for muscle injuries when you suddenly start to move.

Prevention of Muscle Injuries

When it is cold outside, your body stores more heat in your core and less in your arms and legs. Studies show that a proper warm-up will increase heat due to blood flow, but it can also improve neuromuscular activation – the ability of your muscles and nerves to work together in a coordinated way. Muscles preconditioned by warming up have the ability to withstand greater forces than muscles that have not gone through a warm-up. Therefore, by doing a warm-up, you decrease your risk of muscle injury because your muscles have proper blood flow and muscular activation.

soccer players dynamic warm up

What is a proper warm-up?

A proper warm-up consists of dynamic stretches, aerobic activity, and sport specific submaximal exercises.

Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic stretching is moving a muscle or muscle group through the same range of motion required for the specific sport. For example, if your sport includes running, you might want to do a slow march with high knees and swinging arms. Specific movements vary greatly from sport to sport.

Aerobic Warm-up

An aerobic activity warm-up should be short and at a light level of effort. Examples of aerobic warm-ups include, light jogging, biking, swimming, and the use of aerobic equipment like rowing machines.

Submaximal Exercises

Sport specific submaximal exercises are best towards the end of the warm-up session, and they will be similar to your sport activity. Examples of these exercises include, running through plays at slow speed, passing a soccer ball around, warming up your free throw, or playing catch with a teammate.

The full warm-up period should last at least fifteen minutes prior to the sport activity. And, in cold weather, each break in activity requires another warm-up session prior to rejoining the sport. Whether the temperatures are warm or freezing, an athlete should always do some warm-up when they have been stationary for a prolonged period. The key to avoiding muscular injuries is keeping your muscles ready to safely jump back into the game.

Written by: Tessa Cashman, ATC athletic trainer for The Center Foundation and Bend Senior High School in Bend, OR. Learn more about Tessa HERE.

The Center Foundation places dedicated athletic trainers in local high schools to provide sports medicine services to young athletes at no charge to the students or their families. Learn more about our work HERE.