Posted by: Joe English | December 25, 2007

Training: How can I avoid stiff legs after a run in the cold?

A reader from Oregon named Scott writes in the following question:

After a long run (say 3 hours), as soon as I stop, my legs, which were just tired up until that point, stiffen up and start to really hurt. This only lasts an hour or two — it’s back to mild soreness by the next day — but I was wondering if there’s anything I can do to reduce the pain. OK, I know what you’re going to say: active cool-down and patient, gentle stretching. But here’s the thing. It’s winter in Oregon, I’m running back to my tiny car, it’s raining, and cold, and it I stop or slow down for either of those two things I’m going to freeze to death. Other ideas?”

This is a great question Scott, but I won’t go directly to stretching and easy cool-downs.

It isn’t totally clear from your question, but I’m going to assume that you are only having this problem when the weather is cold. If that’s the case, then let’s look at some things that would make you stiffen up after a cold run and work on those.

What would be the causes of stiff legs after a cold and rainy run? First, there’s the cold itself during the run and after. Then there are the other common issues that cause cramps and stiffness: hydration issues and a loss (or lack of) potassium and magnesium.

Cold during the run
The first thing that comes to mind with stiff legs and cold runs is whether the leg muscles themselves are being kept warm during the run. When you’re running in the cold, make sure that you’re covering up your skin and keeping those legs warm. Too many runners, I feel, leave too much skin exposed during those long, cold, rainy runs. When the muscles are cold, they aren’t as loose and flexible. If it’s really cold, the body will also pull blood flow away from the working muscles of the legs to keep your core organs warm, meaning that the muscles won’t work as well as normal.

So try wearing tights – or even a sweat-pant over your tights – and see if that helps keep your legs warmer and feeling better. One thing that I’ve used for this are cycling pants: they have a wind-shield on the front and regular tights material in the back. These tend to be much warmer and keep my quads from getting cold.

Cold after the run
The next thing that I picked up on is that Scott says that he’s whisking himself off to his car to get out of the rain and cold, which is pretty typical of a run in a cold climate. But the alternative here is to have some heavy clothes in the car ready to pull on after the run for your cool down and stretching. I usually have a heavy jacket and dry clothes in the back of my car so that I can get warm right after my runs. If you’re soaking wet, you’re going to freeze – but get those wet clothes off and you won’t be nearly as cold.

Another alternative would be to run from a place where you can get warm right afterwards – like your gym. Once you’re done with your run, you could get into a warm place to do your cool down and stretching – on an indoor track, for example.

Keep in mind that if you are working hard out in the cold and you then you come to a stop, your body temperature is going to plummet. There was a recent study that looked at mountain climbers and found that their core temperatures actually rose significantly under the heavy workload of climbing and then fell dramatically when they stopped moving. These big swings in temperature are not good for the body. Make sure that once you stop moving, you get the body warm quickly and stay warm.

Muscle function and cramps are often tied directly to dehydration and electrolyte depletion. This is an obvoius problem in the heat, but too many runners forget about their hydration when it’s cold outside. The thought process is most likely that “I’m sweating less, so I should be able to drink less.” Part of that is true: you can drink less when you’re losing less fluid to sweat. But you are still sweating when it’s cold and, in fact, you may be sweating quite a bit if you’re dressed in heavier clothing. So drink plenty of fluid before, during and after your runs to avoid cramps and stiffness afterward. Don’t forget about this in the cold.

Cramps in runners are usually caused by loss of, or a lack of, magnesium and potasium. Make sure that you’re using a hydration or fluid replacment drink with plenty of these important electrolytes to keep the cramping to a minimum.

Again, make sure that you’re not ignoring electrolyte loss and hydration on cold runs. It’s pretty easy to head out the door with less fluid (or none) on a cold day, but you still need it and it may be a contributor to the stiffness at issue here.

I hope that you’ll give some of these ideas a try and that it will help get to the bottom of the problem. Good luck!

Your training questions are always welcomed. Post a comment on any page of the blog.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
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  1. Joe – Scott,
    There is one other recommendation/observation. If you sit down after running for any length of time allows pooling of blood in the lower extremities. This is not good. It can promote dependent edema (swelling) in the lower limbs. This will indeed cause aching… regardless of warm-down, stretching, tights or electrolytes! This will occur whether it is winter in OR or summer in AZ. How to avoid it? Don’t just jump in a car and sit for any lengthy period of time (everyone is unique so there isn’t a pat answer of 15 minutes or 1 hour and not everyone will suffer from the effects in the first place). Certainly, the longer you sit the more pronounced the issue will be. If you have any length of a drive home, stop regularly and get our and walk around a bit. I’d experiment with isometrics while on the road driving (but pay attention to your driving please) – Tighten then release each muscle group in your legs – calves, hams, glutes, quads, anterior tibialis (front of shin muscle). These enhance blood flow back to your core and will minimize pooling.
    I hope this helps.
    Coach Dean

  2. This is a good point.

    I’ve had runners that come up from Salem to run with me (at least an hour drive) and they sometimes suffer from additional cramping after runs. I have often suggested that they stick around after for awhile to work things out, but they usually want to get going to go nap.

    I’ll remember this one in the upcoming season.


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