Training Through the Winter
It's a common cycle among runners to start the running season(s) with training beginning in the Spring, increase volume for a few months, race throughout the summer and early fall, then enjoy peak fitness by doing some fun runs for a few weeks. After that many runners will drop off the map and succumb to the winter temptations of laziness, staying indoors, claiming that they "can't" run in the winter, and ultimately losing a massive amount of the fitness that they just worked hard to gain, only to try to re-gain it again in a handful of months. Don't get me wrong, Winter is and should be the time to hibernate to some degree, indulge a little, and rest extra. But what if I told you that by simply changing your focus during the "off season", you could continue with training all while getting more rest, having more fun, renewing your mental capacity and motivation, AND still getting stronger? And that come March, you can actually be stronger and more aerobically fit to dive back into your training and racing seasons with renewed confidence, ability and joy? Below are 8 ways to achieve just that this winter:
1. Take a recovery period
It's a good reminder that recovery IS training, and it's just as important as the work you put in, or arguably more important. For athletes who train hard most of the year, it is necessary to take some time to allow your body to rest and reset from all the hard work and for the work to come in the next season. My coaching philosophies revolve around training sustainably; not just for a few months or a few races, but for a lifetime. With that in mind, recovery periods help you to run and train year after year with less risk of burnout. Depending on the athletes history of training, fitness level, goals, desires and race schedule, a recovery period will usually range from 2-6 weeks. WHEN you take it is dependent on your year ahead, with late fall/early winter being the most common time just because races are usually finishing up then, and weather starts shifting and getting less inviting. A few key notes to mention when talking about recovery periods is that you should still be exercising during this time, but mostly just when you have the energy and desire to rather than following a schedule or plan, and that all exercise done during this time should be very easy. This is not a time for speed work or long, hard runs. Ultimately, you should expect to feel physically rested (maybe even antsy), and mentally rejuvenated by the end of your rest period.
2. Keep nearly all of your winter running truly easy
Winter is the perfect time to build or solidify your foundation, aka your aerobic base. Running at an effort at or below your aerobic threshold is incredibly important for building and maintaining volume while preventing injury and requiring less recovery time, therefore allowing your body to be capable of more training. There are countless benefits of aerobic training, here are just a few: mitochondria development for greater and more efficient cellular energy and metabolism, increased capillary density for transporting more oxygen to tissues, increased tendon strength, better running economy, and increased fat-burning efficiency. Since aerobic running is often very slow and boring, the "off" season is the perfect time to give it your focus because you do not need to be worrying about speed or race specificity yet.
3. Cross train
Snow sports are a fun and very beneficial way to get in more exercise or training volume, while taking a bit of a break from running if you so desire! Don't be afraid to nordic ski, ski tour, snow hike or snowshoe, or downhill ski or snowboard. These sports often require power and strength which is great for muscle development, they utilize different muscle groups including upper body, and they are lower impact which is great for recovery. Incorporating a variety of sports into your winter training can also give your mind a break from all the running and you may find that your excitement for running is renewed come spring!
4. Don't forget the strength workouts!
Winter is also the perfect time to put a heavier emphasis on developing strength through strength workouts and weight lifting. In addition to the obvious benefits of increasing muscle capacity, doing strength workouts can bring to light muscular imbalances and can improve balance. A coach, personal trainer, or physical therapist can help you develop either a general strength routine or a routine more specific to your individual needs. As you gain strength and correct imbalances or asymmetries, you will notice a positive difference in your running. Exercises that are geared more towards running often include core, hip and stability work (especially single-leg stability), but it's important to give attention to all parts of the body! One major benefit of strength in the winter is that it allows for indoor workouts a few days a week and/or when the weather is bad; take advantage of it while you actually want to be indoors!
6. Continue to run at least one day/week
Although you can get similar aerobic and anaerobic benefits with skiing vs running, they are not the same as far as muscular and skeletal impact. Running is a high impact sport. Your body, including bones, muscles, joints and tendons will adapt to be more resistant to the impact of running, or they will adapt away from that durability if you stop running altogether. To make things easier for yourself when transitioning back into full run training in the spring, I highly recommend continuing to run at least one day per week throughout the winter. If you prefer running more than that, that's great, but less than that is not doing yourself a favor if running is your priority sport. HOW to run in winter conditions is a different topic and requires another blog article, but can be practiced and confidently achieved with a few tools including proper run technique, grippy shoes such as the Topo Athletic Ultraventure Pro or Runventure 3, and in some cases traction devices or screwing your shoes.
5. Allow for extra flexibility and be gracious with yourself
Our bodies often need more rest in the winter. It is easy to go into hibernation mode, and it is imperative that we listen to what our bodies are asking for in all seasons of the year, but definitely including the winter months. Be open to giving yourself an extra day off each week or just when you feel you need it on occasion. Allow for the unpredictable (weather/conditions!) to change your training from time to time, and be okay with it. If you are still months out from a race, it's OKAY, and sometimes even beneficial to take extra recovery. If it is storming hard outside and you planned a long run, you might choose to do a strength workout inside instead, and switch your long run to another day or do a shorter version the next day if time is a factor. Adjustments like this are okay and allow you to learn to have grace with yourself. That being said, as an athlete it's also important to learn yourself and be able to decipher when you just feel like being lazy and you're trying to find the easy way out, and when you truly need extra rest. Maybe running out in those stormy conditions would be good for your mental durability, and maybe you just need to go out and do it extra prepared with warm layers and extra food in case it's slower than expected. The point is, listen to your body and be kind when you know you need it.
7. Less mental stress = less physical stress
For many of us, work slows down in the winter which provides us with the opportunity to get a bit more sleep, play, and enjoy winter recreation. With a little less work stress and a little more time (for those who are so lucky), you may find it enjoyable to stack on the stress relieving and physical recovery tools and activities: get more sleep, do a short yoga routine in the AM or PM and/or join a weekly online yoga class, take an epsom salt bath after a cold day outside, light candles and curl up with a book and a soothing cup of tea, get a massage or do self massage in the form of foam rolling, etc... Your body processes mental and emotional stress in the same way that it processes physical stress, so this is just another way to boost your recovery for the training season ahead while relieving some mental stress and revamping your mental capacity for those hard training blocks to come.
8. Eat healthy and plenty, and drink your fluids
Although you may be training or exercising a bit less, it's important to eat as your body needs. Not only is food energy, it is essential for recovery, injury prevention, a healthy immune system, developing muscular strength, and more. Focus on healthy, seasonal foods such as root vegetables, hearty greens, whole grains, organic and local meats whenever possible, and don't be afraid of healthy fats. Most importantly, eat variety. It is also easy to drink less fluids in the winter because we often don't feel as thirsty when it is cold out and we sweat less than in the heat, but YOU STILL SWEAT and you still need water! Remember to bring water or performance drinks with you when exercising longer than ~2 hours, and replenish after and throughout the day. After a few hours out in the cold, warm yourself up from the inside out with a hot meal and hot drink such as herbal tea. For fueling during exercise, Spring Energy offers healthy gels and drink mixes with no added refined sugars or fake ingredients, and with a wide range of calories from 80-250kcal per packet. This makes it easy to get in your calories, carbs and electrolytes while on the run (or ski!). Eating habits can easily be overlooked by athletes, but it's important that we remember how big of a role nutrition plays in how we feel, perform and recover. If you desire to focus more on the nutrition aspect of training, talk to a dietician specializing in sports nutrition.
When combining all these tools together- building the aerobic base, incorporating strength, enjoying other sports, resting extra, aiming to reduce mental/emotional stress, and focusing on healthy eating and fueling habits- you can successfully train throughout the winter while still getting the extra rest and recovery your body might be asking for this time of year, having fun and feeling less pressed to train or perform a certain way. If you tend to be someone who either stops training altogether and exercises significantly less in the winter, or if you continue to go full throttle and never give your body a well deserved break, give these ideas a shot this winter. I would be willing to bet that come February or March, you just might be feeling happier, stronger, more rested, and revamped for the next training and racing season ahead.
As always, if you need help creating a training plan that fits your fitness, goals and life, give me a hollar at firstname.lastname@example.org!