Are you one of those runners who takes the winter off and starts each spring from scratch? Does it seem like year after year you are slowly losing ground or, if you are still gaining, does it take well into the summer before you are hitting the previous year's levels? Well, one way to avoid that is to train through winter.
Before I lose those of you who say you do “other” cardio in the winter…keeping some meaningful runs in your schedule can make a huge difference too!
So the question is what and how much? Before I answer that, let's understand what benefits there are to running over the winter other than the obvious of not losing some or all of your fitness from the previous season.
One overlooked benefit is that you help keep your body used to the demand of running. Specifically, the tendons continue to be used to the demand that the pounding from running puts on the body. Consequently, if you keep up your running even 2-3 days per week or in some cases 1-2 times a week (hopefully w/ 2-3 days of rest in between if you only can get in two workouts a week), your body will develop a new normal and when you start your mileage builds in the spring, you will be able to handle increased loads faster and even handle races better. The chance of injuries decreases and the fun factor tends to increase because you are not as sore. Besides the ability to increase mileage faster and not being as sore, you can also see how the speed, mileage, and, thus, fitness can increase too. Other benefits that running through the winter provide are better weight management and even the mental aspects of just having some fun with the running and not worrying about the next race.
Now, I encourage those who are tired from a long season to take 2-3 weeks off to cross train if you like but a complete rest block can really help you come back stronger and get rid of those nagging aches and pains. Take up to a month off if needed but then start back up slowly and gradually build back to your planned number of days of running. Just get the runs in by starting with shorter runs. Keep the variety of distances but keep them all shorter. So if you plan on running two short, one medium, and one long run still do that blend but maybe your two short runs are just 20 minutes (don’t worry about distance). Start the medium run at 30-40 minutes and the long run at 40-60 minutes. Then slowly increase each of them.
If you plan on just two days per week do the same thing but avoid long runs over 60 minutes. If you are cross training and cycling or cross country skiing or doing indoor cardio (like ellipticals and stair steppers), be aware that your cardiovascular fitness maybe high but your body still isn’t used to the regular demands the pounding of running can provide so keep the runs modest and back off a bit or add a third day of 10-20 minutes of running if you find you are sore from the running.
If you do choose to maintain the 3-4 days per week of running why not gain some additional speed or strength while you are at it??? This is where I suggest doing speed runs once a week. You can do it on the treadmill if you need to due to light issues or slippery streets. However, please avoid doing speed on indoor short tracks w/ sharp turns as this can cause injures which are avoidable. However, if you get bored on the treadmill, feel free to jog your warm ups and cool downs on the indoor tracks.
So what should you do for a speed workout? Well, the simplest is to do 60 seconds, 90 second, 3 minute, and then 5-6 minute repeats. I’d suggest your rest be equal to your work and, for the shorter intervals, walk the recovery trying to get your heart rate to drop 20-30 beats (you may have to stop or walk super slow to start). Each week do the next one in the sequence. Then repeat them... this means you will do the cycle 3-6 times before you are back running more seriously in the early or late spring. For the 60 second repeats, start with 6 and work up to 10-12 by spring. For the 90 second ones, start with 4-5 and work up to 8-10 and for the 3 minute ones start with 3-4 and work up to 5-6 (maybe even 7). Lastly, for the 5-6 six minute repeats, start with 1-2 and work up to 3-4 repeats. Now obviously you will run the 60 second ones faster than the 5-6 minute ones but try to find a pace that allows all the repeats that day to be run at the same pace. If you get slower or want to quit before they are done, you are running too fast or not recovering with a low enough heart rate or both (or maybe shortening your rest which I don’t recommend).
The long runs I suggest you keep to under 90 minutes over the winter and the other 1-3 runs I’d suggest you focus on going slow and using them as recovery workouts so you can run the long run and the interval runs faster and without injury.
Now, obviously, there is way more to winter running and gaining speed, strength, and endurance but for those who take the winter off form running, this is a great starting place and I have had huge success over the years working with these types of individuals as a coach.
I also encourage people to work on total body strength and flexibility. Each person has their own strengths and weaknesses so I’d suggest meeting with a physical therapist, personal trainer, or strength coach to get assessed and have a program designed for your needs. If that is not possible, I’d suggest doing simple full body exercises. Adding body weight exercises by doing push ups, pull ups, and lunges to name, will help a lot. I do caution against jumping into big group fitness classes and thinking that you will be getting the most bang for your buck. Many times the goal is to entertain and people many times aren’t using their time wisely.
I did not specifically mention all the cross training that is out their like swimming, Pilates, yoga, etc… they are all fine and they are all tools. Just realize like anything no one “tool” is the best for every repair job or project!
Lastly, realize that the body is in its best form when it has consistent loads. Yes, they need to be changed a bit but large changes or big breaks between loads can lead to injury or unneeded soreness and frustrations. Just getting in 3-4 10-20 minute runs all winter can be a huge help in allowing you to start the spring out on a better note!
I do help people put specific plans for these types of situations so if you need more guidance and coaching, feel free to reach out to me for my rates and a wide range of coaching services.