Saltwell Harriers coach, Paul Rea, with some training advice for the winter months.
Winter can be a real challenge to some runners. Fewer daylight hours means more running in the dark for many, which can sap motivation and be particularly difficult for female runners running alone. Icy roads and snow can pose a safety risk too, especially if you are wearing incorrect footwear for the conditions. The treadmill is an option if you happen to be a member of a local gym, but it can be monotonous, especially when you find you are doing your regular weekly sessions on the mill. And let’s face it some runners actually dislike running in winter.
With all this disruption you begin to feel as though your fitness levels will drop like a stone and you might worry about not getting your usual runs in. Don’t despair. While consistency in training is important, so is variety and rest. Even if you run less, maintaining your running fitness during winter is possible – and might just make you a stronger runner.
Maintain running fitness in winter
Continuous high tempo training without giving yourself a break can invariably lead to niggles and injury due to over-training. This relentless pursuance of miles can lead to physical and mental burnout.
Winter, for many runners, is an opportunity to ease up a little, to re-charge batteries and time to alter training habits. Give yourself an off-season, a few weeks to reduce training load. This deliberate rest after the accumulated stress of regular training will allow your mind and body to fully recover, and make the winter season more tolerable. Some runners can reduce their running schedule by 20-50% whilst others may need to reduce further.
Think about altering how you train. Instead of long sessions or long(ish) runs, consider shorter, more intense high impact interval training (HIIT). Short periods of high intensity running followed by short recoveries. Increase the amount of reps, or introduce hills, or the amount of sets to gradually increase the training load. This type of session will build speed and strength but without you being out in the cold for long periods.
Cross-training to maintain running fitness
This is a great way to vary your training so it isn’t all about running. If the weather outside is inclement then take the opportunity to engage in some cross training. Here we are talking about getting your cardio fix without pounding the slippery streets. Don’t just do what you think you should be doing, do what you enjoy.
If you are a gym member then take advantage of equipment such as the bike, rowing machine, stepper and cross country skier. But machines aren’t the be all and end all! Remember the good old PE lessons at school? Star jumps, running on the spot, tuck jumps etc., these are all great cardio workouts that will keep your fitness levels up while your running levels reduce. Try a spin class, swimming and pool running – all can be great substitutes for running.
Build strength during the off-season
Strength training reduces your risk of bone and soft tissue injuries. As well as helping prevent injuries, the strong, fatigue-resistant muscles you workout to work on will generate more power for longer, which benefits you in any distance from the mile to ultras. Additionally, for those of us of a more mature age, strength training with weights or your own body-weight will combat age-related muscle loss.
You don’t have to become a gym member, use your own body-weight in the comfort of your home to create strength sessions. Over time introduce kettle-bells, dumb-bells and resistance bands to increase training load.
Improve your mobility
Poor mobility can inhibit performance and increase the risk of injury. Shoulder mobility and hip mobility are important for optimal running form, but modern lifestyles and desk jobs teach poor posture patterns and hinder full mobility. Try standing at your workspace, or split up your working day with short walks.
The winter months are an excellent time to begin a consistent mobility routine. Since you are running less, you have more time to devote to building a mobility routine. And don’t just consider this as a winter past-time, continue the regime as you gradually increase your running into spring and summer. You don’t need to be a gym member, you can easily do these exercises from the comfort of your home.
Simple hip and arm rotations, balance exercises and foam rolling will improve your mobility, try yoga and pilates which will also improve your flexibility.
Maintaining musculoskeletal strength
One of the highest injury risks comes from increasing mileage too quickly – and this includes after a few months of significantly reduced mileage.
While cross-training will maintain your aerobic fitness, the same cannot be said for your musculoskeletal fitness. Most cross-training options are lower impact than running. Even if you have a high aerobic capacity you will not have the musculoskeletal integrity to support a similarly high volume of running. Running has higher impact loading and requires more soft-tissue elasticity – and therefore places more demands on the muscles, tendons, joints, and bones.
The best and simplest way to maintain your musculoskeletal strength is to run two to three times per week consistently throughout winter. 2-3 runs of 20-30 minutes duration is enough. You can do these runs on the treadmill, or on the trails or roads, this is manageable over three runs on non-consecutive days.
Another option is to include plyometrics in your off-season routine. Plyometrics strengthen your bones and increase the elasticity of muscles and tendons. You can easily incorporate plyometrics as part of your strength training workouts by including one to two exercises each session. Common plyometrics include jump squats, single-leg hops and box jumps.
Transitioning back to normal training
When you are ready to start regular training, increase mileage and intensity gradually, avoid large leaps. Gradually increase your mileage over the course of four to six weeks. Include adaptation weeks (where you maintain the same volume and intensity) to minimise injury risk and improve your aerobic base.
With cross-training, you will maintain aerobic fitness. Your transition back into regular training will be much quicker than if you did not exercise at all in winter. Remember, it is much easier to maintain fitness than to build from scratch!
Your muscles need to warm up before any intense exercise!
Before any run, but especially in winter, always warm up with at least some dynamic stretches followed by a 10 minute jog, and finish with another 10 minute jog followed by some static stretches. Wrap up warm, wear layers, gloves, hat and light/reflective clothing. Take your phone with you and a whistle if running in a secluded area.
Feel free to speak to your coach if you have any concerns about training in general or winter training in particular.