How To Go All-In On Winter Training
There is a temptation to treat winter as a hibernation period. Curl up in front of the metaphorical fire. Sip your figurative hot cocoa. Put your allegorical feet up and recover for spring. I’m not sure what an “allegory” is off the top of my head, and the dictionary is on the other side of the room, so I’m keeping it in for the parallel structure. Hey, we’re talking about winter, and it’s not the time to work too hard.
You know what, though? Screw all that. Sure, if you are feeling run-down or had a big year, take an extended offseason. But in my book (which may or may not be full of allegories), winter isn’t about sitting back and waiting. Winter is when you stack up the chips that will let you go all-in and bet on yourself for years to come.
When I look back at athletes I coach that became “overnight successes,” one thing becomes clear: an overnight success is usually earned with year-over-year, all-caps WORK. It only seems like it happened overnight to people that weren’t paying attention.
Winter is when breakthroughs happen. The rest of the world often just doesn’t see them until later. So pour a cup of hot cocoa–the carbs, fat, and protein will help fuel this discussion of how to go all-in on the surest bet of all: your own future.
I talked a big game in the intro, but all that swagtastic talk about betting on yourself requires you to be healthy and feeling fresh. If you only take one thing away from this article, make it this: adaptation happens when an athlete feels good.
In training discussions, fatigue is often celebrated as a sign of hard work. But the body rarely adapts through persistent fatigue. During training, athletes introduce substantial stressors from the cellular level on up to the entire musculoskeletal, neuromuscular and endocrine systems. That stress manifests itself in the stress hormone cortisol, muscle breakdown that can be measured via creatine kinase levels, thyroid and sex hormone variation, changing red-blood-cell production and numerous other biomarkers.
The musculoskeletal system is under load, and microtrauma from activities like running can cause deformities even before they become full-blown overstress injuries. All of those stress-related perturbations combine with mental health and lifestyle to create an immensely complex stress equation.
That stress is good in moderation—it’s what leads to adaptation. But go a bit too far, and injury and stagnation await. Think of those biomarkers mentioned above. All of them have long tails, where they’ll often be out of whack for longer than you’d expect based on the usual assumptions that recovery happens in a couple days. And when those biomarkers are not in the optimal range, it will be difficult to perform with the efficiency needed to make running outputs take less energy. So training in a fatigued state can actually create a more inefficient athlete that does more work but gets slower and more tired.
One of my favorite studies was published in 2016 in the journal Physiology Reports. The authors had elite middle-distance runners at a training camp do blood tests each day. If any of the biomarkers measured were negatively moving from baseline, the athletes reduced intensity and volume. After the camp, all of the athletes improved their running economy, and there were no injuries. In other words, feeling good is a proxy for the physiological context to actually adapt to the work being completed.
Unlike those athletes, we can’t get blood tests each day. That’s why it’s key to be dialed into how you are feeling. The first priority of winter is making sure that you have the adaptation time needed to create the physiological context where the work you are doing can translate into long-term, sustainable progress.
Training stress is the first variable in the equation. If it has been a long season, leading to persistent fatigue for more than a day or two at a time, take an off-season. Many pros I coach will take two to six weeks fully off. However, the response rate to time off is highly variable. A pro whose genetics seem designed to create speed may just get faster in that time. Someone with a different genetic context may find themselves playing catch-up for months, delaying progress.
Takeaway: Start with a reset of a few days, increasing the true offseason time if needed physically or mentally. You can still be active, just avoid structured training. And don’t take time off for its own sake unless you need the mental reset.
Next, consider all the non-training stress in your life. Winter is a good time for reflection and reevaluation, particularly given the helpful restart of the New Year. What’s adding to your life, either in joy or uplifting challenges or giving you life through all the millions of ways you may find meaning? All that stuff can stay in, even if it takes away from your running.
What is dragging you down? Maybe consider streamlining those parts of life, going full Marie Kondo on your negative stresses that are not necessary for being a good and fulfilled human.
Takeaway: Try to support a life context that lets you get the most joy out of your time on Earth, optimizing sleep and relaxation time, remembering that life isn’t just about athletics or work.
We are what we eat. That’s why I am a mix of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and chocolate milk. When it comes to nutrition, I am not an expert, but I don’t want you to ever worry about the specifics of it too much. Instead, just make sure you are eating enough. My main guideline for athletes is to ensure they are getting plenty of protein to adapt and recover, and winter is a great time to dial in nutrition for your physiology and background.
Takeaway: Eat enough, always. Eat too much, sometimes. Eat too little, never. Consider working with a nutritionist if you have questions about how to fuel training and life.
Eat enough, always. Eat too much, sometimes. Eat too little, never.
Rates of mental health issues go up significantly in winter. Researchers theorize that the correlation is partially related to physiological responses to reduced sunlight, along with context-specific issues unique to winter. And on a broader scale, this whole being-human thing is hard. If the goal of winter training is to get the tools to bet on yourself, the most important tool is taking actions that support the mental health that allows you to say “I am enough” and truly mean it. Because as every study in the Journal Of Incontrovertible Facts says, you are amazing just as you are, including (especially!) the parts of yourself that you might not always love.
If the goal of winter training is to get the tools to bet on yourself, the most important tool is taking actions that support the mental health that allows you to say “I am enough” and truly mean it.
Takeaway: Winter is a great time to start going to therapy, as is every other season. If you have long-term mental-health issues, consider talking to a psychiatrist and discussing medication if that is warranted. Open up with friends and supporters and friendly dogs and patient trees too.
Breakthroughs don’t come from big, hard workouts. That seems counterintuitive, but it’s the most important realization to have about the methodology of running training. Big, hard workouts provide neuromuscular, musculoskeletal and biomechanical stimuli that lead to adaptations relatively rapidly. However, to perform close to your genetic potential and stay healthy, those adaptations require an aerobic foundation that is constantly developing over many years. Without that consistent focus on aerobic development, an athlete gets good at going hard, and eventually, that means going hard—and slow—compared to what they are truly capable of.
Base building is all about developing the building blocks that raise the adaptations from the harder stimuli way higher. Most of your training should be easier than aerobic threshold, the intensity where the body switches from relying primarily on lipid oxidation for fuel to glycogen. By avoiding excessive intensity, the body increases the density of capillaries around working muscles, increases the recruitment of Type I slow-twitch muscle fibers that are more resistant to fatigue, and improves oxygen processing via a number of other variables from mitochondria biogenesis to metabolic efficiency.
However, we are not just an aerobic system. The classic formulation of “MAF” Training relying on a strict heart rate cap to make sure all base building is easy essentially views athletes as closed loop systems, lungs with legs. During base periods, it’s also essential to develop the neuromuscular, biomechanical and musculoskeletal systems via higher-output training in order to create positive feedback cycles where aerobic development actually leads to improved running economy. That is why Lydiard base periods or Canova intro periods deviate from strict easy running to add more intense training elements in moderation.
Winter is when there is time to zoom out and contextualize growth across multiple training cycles.
The hard part about developing a solid base is that it takes time. Aerobic adaptations are a slow burn, the tortoise that wins the race over the intensity-focused hare, but only when you zoom out and see the whole picture. Winter is when there is time to zoom out and contextualize growth across multiple training cycles. Later on, athletes can learn to apply base principles throughout the year to let them continually adapt to new training interventions without having to go through a dedicated base period.
Increase Easy Volume
More easy running leads to faster running with time. Aerobic energy sources are dominant in all events longer than track sprints, even ones that feel hard like the mile or 5K. Think of easy running as gathering fuel for the fire. Yeah, it’s not super sexy to be out there chopping wood.
Why can’t I just light up these few sticks and have a party? The answer is that there is almost no limit to the amount of fuel we can gather during winter because the aerobic system can continue to adapt long after intensity-focused training adaptations are maximized. Any athlete can light a match with a hard workout. I want athletes to be putting that match to a few tons of kindling that is ready to burn.
Takeaway: If you have time and stress to spare, increase the volume of easy running each week. Start by increasing the frequency of your runs until you are running four to six times per week, then add volume to each run, a longer run and even doubles where you run twice in one day (for advanced athletes). Back off at the first sign of excess stress, since increasing volume can be risky. Make sure your legs stay warm during winter runs, which some studies show may reduce injury rates and improve muscle performance. Don’t be the athlete wearing shorts in freezing temperatures.
Add Steady Running or Tempo Running in Moderation
Purely easy running all the time risks reinforcing bad habits. Slog enough, and you may get good at slogging at the expense of all else. Coaches like Lydiard and Canova emphasize some higher-quality aerobic work in moderation to overcome that concern, while consistently developing all energy systems that are important for running.
Takeaway: After a few weeks of easy running and strides (see next section), add relaxed up-tempo runs of 15 to 40 minutes one or two times per week. This doesn’t need to be incredibly structured, but can just be natural progression runs that finish slightly faster on days you feel good.
Running is just one path to aerobic development. At the cellular level, the body doesn’t consider aerobic stresses too differently, so activities like biking or elliptical or swimming or hiking are great additions too. I like every athlete I coach to have a cross-training option they enjoy since it can support long-term growth and give a back-up option for the inevitable setbacks that will happen along the running journey.
Takeaway: Add one or two cross-training sessions each week. It can be as simple as 20 minutes on the spin bike in the afternoons or a hike with your dog.
Speed And Strength Building
During winter training, start by prioritizing your mental and physical health, even if that means less exercise. When you have a solid health foundation, work on improving your aerobic base through easy running and cross training at least four to six days a week. And now comes the really good stuff. Put that health and aerobic base in a speed and strength context that allows gains to compound over time.
During winter training, start by prioritizing your mental and physical health, even if that means less exercise.
Easy running gets reinforced by speed, making future easy runs more economical. The strength work adds to the economy bucket too, backing up those adaptations. That improved easy running creates a stronger base that makes the speed more efficient. And a positive feedback loop can get rolling.
Your fitness can be like a snowball going down a hill, picking up mass as it goes until it’s a massive fitness snow mountain by the end of winter. The coolest thing of all? That positive feedback cycle between aerobic development from easy running and neuromuscular, biomechanical and musculoskeletal development from speed and strength can continue for many years. So this winter may lay the long-term groundwork for seeing that your true limits are far beyond where you thought they were.
Short bursts of faster running provide a power and strength stimulus, almost like plyometrics, and that power improvement distributes to every effort you do. Every major training approach for elite athletes in the last century has at least some focus on this element, and it’s key to train like the elite, boss-mode athlete you are. There are some fascinating studies that back up the real-world approaches, showing that improving maximum output can enhance running economy at all efforts even with no underlying aerobic changes. Best of all: the adaptations can get rolling in just a few weeks.
While it’s uncertain where that physiological change is coming from, it’s most likely related to how the neuromuscular system interacts with the musculoskeletal system, with the body increasing power output and efficiency per step. If you think of running as a bunch of small forward leaps strung together, improving maximum smooth output may make each of those little leaps cover more ground and happen more quickly. And those gains can accrue over many years, making the easy running-strides feedback cycle one that you can lean on throughout a running career.
Takeaway: After two to four weeks of easy running, add 4 to 8 x 15- to 30-second uphill strides sometime in the second half of one to three normal easy runs each week. These hill strides are just controlled efforts at the fastest pace you can go without sprinting. Google “power hill strides” for a full video tutorial. Later on in winter, you can add flat-ground strides for a heavier neuromuscular stimulus, since turnover will be higher. But flat strides come with greater injury risk, so be careful and only do them if you are 100-percent healthy.
Develop a Consistent Strength and Mobility Routine
Many studies show that strength work can improve running economy and decrease injury risk. Plus, the goal of running training is to find your strong, embracing your full athletic self. Strength work is indispensable, but you don’t necessarily need to do a progressive overload routine that gets harder as you go or requires a gym. Instead, find sustainable routines that you repeat over and over throughout your running life.
Takeaway: Start with daily foam rolling, and consider mobility and range of motion work too, like the 2-Minute Exercise Band routine. Add the 3-Minute Mountain Legs routine consisting of rear lunges and single-leg step-ups two to four times per week post-run. And later on, you can step it up with the 8-Minute Speed Legs routine, which has a full strength and mobility template program in the online article.
Reinforce good patterns
Every runner is different, and there is no set way you have to run and train. However, you want to make sure that you aren’t developing habits that are undercutting your growth. If you have had lots of injuries or feel like you have room to improve your form, consider a gait analysis, working with a PT or strength coach, and/or partnering with a running coach.
Takeaway: We can all use some help sometimes. For example, even though I am a running coach, I have a coach. She is also my wife, so I think I get a discounted monthly rate.
Going All-In On Your Future
As winter comes to a close, you should have a big stack of chips at the ready. You’re working on your health, mentally and physically. Your aerobic base is bigger than ever, and your speed endurance is high too. You’re strong and stable, fast and fresh. As winter progresses, you can add a more traditional weekly workout or tempo run, but there’s no rush. That high-octane aerobic engine you are building will be ready when it’s time.
And when you are ready to crank it up? Start to lay some of those chips down with hard workouts, focused long runs or training races. Bet wisely, but don’t be scared either. You have a big pile, and you can afford to lose a few if you have some setbacks.
Most likely, though, those harder efforts will just give you more chips to put down. Spring will come around, and you’ll be unable to see the dealer from behind your big stack. You’ll be the power player at the table, ready to dictate the action. You wait for the right moment, playing it smart, and then it’s time.
Time to go ALL-IN.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the “Some Work, All Play” podcast, and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.