Our Coaches Answer Common Winter Training Questions

From cross-training to winter base building and getting prepped for summer races, here’s what our coaches say about winter training. 

Photo: Getty Images

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Q: I’m training for some mountain trail races this summer – what should I be doing this winter to get ready?

Megan: To prepare for summer mountain trail races, you’ll want to build a strong base of strength, endurance and speed in the winter. This means 1) aerobic base building through gradually-increasing long runs, 2) consistent strength training and 3) strides and some speed-focused workouts, especially if you’re looking to do some road races or winter running off-trails. I also encourage runners to mix things up in the winter with skiing, climbing, indoor biking, swimming or other forms of cross-training that you enjoy. This has not only physical benefits, but also keeps you mentally fresh rather than simply running to prepare for races that are still months away. 

TJ: Developing a strong base is the place to start. After the holidays, I like the majority of my athletes to sink into 8-12 weeks of base building coupled with simple strength work 2-3 x per week, like the Mountain Legs and Speed Legs routines. During this base period, athletes are primarily doing easy runs and gradually increasing mileage (with down weeks mixed in). Weekday runs incorporate small bouts of speed through hills and strides for neuromuscular adaptation and weekend long runs, up to about 20 miles, trigger further musculoskeletal and metabolic adaptation along with their aerobic benefits. As spring rolls around, we’ll level up on this base, decreasing volume a bit while increasing intensity and focusing on developing economy through workouts that improve turnover and leg speed. From there, athletes transition into mountain-specific workouts that include technical running and more vert.

Adam: There are two really important aspects to winter training with summer mountain racing in mind! First is to make sure that if you’re feeling physically or mentally like you need a break, take it. A week off or a couple weeks of unstructured running at this point in the year will set you up to feel motivated and excited to put the work in come late winter and spring! Be flexible with yourself and remember: you have lots of time. The other aspect that is important (after your week or two away from structured running) is to commit to consistency. To build a strong base, it’s key to develop a habit of getting out 4-6 days a week (depending on your time and experience level). Even if it’s only for 30 minutes, punching that clock aerobically each day is really important!

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Q: In the summer, I’m a trail runner. But in the winter, I like to ski or ride my indoor bike trainer. How much cross-training is appropriate or helpful in the winter?

Megan: I encourage runners to do as much cross training in the winter as they enjoy, as long as they can maintain a consistent 4-5 days a week of running to maintain a solid base. For instance, if you love to backcountry or downhill ski, you might want to prioritize your long run or key workouts on a separate day, so that you aren’t overdoing it. It’s important to factor that into the bigger picture of your training and understand that while cross-training is beneficial in smaller doses, it does not take the place of running entirely. That said, cross-training can still have a place, especially to lessen the impact of running and provide enjoyment.

TJ: Lots of runners make the mistake of being overly reliant on cross training in winter and letting their running fall by the wayside. Although some seasonally-appropriate cross training provides a nice break from running and has aerobic benefits, the loss of run frequency isn’t ideal for trail runners with big goals. I like my athletes to focus on getting in 5 running days per week, with one of those runs being an optional cross training day and a 6th day each week focusing on a winter activity. For more advanced athletes, cross training can be aligned alongside run doubles to keep consistency high while reducing some of the running impact. Make sure your spring and early summer goals are in line with the kind of winter running you’re willing to do. This is especially important for athletes with early season goal races of 50 miles or more.

Adam: I think cross training is great in general and the winter is no exception! However, we do want to make sure to continue to reinforce musculoskeletal adaptations over time, so continuing to run at least 4 days a week would be my recommendation. If you’re getting a solid aerobic stress on your winter cross training days (e.g. uphill skiing or >1hr spin sessions) you may be able to get away with 3 days a week of running. I’d recommend on the days you do run to incorporate strides at least twice per week and perhaps throw in a fartlek workout once a week as well.

Q: The weather can get pretty gnarly where I am, and the trails are snowed in, and roads are often icy. When should I take my run indoors vs. toughing it out outside?

winter trail running ask the coach
(Photo: Getty Images)

Megan: When it comes to running outdoors, I’d take note of several factors: temperature, humidity, wind chill, trail/road conditions and most importantly, how comfortable you feel out there. If it’s single digits, but sunny and dry and you grew up in Minnesota, maybe you’re more apt to enjoy a snowy run; for others, anything below freezing might be off-limits, especially if it involves icy roads and wind chill. Most importantly, be safe – if you start a run and you notice it’s more of an ice skate, or you feel unsafe in any way, opt for indoors or skip/swap a day, as needed. Opting for an indoor run makes you no less of a runner, and it’s always better to be safe and healthy than risk it.

TJ: As a general rule, if weather or conditions are going to impact the quality of your training, I recommend using a treadmill. Slogging away in deep snow decreases cadence and increases perceived effort. Slippery conditions can lead to close calls and increase the likelihood of injury. In these situations, training indoors is a great option and a treadmill is the best tool for the job. I generally recommend to my athletes to run on smooth surfaces during winter, like roads and bike paths, and avoid trails, which can lead to unnecessary time on feet, slogging and mental strain that makes it more difficult to complete vital winter training. When in doubt, go easy on yourself out there and always ask the question, “will this kind of training be productive?”

Adam: There’s a time and place for getting outside when conditions are challenging. Rain, snow, cold or hot conditions can be beneficial forms of adversity to simulate a race or just generally toughen your mind. As a rule of thumb, don’t do speedwork on icy or uneven snowy terrain. Also, if the temperatures are well below freezing, keep in mind that your performance will be affected and focus on effort rather than pace! If you have access to a treadmill that can be a great option to get higher quality running done or do hill/interval work.

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Q: If I’m focusing on building a base this winter, how much speed work (if any) should I be doing?

Megan: When base building, you should keep the focus on aerobic runs (roughly 80% of your volume), with a sprinkle of strides or workouts, at least once per week. These might be sets of 4-6 x 20-60 second strides at the end of a couple weekly runs, or fartlek-type intervals with reps anywhere from 8×90 sec fast/90 sec easy to 4×5+ min at a time. Shortly stated, you don’t need much; a little will go a long way to keep your turnover up and reap the benefits of improved fast twitch muscle development and greater running economy, especially as the season nears. 

TJ: Aerobic base training means very relaxed, conversational, easy running. However, focusing solely on easy running for too long could inhibit long term growth and slow you down. I find it effective to prescribe hills and strides or easy/moderate efforts (steady runs around aerobic threshold pace) to help athletes maintain good turnover and leg speed throughout this period. We’ll generally spread these workouts across 8-12 week periods, with 2-3 short but high intensity sessions that include lots of easy recovery surrounded by easy miles. The point is to provoke fast twitch muscle development, increase running economy by making running faster feel easier, and improve cardiac stroke in addition to all the other benefits of base building. All of these adaptations work together to develop a well balanced runner, capable of taking on speed work and race-specific training later.

Adam: Consistently staying in touch with and reinforcing your speed is key throughout the year. During a base period, doing a light and invigorating stride session 2-3 times a week and throwing in a fartlek (e.g. 8x1min fast/1min easy) session during one of your other runs is a great way to still continue to prioritize aerobic development while keeping a bit of speed work in the equation. Plus, running fast is fun!

Q: I don’t have a lot of time for strength training, and I don’t go to the gym regularly. What can I do at home that’s easy but effective to prevent injury and build a bit of strength?

winter trail running ask the coach
(Photo: Getty Images)

Megan: You can do quite a bit at home, even without the gym! In terms of at-home routines, I encourage runners to include a push, pull, squat, hinge and rotational movement pattern in 1-2 strength routines per week for even just 20-30 minutes. A few pieces of equipment can go a long way (consider a set of dumbbells or kettlebells, a stability ball and some strength bands). While the off-season or winter months are a great time to lift, you can still get a lot accomplished through staple bodyweight exercises such as lunges, squats, step ups, single leg deadlifts, glute bridges, push-ups, pull-ups and plank variations – the list goes on.

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TJ: The easiest to accomplish, and  therefore most effective routines for athletes are often done at home with little to no weight. I recommend athletes prime themselves for winter training sessions with short warm-ups that include range of motion activities like glute bridges, hip dips, forward-backward and side-to-side monster walks, lunges, step-ups, knee drives, calf raises and leg swings before heading out the door. Post run, cool down with a quick sequence of planks and pushups. 2-3 days a week, mix in Mountain Legs and Speed Legs. These short and simple routines fit almost anyone’s schedule and budget as they can be done effectively with no added weight. 

Adam: Create a routine that you can stick to! As my dad used to say, a little bit of something is better than a whole lot of nothing. So, before each run, I recommend a simple band warm up, some quick foam rolling (1-2 minutes), percussive massage gun on your legs (if that’s something you have access to) and some leg swings. For strength building, simple and quick bodyweight exercises a few times a week go a long way!

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