Winter can pose a challenge to some runners. Fewer daylight hours means running in the dark for many, which can sap motivation. Icy roads, below freezing temperatures, and snow can pose a safety risk. The treadmill is monotonous, especially when suddenly you are running five days per week in the same corner of your basement. Most of all, there’s personal preference – some runners simply dislike winter running.
You do not have to force yourself to maintain the same volume of running during the winter months. While consistency in training is important, so are variety and rest on a macro level. Even if you run less the normal, maintaining your running fitness during winter is possible – and might just make you a stronger runner when spring training resumes.
Why Your Body Will Benefit from an Off-Season
With the proliferation of winter running series and destination races, many runners train at a hard level and race year-round. The endless cycle of training and racing with little deliberate rest can lead to physical and mental burnout.
The off-season does not have to be in winter, but for many runners, it logistically makes sense. Winter presents several training obstacles including ice, cold, and snow. If you race mostly locally, there may not be many races to train for during the winter months.
An off-season provides a few weeks to a couple months of a reduced training load, often following several months of focused training and racing. This deliberate rest after the accumulated stress of training will allow your mind and body to fully recover. If you truly despite winter running, an off-season will prevent you from despising running itself.
Cross-Training to Maintain Running Fitness
Depending on your preferences, you can choose from indoor or outdoor cross-training options. Don’t pick what you feel like you should do; opt for the type of cross-training which you most enjoy. Vary it as often as you desire.
If you are running two to three times per week, supplement with two to four cross-training sessions.
Cross-country skiing: There is a reason some of the highest ever recorded VO2maxs belonged to cross-country skiers – this sport is aerobically demanding. Thanks to the use of all four limbs, the oxygen uptake is higher than while running. Cross-country skiing works all of your major muscle groups, from your upper back to your core to your quads. If you have the equipment or are able to rent, cross-country skiing is one of the best winter cross-training options for runners.
Snowshoeing: You can walk, hike, or run in snowshoes, depending upon the type you have. Of course, snowshoe running is the most specific to running; snowshoe hiking or walking will provide you with a good aerobic workout. The equipment is more affordable and the learning curve is lower compared to cross-country skiing.
Gym machines: The elliptical, arc trainer, stepmill, rower, and spin bike all provide high-intensity but low-impact workouts in the warmth of the gym. Try a spin class, an elliptical workout, or intervals on the rower – if you put in the work, you will get an effective workout.
Swimming/Pool Running: Obviously, you want to pick an indoor pool during the winter months. Pool running can be one of the best substitutes for running, but be mindful that at virtually no impact, you will need to be careful transitioning back to overground running in the spring. Swimming offers an aerobically challenging workout and provides runners with the opportunity to work toward measurable goals, such as swimming one mile.
Build Strength during the Off-Season
If you are running less, devote more time to focusing on strength. Strength training reduces risk of bone and soft tissue injuries alike. Beyond injury prevention, strength training can actually make you a better runner. Strong, fatigue-resistant muscles generate more power for longer, which benefits you in any distance from the mile to ultras.
If you don’t have access to a gym or don’t want to even bother driving to the gym in snow and ice, you can strength train at home. All you need is a few simple pieces of equipment – or even just your own bodyweight. Mini bands, kettlebells, stability balls, and TRX systems are easy to store and can be used in your own basement or living room.
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.
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 cultivating a consistent mobility routine. Once you have this routine, it is easier to maintain it as you start ramping up mileage in the spring. Mobility work can be done indoors and does not require a gym membership or classes – best for even the most bitter and icy days of winter.
Mobility work can range from a short routine such as hip mobility exercises, stretching, and foam rolling to a long yoga session.
Maintaining Musculoskeletal Strength
One of the highest injury risks comes from quickly increasing mileage – 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 an incredibly high aerobic capacity coming off of a season of cross-training, 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. You can do these runs on the treadmill, indoor track, trails, or roads. These runs do not have to be lengthy or intense – even 30 minutes at an easy effort will do. Even for runners who dislike the treadmill, it is manageable for three runs on non-consecutive days. (If you are stuck on the treadmill, try one of these treadmill workouts.)
Another option is to include plyometrics in your off-season routine. Plyometrics strengthen your bones and increase the elasticity of muscles and tendons. If you are running significantly less, incorporate plyometrics into your weekly routine to maintain that bone strength and elasticity. Plus, you will build explosive power, which will translate to speed in the running season. You can easily incorporate plyometrics as part of your strength training workouts by including one to two exercises each session, such as jump squats, jumping lunges, or box jumps.
Transitioning Back to Normal Training
When you are ready to start training for a race, resume mileage and intensity gradually. A gradual increase in mileage function as a base building period by improving musculoskeletal strength and building back up your aerobic base. Include adaptation weeks – weeks in which you maintain the same volume and intensity – to minimize injury risk and improve your aerobic base.
With cross-training, you will maintain fitness well and your transition 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!
For example, if you were running approximately 30% of your normal mileage, increase to 50% of your mileage for two weeks, then 75% for two weeks, and then add in quality workouts again. Try to maintain at least some of the strength workouts and mobility work from the off-season to reap the benefits of those year-round.
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