Maintaining Your Running Fitness during Winter

Maintaining Running Fitness during Winter

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 six 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. A periodized training plan will account for off-season appropriate to the athlete’s needs. 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 makes winter training more tolerable.

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. Some runners only need a brief 25-50% reduction in volume and only easy runs for a few weeks. Others who may be more prone to burnout or coming off of overtraining may need a larger reduction or longer off-season.  

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. Or, you can put your road bike on a trainer and compete on Zwift to indulge your competitive side when you aren’t racing. 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. Additionally, resistance training combats age-related muscle loss, which can help you maintain peak performance in your 40s and beyond. 

Maintaining Your Running Fitness during Winter

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.

Try one of these strength training workouts:
Mini Resistance Band Workout
Total Body Medicine Ball Workout
20 Minute Kettlebell Workout 
Equipment Based Workouts for Runners 
Functional Kettlebell Workout 

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 is as simple as hip mobility exercises and foam rolling. If you cut out your beloved yoga during your high-volume marathon training, now is the ideal time to indulge in some long vinyasa sessions. 

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 do not need much to maintain running-specific fitness; you can scale back the frequency and duration of your runs. Even just two or three runs of 20-30 minutes each will maintain musculoskeletal fitness for an off-season. You can do these runs on the treadmill, indoor track, trails, or roads.  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.) 

Maintaining Your Running Fitness during Winter

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. Common plyometrics include jump squats, single-leg hops, and skater hops.

Transitioning Back to Normal Training

When you are ready to start training for a race, resume mileage and intensity gradually. You do not have to build as slowly as the first time you hit that mileage, but you want to avoid large leaps. In the base building period, gradually increase your mileage over the course of four to six weeks. Include adaptation weeks (in which you maintain the same volume and intensity) to minimize injury risk and improve your aerobic base. (Here’s more on how to safely increase your running mileage.)

With cross-training, you will maintain aerobic fitness well. 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!

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. However, you may scale back the volume or frequency of those as you run more.

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15 Responses

  1. love this post! as we discussed, I think I’m naturally gravitating towards running even less in the winter — going from 4 days a week probably to 3, most days when it’s cold/ dark/ snowy. I think that 3 will be more than enough and will keep me from treadmill burn out. Plus, I really like doing other things — it’s not all about running.

  2. Yes! So many options are available and beneficial during the off season and it’s so important to have some downtime…a lesson I learned the hard way many years ago! Luckily for me, my offseason is over but I thoroughly enjoyed it and did a lot of what you’re recommending so I’m now ready to build a solid base and race in 12 weeks!!

  3. This is technically my off season and I’ve been doing a lot of cross training, like spinning and plan on increasing my strength training sessions soon as well.

  4. I am actually more apt to get out there and do longer runs in the winter. The summer heat and humidity kills me but I can dress for winter running. These are great tips and suggestions on how to mix things up which is always helpful

  5. Such great tips! So many runners think they have to go hard year round. I’m really lucky though, to live in an area where winter is pretty much the best time to run (though it’s been raining for a few days here 🙁 ). My off season tends to be in the summer, where it’s tough to beat the heat even when you run at 5 am.

  6. Great advice! I am looking forward to an off-season even more than usual this year, due to my injured hip. I am hoping to give it a major rest right after the 25k trail race I have scheduled for this Saturday (my favorite race of the year). I love all the cross-training I do when I don’t have a major race on the schedule.

  7. Last winter was definitely challenging. Between the deep snow and the bitter cold, I struggled to get my miles in. I did some XC skiing, which helped a lot!

  8. I tend to make the winter my off-season from training. I still run consistently, just less miles. When I feel like it I add in some spinning or yoga. It does make it easier to get through the winter and feels good when its time to start training again!

  9. Great post, Laura!
    I am doing slightly less in the second half of 2021 as I am not training for an ultra. I will probably go easy in January as well (while keeping all the strength training) and I’ll start ramping up the miles in spring when I start training for a big trail race.

  10. I really do think any runner can benefit from an off season — even if they don’t like that reduced level of activity. The problem is convincing them. 🙂

    I have only run a few mid winter halfs, mainly because I just despise training through the Winter and every time I do I say never again!

    But I do keep running at reduced levels because starting from zero isn’t fun.

  11. This is actually pretty easy for me. It’s maintaining during the summer that things get tough. Our winters feel amazing for running, so we surely make the most of them.

  12. While I don’t have to deal with severe winter conditions that keep me from running, I know that taking time to focus on strength and mobility is important (especially as I get older). I really should do that in the summer when the conditions here are so bad, summer is also the time then I have more time to run (it’s our off season because all the smart people leave the desert 🙂 ).

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