Winter Work: The Foundation For All Seasons

By By David Lowes, U.K.

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    This article is excerpted and adapted from a piece in the British publication, The Coach (November/December 2004), and though it is directed at running in the U.K., much of it applies to running in the U.S. and elsewhere. Lowes is a UKA-Level 4 coach, an Athletics Development officer for Durham Sport, and chair of the BMC Coaching Committee.


    The winter season for the middle and long distance athlete is a crucial period of training and development no matter your goals.
    For many middle and long distance runners the winter is the start of a lengthy phase of races on various cross country courses with many major races taking place from January through to March. Other athletes may treat the winter as the start of the following summer season with the main aim to compete, but to work mainly on strengths and weaknesses that will produce success later on the track. There are even a select few who use the winter to prepare for the summer and who rarely compete and may even abstain from competition altogether.
    Is running cross country essential for success in the summer season? Absolutely not. However, there are many who compete throughout the year at road, cross country and track and some include indoors as well. In this article, I'd like to take a closer look at just how an endurance athlete can maximize his or her winter work to pay the greatest dividends.

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    First of all there are several different categories of "winter" athletes:.

    The fact that there are two distinct running seasons for British athletes-winter and summer-can be put down to two reasons:

    If an athlete were to prioritize track racing all year round, it would almost certainly lead to injuries along with physical and mental staleness. Therefore, the winter allows athletes to readjust their training and work on strengths and weaknesses so that come the better weather of the spring months they are in a position to test their fitness levels in competition.
    Athletes who use the cross country racing strategy are usually 5000m and 10,000m specialists; some 800m and 1500m specialists are often reluctant to run over such demanding terrain. There are always exceptions to the rule and some of the famous names who have for the most part avoided or run minimal cross country are athletes such as Hicham El Guerrouj, Gabrielle Szabo, Kelly Holmes, Seb Coe, Wilson Kipketer and Maria Mutola. Of course athletes such as Steve Ovett, David Moorcroft, Paul Tergat, Kenenisa Bekele and Paula Radcliffe have thrived on the track as well as the mud.
    The best endurance athlete in the world at the moment is 5000m and 10,000m world record holder Kenenisa Bekele. He is undoubtedly a "runner's runner." He is simply the best on any surface and he runs in all three categories during the year-track, cross country and some indoor races.
    The cross country athlete needs to be very versatile, being able to run equally well on bone-dry flat courses, hilly courses and also stamina-sapping mud baths and sometimes a mixture of all of those. Some of these courses will be short laps with many tight turns and most will have an open inviting start which will mean starting at breakneck speed. Either way, cross country is a very demanding sport.



    If the winter is the start of preparation for the summer then many imponderables have to be addressed before embarking on eight months of endeavor. Some of these are what targets have been met, exceeded, or not met at all and the reasons why these have happened and, more importantly, how any shortcomings can be improved. Also, perhaps more relevant is what are the targets that are currently being pursued. If the summer season has been a success, does the athlete/ coach try to replicate the work that has been done or try something slightly or even totally different?
    Personally, I think it is unwise to try and duplicate exactly the work done in a previous season/ year. The reason is that the body feels and reacts differently each and every day and also to the sessions that have been done. For previous work to be productive you would have to have the same amount of sleep, eat the same sort of food, live the same lifestyle and encounter the same climatic conditions. All variables that are very difficult to replicate.
    What is more realistic is to include most of the successful work and improve and adapt sessions that fulfill the needs of the athlete at a particular time. If the athlete has been ill or feeling below par then the coach needs to be creative in giving the athlete something that deviates from their plan until the athlete is back on the road to recovery.
    The same goes when the athlete is injured: the coach needs innovation in his or her delivery to get athletes back to where they were and then move them on quickly. This usually entails psychological techniques to make the athlete believe that any enforced break will not affect long-term aims.
    The winter is without doubt the start for whatever facet of running you choose, cross country road running, indoors or the ultimate outdoor summer season. The traditionalists who maintain that for success on the track you must run cross country races don't really understand the physiology behind their reasoning.
    If an athlete were to run 14 races in a winter season, this would mean 14 races over an approximate 7-month period (28 weeks) = one race every two weeks. However, what makes an athlete great on the track come summer is the work done in that period of time (196 days) which could mean 196 training sessions or even 300+ sessions for the twice-a-day trainer. Therefore, the gains in fitness by one 10k cross country race are far outweighed by the specific training that could be done throughout the winter period.
    Although rest days or days missed through niggles or illness are as essential as hard training, it is worth taking a different slant on how many days you actually have off from training. If you look at a year's training from the perspective of training six times per week with one rest day, that adds up to 52 days off in that year. If you add to that 2-3 weeks missed through injury /illness then the total now adds up to 52 + 21 = 73 days. Finally, the traditional two-week break at the end of the track season makes the number of days "missed" or "rested" = 87 days, which in terms of weeks = 12.
    It is worth taking this into account before starting to think about your plan for the year / season. Rest is good if it promotes performance or encourages recovery, physical and/ or mental. There is a limit to how much rest can be taken before fitness diminishes or advancements can be made. Obviously, some loss of training is unavoidable and other forms of fitness work may have to be undertaken to maintain muscle tone and aerobic fitness.
    Over the winter months much heavy work can be undertaken in inclement weather and the distribution of the work can go awry if not planned carefully. At the start of the winter work period in September / October athletes can be very enthusiastic to train hard. This eagerness however can diminish quickly through boredom and longevity of the season.
    For many the hard work completed in the winter months can be wasted in the summer if the transition from one season to another is not done correctly. Likewise, as in the winter, the spring months -- where the athlete prepares for the first track races of the season -- the enthusiasm levels are high and this is when many do Personal Bests through pure anticipation and ebullience. Even though the track season is comparatively short, form can be lost very quickly through a lack of application, both physically and mentally.
    Athletes should come out of a winter season much stronger than ever before, that is, with much better endurance levels than previously. They should also be in a position to start to run faster than before due to increased levels of work and tests throughout the winter. Many athletes lose their winter gains through inappropriate training in the summer by neglecting the emphasis on endurance and concentrating solely on "short" speed.
    More athletes get disillusioned more quickly in the summer season than in the long winter months through tougher, more intense sessions which lead to higher levels of fatigue. Some of these sessions include increased anaerobic work which is not only faster but with much shorter recoveries and all are usually against the stopwatch. Therefore, if targets are not being met on a regular basis then confidence levels and self-discipline can drop dramatically and if competition outcomes are poor, many inappropriate thoughts can occur leading to total apathy and disillusionment.
    Current targets in the winter are obviously cross country competitions and these can be short-term (immediate races) or medium-term (future races). Indoor competitions are medium-term, allowing a three or four-month training period before competing in January and February. Longer-term targets are in the following summer track season and this allows 7-8 months of thorough preparation to excel in specific events.

    For realistic targets to be met over the winter some solid criteria need to be set before training begins in the new season:

    For the middle distance and distance athlete these might be categorized as follows:


    These are some of the points that require consideration when setting out the winter plan, and a number will need more attention than others. If we consider the perfect plan that will deliver peak performance, then positives and negatives need to be worked upon in varying degrees.
    Although the winter season is around 28 weeks in duration it is not as long as it may seem if problems are encountered. Injury or illness in this period can quickly pass with a loss of the work that is necessary for success. This may mean using the end of the winter or early spring as a phase of "winter" training until fitness levels are suitable and starting the "summer" training in mid-season with the main target to just get one or two PBs.
    If the athlete struggles with sprinting at the end of a race it is probably down to two things: either the athlete lacks the necessary speed to sprint or the athlete cannot produce a finishing sprint due to a lack of endurance. Both can be improved in varying degrees over the winter with endurance being the easiest to develop. Short sprinting speed can be subdued by genetic make-up, but any advancement in speed needs to be given priority throughout the winter.
    It may even mean training with a sprint group once or twice a week for the whole 28 weeks. After all, there are no medals for leading any race over any distance with the finishing post in sight and then getting passed by the opposition. This is one area-speed-where endurance athletes are reluctant to change from the norm, yet it is one of the most neglected, yet beneficial ways of improving performance in competition.
    Most athletes tend to think about speed in terms of the summer months, but why take months to get it and then put it on hold throughout the winter? If you want to improve speed you need to develop it in the winter months. This may not necessarily mean running fast all of the time and may require the enhancement of other facets which will improve speed such as improving running style and efficiency, strengthening of physical deficiencies, e.g., quads, hamstrings, calfs, core strength, flexibility and mobility, drills, circuits and weights.
    One of the biggest frustrations for athletes is not doing the necessities to develop physically in the winter; they perform at exactly the same levels in the summer months and therefore there are few if any PBs at all when they want them. Providing development is feasible due to age, and a clean bill of health, etc., it is a transgression not to be in a better position physically and mentally than the previous season.
    If speed needs to be maintained and nurtured during the winter, the methods of practicing it may be different from the summer sessions due to the colder, inclement weather. If standard sessions in the summer are 12x400m in 58sec with 60sec recovery or 2(5x400m) in 56sec with 2min recovery, then to develop and encourage speed in the winter months similar or alternative sessions must be done.
    Weather conditions must be reasonable to deliver quality sessions, but the athlete can't keep putting off doing sessions if the weather is poor (it is a fact that many athletes thrive because of the adverse circumstances). Many elite athletes are lucky enough to be based at or near a high-performance center where these speedy sessions can be done indoors. Others go to warmer climates in the winter to be able to carry out these sessions.
    However, it needs to be understood that even if our weather was good all year round, to excel in the track season would still require a season of endurance running to recuperate and reevaluate rather than trying to keep the quality "summer" sessions going all year round.
    If the summer-type sessions mentioned are deemed unsuitable or impracticable for winter work then speed elements need to be added as "bolt-ons" to the main session of the day, e.g., 6xl000m +400m at the start and/or end of that work at maximal speed.
    The first 400m would be defined as speed work, whereas the 400m at the end would be a speed endurance element which would create high lactate levels due to escalating fatigue levels. Similar sessions done on a regular basis will keep speed levels intact during the winter and it is always wise to finish off the main session with 50-100m sprints to maintain speed and cadence. It is also worth remembering that hill work, depending on the length, is in actual fact speed work, only against a resistance.
    Those running an indoor season need to implement speed at an earlier stage in the winter, along with the heavy endurance work. Levels of speed work will be different for specific events, e.g., 800m will be much more speed-oriented than will 3000m. Once the indoor season is over it is imperative to go back to early winter endurance work before embarking on the pre-summer work to reinforce the elements needed for a specific event.
    Speed is vital for cross country runners as well, especially if they aspire to world levels. World Cross Country male medalists not only need to be capable of running faster than 13 minutes for 5000m and 27 minutes for 10,000m; they need to capable of doing those performances in March.
    If you are a summer track specialist then the winter work gives you the capability to produce the performances when you want them most. As the weather improves in the spring it is then that the specific training begins and with the improvements gained through the cold winter months it is expressed in better sessions which are faster, better in quality through shorter recoveries and more repetitions.
    The winter can be viewed as a development and enhancement phase while the spring is the time for preparation and fine tuning while the summer is where all these elements are put together for the delivery of peak performances. Therefore, it is without doubt that the winter is the key phase for all seasons and all forms of endurance running and can be defined and addressed as follows:

    • Training phase for cross country (September to March)
    • Training phase for indoor season (September to January)
    • Training phase for summer season (September to March)
    • Training phase for a spring marathon (September to April) 

    • Training phase to work on strengths and weaknesses (September to April).

    Whatever phase you fit into, it is undeniably an essential pathway to success and cannot be neglected. Winter training doesn't necessarily mean cross country running but it is without doubt the foundation work for whatever category you aspire to.


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