Winter is here. Depending on where you live, that could mean a lot of things. Our friends in southern states are enjoying tolerable temperatures and lower humidity. Up north, many athletes are considering whether shoveling the driveway for the second time today counts as a strength session or a cardio session.
No matter where you live, training in winter can get challenging for a variety of reasons. From boredom and burnout to weather challenges, there’s a lot to navigate. But winter can actually be a training tool for endurance athletes!
I prefer to think of winter less as the “off-season” and more as the “opportunity season.” There are opportunities to get mentally and physically stronger while still recovering from the previous season and preparing for upcoming goals.
1. You can’t win your 2023 season in February, but you can certainly lose it!
Most triathletes are familiar with the saying, “you can’t win a triathlon in the swim, but you can certainly lose it.” The same can be said for winter training. You can’t win your 2023 racing season in January and February, but you can certainly lose it!
It’s easy to be motivated and driven in January–it’s a new year with fresh goals, and you’re chomping at the bit to get going, especially if you’ve enjoyed some quality downtime. This motivation can lead to too much training too early.
It’s critical to keep the big picture in mind during the winter months. For most of us, the season is long. It’s important to plan your build strategically so you “peak” at just the right times. Many of us have learned the hard way that the other side of peak fitness is often injury, sickness, and burnout.
Do yourself a big winter favor and temper your motivation with the right training plan. That way, you’ll feel strong, motivated, and happy through the whole season. Sneaking in extra sessions or too many training PRs might feel rewarding, but listen to your body and your coach to set the right intensity that will lead to sustainable gains.
2. Take time for strength and mobility work
Most endurance athletes would benefit from focusing on strength and mobility. Winter is the ideal time to hit those strength sessions with gusto. Many athletes choose to lift heavier and more frequently during the winter months when it’s more acceptable to feel a bit sore for your next workout.
Don’t forget the mobility work, too. Find some yoga, pilates, or movement classes that focus on movement, flexibility, and core strength. Mobility work can help prevent injury and make you a more efficient athlete all around.
Hopefully, your winter workouts are shorter, leaving some valuable time for strength and mobility work.
3. Get outside to train whenever possible–it makes you tough.
Outside is good for us! Getting vitamin D is critical for our mood, energy levels, and overall health. Commit to training outside at least a few times each week when it’s safe!
I know the saying, “there’s no bad weather, only poor clothing choices.” That attitude might be a bit extreme, but you get the idea. Don’t force yourself into extreme conditions, but challenge yourself beyond your comfort zone.
In addition to the health benefits of getting out in the fresh air and sun, it takes mental strength to pull on those layers and face the winter weather consistently. This exercise in commitment helps build mental toughness. When you’ve battled snow and mud, darkness, and winter winds, the challenges of your spring training load will feel much easier.
4. Be mindful of indoor training intensity
We are living in the golden age of indoor training. From smart bike trainers to uber treadmills and infinity pools and everything in between, recent technological advances have made indoor training far more effective, fun, and efficient. Boy, are we glad to be out of the Dark Ages of staring at a blank wall, longing for spring to arrive while miserably pedaling away on our rollers!
As with most things in life, all this high-quality indoor training equipment is a double-edged sword. Indoor training does lend itself to more intensity. Hours on the trainer go by in a flash when you’re going all-out in a Zwift race or doing a killer interval session on the treadmill.
Remember, the first rule of winter training is “keep the big picture in mind.” Too much intensity in the winter may lead to peaking too early in your race season… or, worse, getting injured.
Whether you’re wanting to take advantage of Zwift racing in a balanced way or interested in building a block of training to focus on a weakness, it’s critical to manage intensity. Come up with a plan for your winter training that includes the appropriate intensity for your goals–and stick to it!
This is where an experienced coach can really be worth their weight in gold. A coach will help you leverage the quality of indoor training with the right amount of intensity (and keep things interesting).
5. Keep training interesting through the winter months
There’s a reason you see many professional endurance athletes doing all kinds of different activities during the winter months, from fat tire bike rides to snowshoeing and skiing. It’s important to keep things varied and interesting to prevent burnout and keep your mind fresh. It won’t help if you’re feeling bored and tired at the start of the season!
Try something new that keeps you moving! I’m a big fan of cross-training during the winter months. Whether you go rock climbing indoors or cross-country skiing, find ways to keep training fun, interesting, and adventurous.
6. Take time for gear and nutrition checks
Remember, winter is the “opportunity season.” Now is a great time to update your bike fit and make any gear adjustments for the coming season. It’s much easier to carve out time for these upgrades and adjustments when you’re not trying to cram in those long training sessions. It will also give your body time to adjust.
Similar to bike fits, consider getting a swim or run form assessment as well. Focus on reinforcing good form during the winter months so you can maintain it as your training load increases. It takes a lot of strength and effort to make even small adjustments to your swim, bike, and run form. It’s less overwhelming–and more effective– to focus on these areas when your training volume is lower.
Winter is also a great time to test new nutrition products. It’s much easier to try new fuel or drink options when you’re on the trainer and close to the bathroom and kitchen if things go horribly awry. Plus, testing nutrition strategies now will give you time to dial it in as you near the season rather than trying to make big adjustments close to your race.
7. Hire a coach during the winter months
Winter is a great time to start working with a new coach. It gives you and the coach plenty of time to get to know each other and build a strong working relationship before the season starts. You’ll also get to benefit from the coach’s strength and base fitness training.
It can take several weeks or months for you to begin to see the results of working with a coach because your body needs time to adjust and absorb the training. It can also take some trial and error for you and your coach to dial in the training. Start this process during the winter months so you’ll be able to reap the rewards during your 2023 season!
8. Get swim and run assessments (virtually or in person)
Swim and run assessments can be powerful tools for endurance athletes. The proper technique and form can prevent injuries, improve efficiency, and make you stronger and faster. They’re arguably just as valuable as getting a proper bike fit.
The internet has made it infinitely easier to get a quality swim stroke and run analysis virtually. Many coaches will ask athletes to submit videos of their swim and run for analysis and detailed feedback.
Most of our Team MPI coaches offer swim stroke and run analysis in which we ask you to record your swim or run from specific angles (which may require the help of a friend). Then, we meet with the athlete via Zoom to analyze, discuss, and create a plan for improvement.
The off-season is an ideal time for this because you have time in your training schedule to devote to drills and proper technique. It won’t hurt your overall fitness and training to reduce your load during the early winter months in order to focus on proper form.
Consider this: putting in the effort to improve your swim efficiency might not lead to shaving minutes off your long-course swim (though that is a possibility), but that energy saved will translate to a stronger bike and run performance.
Improving your run form might not result in massive marathon PRs right away (though some athletes do see significant improvements), but it will prevent injuries and allow you to train more consistently. It will also help triathletes run more efficiently when they’re fatigued–which can lead to better overall performances.
Invest time in a swim and run assessment this winter. Carve time out of your workouts to focus on the proper drills. You’ll see improvements over time, and it will be worth the investment!
9. It’s about using what you have
Elite athletes train in all climates. It’s fun to follow our favorite professional athletes heading to pre-season training camps at sunny, exotic locations like Tucson or Lanzarote. Still, there are countless elite athletes putting in quality miles and hours in dark, cold winter climates.
The Brownlee brothers (triathlon champions and multiple Olympic-medal winners) famously train many months of the year in their home city of Leeds, England. They credit countless miles of wet cycling and cold runs for their unrivaled bike handling skills.
The point is, don’t be afraid you won’t be able to reach your own potential right where you are and with the tools you have. Champion athletes rise above all challenges and obstacles. The key is to use your time, opportunities, and resources wisely.
Whatever your “opportunity season” goals are, use this winter wisely to set yourself up for the best 2023 season.
Gregg Edelstein is a certified USA Triathlon Level 1 Coach, an IRONMAN University Certified Coach, and a USA Cycling Level 3 Coach based in the greater Boston area. Gregg offers his athletes insight on the principles of exercise, nutrition, sports psychology, and injury prevention, working to make them well-rounded and engaged athletes that share his passion for sport. Gregg can be reached at Greg@TeamMPI.com