Spice up your winter running

Spice up your winter running

3 workouts to keep your off-season run training on track

Winter running does not have to mean slow running. Winter running can and should have overload, progression and variety in order to build a physiological and mental bridge to the spring and summer. Many runners do not include these factors in their winter run training, however, and as a result their winter run training merely slows their loss of fitness from the preceding season instead increasing their fitness in preparation for the next season. I realise that’s a rather potent statement, so let’s take a closer look at the differences between the common method of winter run conditioning and the approach I recommend.

The premise of long, slow run training is to increase muscular endurance; boost joint strength; improve tendon, ligament and connective-tissue resiliency; and enhance cardiovascular fitness. By increasing your time or total mileage, these variables will improve, up to a point. This point of diminishing returns can be summarised in one word: adaptation. Specifically, your body adapts most effectively when it is exposed to frequent changes in stimuli, and new stimuli must be regularly added to continue the development of the physiological platform. To that end, assuming that you have not taken more than three weeks completely off at the end of your summer/autumn season, your initial slow-running/low-mileage reintroduction should last about six weeks. Then you can begin to insert several new ingredients into your routine.

I wanted to be careful to avoid overstating this position. A longer mileage build-up is beneficial, and even vital if you have a winter marathon in mind. If this is the case, you should increase your volume with six to 10 runs of 1 hour 50 minutes to 2 hours 45 minutes. However, even on your long day, subtle shifts in your pacing can provide muscle-recruitment adaptation to encourage your body to work more efficiently.

Your winter run schedule

During your winter run training, do not include any VO2 max or anaerobic sessions; instead, work the three following sessions into your schedule: tempo (swing pace training), hill sessions with bounding, plus a unique session with strength work both pre- and post-run. If your training cycle includes three or more run sessions per week, these three workouts (which are explained in greater detail below) will constitute the core of your winter-run base training. Sessions should be spaced out with at least one day between them. If you are including a long run, the stabilisation workout is perfect for a longer day.

I recognise that early-winter fitness is generally a notch or two below your late-summer fitness. Keeping this in mind, you will need to establish a base-line intensity to pre-program your pace for the three core winter-run sessions outlined below. Here is a good marker set for determining your pace:

  • A steady-paced run of 45 minutes
  • Effort is moderately hard to hard (lactate threshold is described as hard to very hard). Your perceived exertion would be about 6 on a 10-point scale.
  • Take your average heart rate for the final 15 minutes. Heart rate should be 5-12 beats below lactate threshold.
  • Typically your pace will be 15-35 seconds slower per mile than your lactate-threshold pace.
  • Every three weeks run the same 45-minute segment and record your variables: pace, perceived exertion and heart rate.
  • Your lactate-threshold heart rate may have dipped 3-5 beats since the summer, and/or your comparative pace at any given workload will be slower than the summer.

Once you have established your pace, average heart rate (over the final 15 minutes) and perceived exertion (PE), your marker pace (MP) is now ready to be inserted into the three workouts.

Your three winter workouts

Workout 1: Tempo swing

Key features an benefits:

  • Teaches proper pacing
  • Allows you to monitor the workload and muscular discomfort
  • Segment length increases over 9 weeks and the swing shifts to a faster tempo

Complete a 10- to 15-minute warm-up progression to your aerobic pace (approximately 15-30 seconds slower per mile than your MP).  Now the tempo swing set begins. For week one, the tempo set comprises 4 repeats of 4 minutes. In each minute of these 4-minute efforts, begin with 10 seconds run slightly faster than MP and finish with 50 seconds run slightly slower. The slightly faster segment should be 20 seconds faster per mile than MP, and the slower segment should be 30 seconds slower per mile than MP. For example, if your MP is an 8-minute mile, run 10 seconds at 7:40 and 50 seconds at 8:30. Take 90 seconds of easy jogging after each continuous 4-minute block (see table for more).

The tempo swing segments eventually build from 4 x 4 minutes to two blocks of 30 minutes in which you alternate your pace as per the below table. Each workout should include the warm-up and a 5- to 8-minute cool-down. Completing this session on a weekly basis can be extremely beneficial in elevating your economy at just below threshold pace. Again, work the harder segments at a rate that is moderately hard to hard. Your breathing should be deep but not labored. Conversation is not possible but managing a few words intermittently is not impossible. 

Workout 2: Flat + Hill + Bounding + Flat

This session involves four small components. Using your MP, the two flat segments at the front and back ends of the session are run at 15-30 seconds per mile slower than MP. This pace should fall within your aerobic zone. You’d be capable of broken conversation only at this effort level. Breathing is moderately deep but fairly quiet. You are capable of following extraneous thoughts (if desired), and your heart rate should be 6-10 beats below MP. PE is 4-5 on a 10-point scale. The length of the two flat segments should start at 8-10 minutes apiece and increase by 1-2 minutes per week for nine weeks.

Begin with a 10- to 15-minute warm-up, then select a hill of approximately 5-8 percent. A treadmill will work fine for this workout. The duration of the hill climb is approximately 30-40 seconds. In week one, the hill set is 6 x 40 seconds, with a jog recovery down. Add one repeat per week thereafter. If the effort on the hill is too hard, the set will become anaerobic. Each repeat should start with short, choppy strides on the balls of your feet. As you pass the halfway point, begin to lengthen your stride by extending the push-off (hip extension) and lengthening your stride. This longer stride will begin to take the shape of an elongated bounding motion. Introduce the gradual lengthening with a coordinated, balanced stride. Don’t force your body alignment to attain stride length; your hips should be square with your arms and elbows moving forward and upward.

As you progress each week, begin the bounding at an earlier point on the hill climb. This exercise, combining the gradient of the hill and bounding, will heighten your quad, hamstring, calf, foot and abdominal strength.

Workout 3: Muscle stabilisation

This session requires a stretch cord tied into a 12- to 15-inch diameter loop, which is placed around your ankles. The purpose of this session is to enhance your hip and glute strength by pre-fatiguing the muscles that surround the hip and glute. This exercise activates the muscles that help support structural alignment, stability and balance through the entire kinetic chain from your feet to your lower abdominals. The exercise that I have selected recruits the smaller muscles that are routinely weak in triathletes. If we don’t innervate the internal and external rotators of the hips plus the vastus medialus in the quadriceps group, the dominant muscles override the smaller ones and balance, stability and strength are compromised.

Complete the exercises presented below immediately before a steady-state run (i.e., aerobic or 15-30 seconds per mile slower than your MP), the duration of which can be determined based on your program:

  • Lateral side walk with stretch cord
  • Sumo walk forward and backward with stretch cord. Each exercise should go to near muscle fatigue. Start with 30 seconds per exercise and increase to two minutes per exercise.

Then, immediately upon completion of your run, perform the following exercises, which can be done on a small curb or elevated platform.

  • Step forward/backward/to the side/dip on a single leg. Begin week one with 12, 10, 8 and 6 reps respectively for each of the four movements. Alternate legs and then repeat three times per leg. I’M HAVING A FARD TIME PICTURING THIS--MF
  • As your fitness improves, extend the height of your step to 4-5 inches high and add light (4-15 pounds) weights in each hand.
  • Concentrate on keeping your support leg straight with a forceful contraction as you swing the free leg into a standing position. Try not to let the free leg touch the ground or your support platform during the entire duration of the exercise.

The magic of adding variety to your winter routine will occasionally trick your muscles into doing something totally different and will help ensure ongoing physiological progression even during the winter doldrums. Expand your horizon this off-season and reap the benefits when you toe the line in the spring.


Swing tempo table



Segment Length

Rest Interval/Jog Easy

Swing Tempo


4 x 4

1 minute

90 seconds

10 sec. faster/50 sec. slower


4 x 5

75 seconds

90 seconds

25 sec. faster/50 sec. slower


4 x 6

90 seconds

90 seconds

45 sec. faster/45 sec. slower


4 x 8

2 minutes

1 minute

1:15 faster/45 sec. slower


4 x 9


1 minute

1:30 faster/45 sec. slower


4 x 10


1 minute

2 min. faster/30 sec. slower


2 x 20

5 minutes

1 minute

4:30 faster/30 sec. slower


2 x 25

5 minutes

1 minute

4:30 faster/30 sec. slower


2 x 30

10 minutes

1 minute

9 min. faster/1 min. slower



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