Five Keys to Winter Training and Racing

Icy, ankle-breaking roads; stop-you-in-your-tracks wind gusts; polar vortices: As a runner, how could you forget the winter of 2013-14?

The Old Farmer’s Almanac has called for more of the same in 2015. A new term, “refrigernation,” describes the “vicious cold” it claims will hit parts of the country.

Regardless, we runners will continue to run. We have to. You want to run a good half in March, a strong Boston in April? You can’t afford to wait until Presidents’ Day weekend to start training. And while a couple of weeks off from running every so often can be beneficial–and the middle of January is a better time than most–do you really want to be sucking wind in April, regretting the loss of all that hard-won fitness you had back in November?

There are plenty of serious runners, in some of the coldest climates in the U.S., who find ways to train through the dead of winter. They get their mileage, maintain their fitness and emerge race-ready in spring.

You can, too. If you’d like to follow in their double-layered footsteps, here’s some advice on how to stay race-fit over the next two months.

1. THE ROADS ARE CLEAR SOMEWHERE: GO FIND THEM

For many in the Northeast, last winter meant roads covered in ice and snow. In New York, however, two of the largest and most heavily used parks, Manhattan’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, were almost always plowed and salted, even the morning after heavy storms. Mike Fernandez, who lives in the suburbs, knew that and did most of his long training runs in the city. The 45-minute drive from his house and normal training environs was well worth it. “It opened up a whole new world for me,” he says. “The park has its hills, plus there were always groups I could latch on to if I wanted.”

New York, like many other cities, also has a winter run series. Fernandez, 45, entered a few of the weekend winter races organized by New York Road Runners or NYC Runs. Again, he knew that way he was likely to find relatively clear roads to run on, not to mention water stops.

In early April, Fernandez ran the Greenwich (Connecticut] Half Marathon in a PR of 1:27:17. He credits the fitness he developed on the cold but runnable hills of Central and Prospect parks for his performance. “I bet no matter where you live, there are places where you can go and get your long runs or workout in,” he says. “You just have to be creative and find them.”

2. DIVIDE TO CONQUER THE ‘MILL

“I hate the treadmill.”

It’s a common refrain among serious runners. “I sympathize,” says Joe Puleo, a Philadelphia-based coach and coauthor of Running Anatomy. “I hate the treadmill, too.” So he has found a way to incorporate it into his athletes’ regimen with the least amount of anguish. “If there’s a long run on the schedule, I have them divide it,” he says. “We’ll do a harder pace in the morning, like a tempo run, and have them do a longer, easier aerobic run in the afternoon.”

You break the mental drudgery of the treadmill into two more manageable pieces and simulate the stress of a long run by adding intensity. “Nobody wants to do a 2-hour treadmill run, but most of us can manage 60 minutes,” Puleo says.

He recommends the following workout for the morning session. Start with a 20-minute warm-up, then gradually progress from slightly under lactate threshold (the pace you can race for an hour] to beyond threshold pace, in 10 × 2-minute segments. For a runner with a goal LT of 7 minutes per mile, for example, increase the treadmill speed to 8.1 miles per hour, hold that for 2 minutes, then increase the speed by 0.1, to 8.2 miles per hour. Run at that pace for 2 minutes, and so on, up to 8.9. “The workout will reach goal LT pace at 8.6,” Puleo says. “The final three intervals will help push LT pace without causing any excess fatigue, because there are only 6 minutes of effort barely above LT.” Complete the workout with a 20-minute cool-down.

Do the afternoon session, at least six hours after finishing the morning workout, at a comfortable aerobic pace. Take the next day off, and don’t do this twin-treadmill workout more than three times during a marathon buildup. “It’s a strenuous workout, and recovery is at a premium,” Puleo says. But it does provide a way to get in your long run, developing maximum fitness, without having to face the elements. For a spring marathon, it will prepare you to run about 2 hours and 15 minutes outdoors.

3. ONE WORD FOR SPEED TRAINING: TABATA

The Workout:

ON = 20 seconds
OFF = 10 seconds

REPEAT 8 times

That’s the formula for a tabata workout—the super high-intensity workout protocol developed by Japanese exercise physiologist Izumi Tabata, who in 1998 published an influential research paper based on his work with speed skaters. When these athletes followed maximum-effort bouts of exercise with very short rest periods, there was an unexpected finding: “They showed significant improvement in VO2 max, compared to people doing endurance activity,” says Bob Otto, exercise physiologist and director of the human performance lab at Adelphi University. “Their ability to tolerate lactate acid was greater as well.”

Why? Probably because the short, high-intensity bouts of exercise quickly use up your ATP, your short-term energy system. The even shorter periods of rest force your body to respond by more efficiently processing oxygen, thereby raising your VO2. The short duration of the workouts makes them ideal for winter treadmill sessions or brief periods outdoors.

Two important caveats. First, to do these correctly you have to follow the protocol: That’s a 100 percent effort for 20 seconds, and a rest of only 10 seconds, repeated eight times. “These are intense workouts,” he says. If you need to start with three or four reps instead of eight, that’s fine. Make sure that you warm up and cool down thoroughly.

Second, if you’re training for a spring half or full, the Tabata-style workouts are not a replacement for long runs.

But one Tabata-type session, done correctly once every two weeks, Otto says, can help you maintain and probably improve on the VO2 max and LT capabilities you had going into the winter.

4. RUN IN CIRCLES

This April, Gail Butrymowicz plans to do her 14th consecutive Big Sur International Marathon–impressive when you consider that Butrymowicz lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where average January highs are 24 degrees and lows are 9, with 13 inches of snowfall.

She once fell off a treadmill and refuses to step on one again. Also, Butrymowicz says, she slips on the ice while running, even with traction devices like Yaktrax. So how does she get in marathon shape in one of America’s coldest cities?

She runs on an indoor track at her local Y, where it’s 11 laps to the mile. But who’s counting? “I go by time,” Butrymowicz, 52, says. And the time flies when she’s got her headsets on–no problem doing that on an indoor track, especially during the less-crowded midmorning hours when she trains. She can get in a rhythm and just run. There are water fountains and a bathroom nearby, and, as the elevated track circles the workout area, she can watch people below to break up the monotony. Moreover, the rubberized, 14-foot-wide track is easier on the joints, and the 70-degree temperature at the gym allows her to run in shorts or a running skirt and a T-shirt–in January. “People say, ‘I can’t believe you can run in circles for hours,’ ” she says, “but I feel good running on that track.”

Butrymowicz runs three times a week indoors in January and February. Her longest runs on the Y’s track are 2 hours. Come late February and March, she’s able to integrate at least one outdoor run per week into her regimen and do her 20-milers outdoors. But in the darkest depths of winter, the indoor track is her salvation. “That Y has been a blessing to me,” she says. “I wouldn’t be able to do a spring marathon without it.”

If you use an indoor track, reverse directions frequently to reduce the stress on your inside leg.

5. WARM UP TO WINTER RUNNING

From preheating shoes to doing workouts underground, runners have their tricks for dealing with whatever mother Nature sends their way.

Find a parking garage
Another alternative to a treadmill is a parking garage, especially one that is underground. “You can get a lot of things done there early in the morning when no one is there,” says Mark Misch, men’s cross country and track and field coach at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “Sometimes you have to be creative with different workouts, like hills and fartlek, but it works. We had a young man make All-American indoor in the 800m last season, and he never did a workout on an indoor track.”

It’s the little things
Amber Wilson, 26, lives in Lander, Wyoming, where she says it’s winter nine months of the year. She’s learned to warm up her shoes and socks with a blow-dryer before she sets out. “I’m convinced if my feet start out warm, they’re more likely to stay that way,” she says. “They definitely don’t get warmer on their own.” She also uses snow-covered hills for speed work, because they don’t require turns. “I’m less likely to biff it on ice taking a corner on the track,” she says. And her rule of thumb for giving in to the treadmill? If her eyelashes freeze before she’s reached the end of the street.

Make a getaway
The Hansons-Brooks elite team, which includes Desiree Linden and Bobby Curtis, escapes the worst of the Rochester Hills, Michigan, winter with trips to Reunion, Florida. With frequent flights from Detroit into nearby Orlando, the Hansons runners don’t have to endure a time change and they have access to miles of rolling dirt roads, says coach Kevin Hanson.

Time to Give Pace a Chance

Think speedwork is just for front-of-the-packers with time goals?

Think again. Research suggests that 30-second to five-minute bursts of intense exercise interspersed with rest periods will yield physiological changes—such as better blood sugar control and improved blood vessel function—that slow runs can’t deliver as efficiently. ‘When it comes to these benefits, interval training is at least equal to steady runs,’ says exercise scientist Jonathan Little, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, in Canada. It’s a win-win. Still unsure? What’s your excuse? (We’ll shoot it down).

I’m running a marathon, so I’m focused on building distance’

Near the end of a long run (or the race), many first-time marathoners run out of fuel and their form falls apart. Fast repeats teach your body what it feels like to have a light, quick turnover—a biomechanical efficiency applicable to any speed or distance. Quick repeats strengthen fast-twitch muscles so they can be called upon when your other muscles are trashed at the end of a long race, he adds. And the workouts improve running economy.

THE WORKOUT

Start with 6-10 200m repeats at a 5K pace (8-9 on an exertion scale of 1-10), with a 200m jog in-between. Do this once a week. Over time, increase the distance (e.g. 5x400m at 5-10K pace, or 4x600m at 10K pace). Your total mileage at a fast pace shouldn’t exceed 10 per cent of your weekly total. Running 20 miles per week? Run no more than two miles hard in speedwork.

‘I’m trying to finish my first 5K, so I don’t need to bother with speedwork right now’

The shorter the distance, the more important speedwork is, and the more frequently you should do it, says McMillan. Whether you have a time goal or not, the improved blood sugar, cardiovascular fitness and mental toughness gained will make your 5K feel easier.

And if you want to run a fast 5K, short bursts will improve your aerobic power.

THE WORKOUT

Since you can do speedwork more often than runners targeting longer races (perhaps twice a week), mix it up. Try a time-based fartlek session: at the end of a run, speed up for four minutes; jog for two; run fast for four minutes; jog for two; run fast for three minutes; jog for two; run fast for one. Or try hill repeats—do a 10-minute warm-up jog to a hill that will take you 45 seconds to climb. Walk down. Do 8-10 reps.

‘I want to lose weight, so I just need to run consistently, not fast’

‘The faster you run, the more calories you expend,’ says Adam St Pierre, an exercise physiologist with Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, U.S. Research suggests that interval training also prompts the body to burn more calories in the hours after exercise. It shouldn’t replace moderate running, says St Pierre, but a weekly speed session utilizes different muscles, potentially reducing your injury risk (provided you ease into speedwork and build duration and intensity gradually).

THE WORKOUT

For weight loss, the longer the period of intensity, the better. Warm up, then run at 10K pace for 3-5 mins. Then jog or walk for 3-5 mins. Repeat 6-10 times. Or set the treadmill gradient to five per cent and run at a moderate pace for 3 mins. Lower to zero and keep the same pace for 3 mins. Repeat 6-10 times.

‘I only run to improve my health, not to compete in races’

Skeletal muscle is critical for soaking up glucose from food and keeping your blood sugar levels in check. Because intense interval training engages a broader range of muscle fibers, it creates a bigger internal ‘sponge’, helping to fend off diabetes, says Little. It also strengthens the heart muscle and blood vessels and increases the number of mitochondria (the fuel-burning engines in your muscles), making your body more efficient at metabolizing fuel. You will have more energy and will be stronger—for running and for doing everything else. Now you have no excuse!

THE WORKOUT

Warm up for 15 minutes. Run one minute at 10K pace (this should be a 7-8 on an exertion scale of 1-10; it’s hard to carry a conversation at this level). Walk or jog for one minute, then repeat. Start with 4-6 reps. Build slowly to 10 reps.

Heart Rate Training: Is It Right for You?

A heart-rate monitor can be a helpful tool in training. Tracking your heart rate with a monitor (which reads your pulse via a sensor built into a chest strap) tells you precisely how hard—or easy—your heart is working.

Measuring your heart rate can help you keep from making one of the most common mistakes that runners of all abilities make—running too fast too often, which puts you at risk for injury and burnout. But heart-rate training does have its limitations.

Here’s how to effectively use a heart-rate monitor in your exercise life.

Know your zones. When you work out using a heart-rate monitor, you’ll aim to work out within a specific zone. Hitting a “zone” means falling within a particular percentage of your heart rate during every workout—for example, 65 to 80 percent for most runs and 90 percent or more as you blaze to a fast race finish. For most of your workouts, your heart rate should fall into zone 1 or 2.

Here is a general guideline used by exercise physiologist and coach Janet Hamilton, owner of Atlanta-based Running Strong:

  • Zone 1: 60 to 70 %; very comfortable effort; use this for warmup and cooldown
  • Zone 2: 70 to 80 %; comfortable enough to hold a conversation; most training is done here
  • Zone 3: 81 to 93%; “comfortably hard” effort; you may be able to say short, broken sentences.
  • Zone 4: 94 to 100%; hard effort; the pace is sustainable, but conversation is a few words at a time. For most people this is around 5-K pace.

Know your numbers. For years, runners have been told to monitor their heart rate based on their maximum heart rate, using a formula of 220 minus your age. Now most experts agree that this formula may be inaccurate for most people. It’s better to monitor your heart rate based on something known as heart rate reserve, which is more accurate, says Hamilton.

Here’s how to find your heart-rate reserve:

  • Get your max heart rate. You can get an estimate of your heart rate reserve, and your VO2 max, by doing any type of time trial or race at an all-out effort. In a 5-K race, you will likely be able to sustain about 97% of your max heart rate, Hamilton says. “5-K races are ideal,” says Hamilton. “The competitive environment brings out a greater effort in most people.” If you want to go all the way to 100%, do a two-mile time trial. Here’s how: On a track or any flat stretch of road, run one mile easy to warm up, then run two miles (eight laps around the track) at the fastest pace that you can sustain, trying to run each mile and each lap at roughly the same pace.  Look at the heart-rate monitor, and see the maximum heart rate number that was hit. That is a good estimate of your max heart rate.
  • Get your resting heart rate. Take your pulse at your neck or on your wrist as soon as you wake up, before you get out of bed. Find out how many beats per minute by counting your pulse for a full 60 seconds. Do this every day for one week.
  • Find your heart rate reserve. Your heart rate reserve (HRR) is your max heart rate minus your resting heart rate.
  • Know your zones. To find out which numbers to target on which runs, multiply your heart rate reserve by the zone you’re running in, then add back your resting heart rate.

Here’s an example:

  • Let’s say you have a max heart rate of 190 and a resting heart rate of 60.
  • Your heart rate reserve would be 190 – 60 = 130.
  • To find out which number you should target for your warmup, when you want to be working at 65%, you’d use this formula:
  • Heart Rate Reserve x 65% + Resting heart rate
  • 130 x 0.65 (65% of heart rate for an easy run) = 84.5 + 60 (Resting heart rate) = 144.5
  • So you’d target about 144 for your warmup. If the number is higher, you’re working too hard. If it’s lower, you need to pick up the pace.

See an expert. If you’re really curious about finding out precisely what your max heart rate and heart rate reserve are, go to an exercise physiologist and do a treadmill test. This test typically involves running on a treadmill while hooked up to machines that monitor your heart rate and blood pressure, as well as how much oxygen you’re consuming. Every few minutes the treadmill gets faster and steeper, until you reach the maximum effort you can sustain. Your heart rate at that maximum effort is your max heart rate.

Know the limits. Even when you know your max heart rate, and know the training zones, realize that there are limitations when using a heart-rate monitor to gauge how hard you’re working out. If you’re wearing your heart-rate monitor in a gym, the signals from the machines might interfere with an accurate reading. Also, certain other factors that have little to do with your level of fitness will impact your heart rate. If you’re dehydrated, if it’s a superhot day, or if you’re in pain, your heart rate might skyrocket, even if you’re running at a slower pace. Certain medications, such as beta-blockers and some migraine medicines, will affect the numbers you see on your heart-rate monitor. Similarly, if you’re going up a hill, you may have to slow your pace just to maintain the same intensity. In some cases you may have to walk. That’s okay. As you get fitter, you’ll be able to run up them.

Decide if heart-rate monitoring is right for you. When you’re just starting to work out, you have to carefully weigh whether this is right to you. It’s best to work by feel at first. Spend time getting into a rhythm of walking or running that feels comfortable enough to hold a conversation. It takes a while to get to a point where the running feels relaxed and natural. Once you do, you should target that feeling during each run. Studies have shown that running by feel and doing the talk test, which is well correlated with target paces. All you need is a watch. If you’re doing a run/walk workout, be aware that there will be a natural lag between when you hit a certain pace or heart-rate zone and when that number registers on the heart-rate monitor, says Hamilton. So if you’re doing a run/walk interval by time, there’s a good chance that you may have returned to a walk before seeing your target heart rate for the run register on the heart-rate monitor. On the other hand, having a heart-rate monitor will keep you from going out too fast and burning out before you’ve reached the goal distance and duration of the workout. Staying in your ideal zone of 60 to 80 percent will help you practice running in that relaxed, comfortable pace that you want to hit for most of your runs, Hamilton adds.

Before you invest in a heart-rate monitor, it’s best to talk with your doctor, a pharmacist, or an exercise physiologist to discuss any and all medications and supplements you’re taking and what individual impact those may have on your readings.