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
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.