The calendar has turned to a new year, and for those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, that means that Winter isn’t just coming, it’s here. I have countless conversations with athletes during this time of the year, many of which are centered around how we can best utilize this time period. If I could give one piece of advice to athletes during this time of year and have them take it to heart, it would be this:
Winter isn’t the time to go fast and/or to try to realize big gains. Winter is about preparing the body for the training that is going to come later in the Spring and Summer seasons.
Peak Fitness Misconceptions
After more than a decade of coaching and watching athletes’ choices unfold over the course of a season, my observation has been that there isn’t anything other than being consistent that you can do in the Winter to make yourself a superstar in June. There is, however, a lot you can do in Winter to make sure you are not burnt out or injured in June.
A very common misconception (or, perhaps more accurately, a very common hope) athletes have is that they can be in race shape or peak fitness longer than they actually can. As a result of this misconception, many athletes think that they can give themselves an advantage by getting into shape early. (Aka working harder and longer earlier in the season.)
Here’s the simple and hard truth: Peak fitness is only possible to maintain for 2-3 weeks at a time. Going too hard too soon or too high on volume too soon (or both) can cause peak fitness to occur at the wrong time. Thus, getting into peak shape and fitness early hurts athletes for when they really want to be in peak shape (which is the 2-3 weeks around their A-Priority race that they’ve set their most important goal for).
In addition to thinking that they can build and maintain peak fitness for longer periods of time, many athletes are more rested and/or they have more time to train during the Winter season. This leads many athletes – especially self-coached athletes – to train with too much volume or intensity (or both) during this time of year simply because they don’t have many other hobbies, interests, or commitments competing for their time. Injuries, particularly tendonitis (which is an overuse injury that arises because you asked your body to do something it was unprepared or untrained to do), are a major risk when volume and/or intensity is increased too rapidly.
A Solid Base
For most goals, Winter is best spent in Base Phase, which is the phase of training that lays down the solid foundation for all of the training that will be coming later in the year. For a seasoned athlete, one year’s Base Phase layers on top of the seasons of work that preceded it. In other words, the longer you spend as an endurance athlete who is consistently doing workouts and training, the more each year’s work compounds to help you in future seasons.
When to plan Base Phase is determined by working backwards from an athlete’s A-Priority race. It takes approximately 90 days (or approximately three months) to go from Base Phase to a significant and measurable change in your abilities. Thus, Base Phase should end approximately three months before your A-Priority Race (or your first A-Priority Race if you have two in a year). During those final three-ish months, you go through Build, Peak, and Taper Phases of training to help ensure you are in your peak form exactly on race day.
Base Phase is the phase that sets the tone for the rest of the year; the habits cultivated during this phase will carry through to subsequent phases. Thus, even for experienced athletes, the Winter season (Base Phase) is a great time to revisit a lot of elements of training; this is the time when athletes often have the physical and mental capacity to be experimental with different aspects of their training, such as Bike Fit, Fueling and Hydration, and gear selection. Considering incorporating strength training and different cross-training disciplines is a worthwhile consideration during this phase as well.
If athletes tell me that they are feeling great and setting PRs in Base Phase, I actually get quite concerned. This could (and often does) mean that they are coming into peak fitness too early and that we’re off course from our intended trajectory. Because we can’t be in peak fitness all the time, feeling flat and slow in the Winter isn’t just normal, it should be expected and embraced. Sure, it can feel uncomfortable. However, discomfort is basically a rite of passage for all endurance athletes, as it is a crucial part of the journey to realized goals.
The Bottom Line
In our excitement about what lies ahead in a given season, it’s easy to be tempted to go harder or longer now, in Winter. But if your goals are centered around events happening in the Summer or Fall, Winter is not the time to go hard or long. Instead, use Winter as a season of preparation, so you can be ready for the harder and longer training when it comes. That is what will help you have the highest probability of successfully reaching your most important goals.
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.