Now that all the big fall races are over and the weather is getting colder, most people are ready to pack away their sneakers and hibernate. While some consider the winter an off-season, it’s definitely not the time to slack off from training.
“Many runners simply take the winter off, but this is a huge mistake,” says Jason Fitzgerald, USATF-certified running coach. “Taking a season off — or barely running at all — prevents most runners from progressing.”
Take elite Saucony-sponsored runner Tina Muir, for example. After running the Chicago Marathon in October 2014, Muir has spent time working on the little things to make her a stronger runner like building strength, improving her form, and practicing yoga. “This downtime between racing is the best time to do it,” says Muir. “You can’t throw a lot of this work in when you’re training hard since your muscles are already fatigued. And, this way, you don’t have to spend half the spring and summer getting back into shape.”
In fact, the winter is the perfect time to build a solid foundation for running. “Figure out what your weak links are and to focus on those things,” says Jay Dicharry, director of the REP Biomechanics Lab, author of Anatomy for Runners and USATF-certified coach. “It’s not good enough to just have a strong engine. You need to have a strong chassis too — mobility, stability and strength. That will give you a better body to run with.”
So, what’s a runner to do when the temps start dropping and workouts get moved indoors? For starters, focus on these seven key areas this winter. These exercises will help you figure out the right way to move so that you’ll be ready for a strong season of running once the weather warms back up.
7 Tips on How to Run Faster by Spring
1. Maintain Your Base
No matter the season, you want to maintain some level of base fitness. Ideally, you’ll want to keep logging the same amount of miles you’re used to. “If that’s not possible, reduce mileage by 10 to 20 percent. It’s a good way to stay in shape while being on a mental break from harder training,” says Fitzgerald.
Reducing intensity is fine, too, just remember: “These aren’t junk miles,” says Dicharry. There are three important things that happen in your body when you train at approximately 60 percent of your maximum heart rate, he says. First, you build capillaries, the smallest blood vessels in your body. More capillaries means more efficient blood flow to your muscles and greater surface area for oxygen to transfer from your bloodstream into your tissues. Second, you build more mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of your cells. More mitochondria means more energy you can use, Dicharry explains. Third, you teach your body to regulate its blood sugar levels better so that you use your energy stores more efficiently.
2. Build a Strong Behind
Many runners are plagued with inactive glutes and weak hips. Due to the inordinate amount of sitting we do in our daily lives, our behinds tend to be unresponsive, compromising their ability to do their job when we need them, like during a race. In fact, research shows that weak hip and bum muscles are often to blame for running injuries.
In terms of mechanics, strong glutes help you drive off the ground in order to run more efficiently. Single-leg glute bridges are a great way to strengthen this area. During the exercise, “Ask yourself, ‘What muscles do I feel working?’ Most people will feel it in their lower back, or their hamstring will cramp,” says Dicharry, which isn’t good. “You want to learn how to move and drive from your hips to lift and stabilize the pelvis.
If you’re having trouble isolating your glutes, Dicharry suggests imagining that you are squeezing a quarter between your butt cheeks as you raise your hips off the floor. “It seems like a simple exercise, but if you can’t master the basic bridge, you’re going to do everything else incorrectly,” says Dicharry. Add in clam shells, hip hikes and lateral leg raises and you’ll be on your way to building a strong bum.
3. Improve Your Posture
Your mother was right: Good posture does matter. According to Dicharry, balance, alignment and posture all directly impact our running ability and form. “Most of us stand back on our heels and lock out our knees. We just ‘hang out’ in our posture,” says Dicharry. “When you stand like this all day, you’ll start to run like this, too. And, poor posture can inhibit your hip strength by half.”
In order to stand up tall, you first need to find a neutral position in your spine. Stand and become aware of where the weight is in your feet. “Then, drop your breastbone and the front of your ribs down and you should feel the weight shift off your heels to the other parts of your feet,” says Dicharry. “Most people will feel like their muscles must work to maintain this position.”
Practice proper posture all day — when standing, sitting, walking and running — so that it becomes second nature and you can maintain this position even during a hard workout. Muir also suggests doing drills to help you concentrate on your form, which translates to more efficient and faster running. Muir’s favorites include high knees, butt kicks and side shuffles.
4. Build a Strong Core
Having a sturdy center helps improve stabilization and allows your lower body and upper body to communicate more effectively. “The runners I’ve trained who have focused on this have performed much better,” says Cheri Fogelman, Master Trainer at CLAY Health Club + Spa and instructor of TRED™, CLAY’s signature interval treadmill workout. “A strong core gives runners an advantage in that your form doesn’t break down when you get tired.”
Fitzgerald’s “bread and butter” core workout includes everything from planks and side planks to modified bicycles and bird-dog exercises. He recommends doing a routine like this two to three times a week.
5. Practice Toe Yoga
Your feet play an important role in running. Not only do they absorb the impact upon landing, they also help generate the force required to propel you forward when you run. Yet, according to Dicharry, many runners have weak feet and poor foot coordination. How can you make your feet more resilient? Practice toe yoga!
What exactly is toe yoga? It’s learning how to move your big toe and little piggies independently of each other. Keeping the ball of your foot on the ground, lift up just your big toe while your little toes remain on the floor and hold. Then, drive your big toe down into the ground while you lift up your little toes and hold.
“One of the most helpful things to do is to learn how to use your big toe,” Dicharry says. “Being able to drive your big toe down is a critical skill. You’re isolating the muscle in the arch of your foot. Its only job is to stabilize the arch.”
6. Try Something New
Aqua jogging, stair mill, spin class… “There are so many other modalities that can support running,” says Fogleman. If you’re not training for a race, it’s a great time to switch things up. “The more things you do that are different, the better athlete you become,” says Dicharry. If some form of cross-training isn’t already in your weekly routine, mix in your favorite low-impact activity (or try something new!). Just one hour a week can pay dividends come spring.
7. Hit the ‘Mill!
Don’t want to run outside? No problem. Try the treadmill hill workout, featured below, from CLAY Health Club + Spa. It will build glute and leg strength as well as increase fast-twitch muscle fibers. The result: you being able to run farther, better, faster and stronger.
Your Winter Treadmill Workout
Before you start, you’ll need to determine your speed and incline for the workout. Find your goal pace-per-mile for the desired incline — six percent for this workout — and corresponding treadmill mph setting. After you finish your warm-up, step off the treadmill belt and bring your speed up to your hill sprint speed and your desired incline. Step back onto the belt to begin your hill intervals.
Originally published December 2014. Updated December 2015.