What type of winter runner are you? Get advice tailored for you.

by Bethany Rutledge

Winter is the ideal time to work on improving your running. It can be tough, however, to know where to start the process. Should you run more miles, faster miles, slower miles, or begin a run-specific strength training program?

As is often the case, the answer is “it depends.” We zeroed in on four different types of athlete descriptions to help you dial in your down months. Find the category that describes you best for more specific advice on how to best use the winter months to emerge a stronger, faster athlete.


The New Runner

You just started running regularly in the last six months or recently returned to running.

The key to running happy and healthy as a beginner is consistency. Rebecca Adamson of Tri Fit Coaching says that for rookies, it’s is all about “consistency and form, keeping the heart rate in zone 1-2, and working on the aerobic base.” While you may be eager to get to tempo and track work, building your base first is key to success later, both when it comes to performance and staying injury free.

Adamson’s colleague and fellow IRONMAN Certified Coach Matthew Alva explains that in the beginning, it’s not just the cardiovascular system that needs to adapt, it’s also the musculoskeletal system. “People new to running should focus on building mileage so that the musculoskeletal and aerobic systems have the opportunity to adapt and develop for the build ahead,” he says.

So where to start? As far as tips for easing into running, Alva advises the beginner to mix treadmill running with outdoor runs “to accomplish the adaptations necessary without suffering from the indoor cage syndrome.” Adamson also recommends mixing in form drills.

→ Try this: Instead of building mileage by adding onto the long run, focus first on frequency, building gradually to four or five days a week by a few miles. For example, if you’re currently only running two to three times per week, start by spreading the same number of miles over an additional session per week. Once you get to four to five sessions per week, then you can start to gradually build time onto each session. Then build smart by adding on no more than 10 percent additional volume per week. Include a dynamic warm-up prior to every run session.


The Aimless Runner

You run plenty of miles, but without a plan.

Your base is ace, but to race your best you should add some specificity to your training. “Runners who always put distance, but not speed or strength, should adapt their training to support gains in strength and tempo (zone 3) efficiency,” says Alva. To combat this, he recommends adding in hills for strength and to build VO2 capacity. He says that although these type of intervals would normally be reserved for later in the build, this particular athlete type is not likely to benefit as much from simply adding more miles.

Try this: Incorporate a regular indoor “hill simulation” session using a treadmill at a seven percent grade to focus on building Vo2 capacity.


The Random Racer

You can’t pass up a last minute bib number or a friend’s track workout.

You’re game to go fast, but going fast all the time with low miles can lead to stagnation, burnt out, or injury. Adamson suggests taking a bit of time off to give the body a break by limiting the amount of speed work and focusing on maintaining that zone 2 aerobic base.

Since Z2 miles can sound boring—especially to someone who loves racing—Alva suggests looking at performance improvements from a more holistic standpoint. “You can build speed in three ways: improving fitness, building strength, and losing unnecessary weight. I tell type ‘A’ athletes that they should focus on Z1/Z2 mileage in an effort to develop aerobic pathways and ‘lean out.’ Every pound that is lost is two seconds per mile time improvement and three watts on a hill gain.”

Alva says that this simple reframing puts the choice back in the athlete’s hands to gauge the most likely path to improvement, and helps them “buy in” to working on their base. Too much racing without additional volume to support it can also limit performance gains.

→ Try this: If body composition is an area of improvement you want to target, start by clearing your calendar for several weeks from any races. Diet changes are easier to implement when your training demands are lower. Continue to run, but do more of your it at an easy effort and consult the support of a nutritionist if needed.

If body composition isn’t an issue for you, then use the winter months to build volume slowly to support next year’s races. Take the same initial step by clearing the calendar, then focus on building volume and frequency slowly, increasing by no more than 10 percent per week.


The Injury Prone Runner

You’re not strictly “injured,” yet you’re never quite at 100 percent, and often struggle with issues that limit your training and performance.

If you’re the gal that has small issues popping up constantly that take you out of training whether they tend to be minor illnesses or musculoskeletal issues, it’s time to take a step back and address what might be holding you back.

Alva splits these runners into three sub categories: “The injury- prone athlete is likely not using the right tools, doesn’t have the proper form, or is overtraining/overreaching.” If you don’t know immediately which category defines you, Adamson advises talking with a coach who can look at your running form, is familiar with various types of running injuries, and knows how to strength train a runner.

As far as practical tips, Alva outlines three simple things that runners often get wrong: shoe selection, cadence, and foot strike.

Shoes: Start at a specialty running store and make sure to find shoes that match your gait and body type. Alva recommends different types of shoes for short runs (minimalist/lightweight shoes), more supportive shoes for 5-plus mile runs, and some short and light bare foot grass runs where applicable.

Cadence: As a cadence cue Alva recommends running with a metronome or smartphone set at 180, or the old fashioned way of counting steps per minute. “Running at higher cadences reduce the potential wear caused by over striding and reduces something called vertical oscillation, making the athlete more efficient on the run.

Related Article: 3 Ways to Self-Assess Your Footstrike

Foot strike: Changes to foot strike are trickier and major should not be attempted without the support of a professional. Alva says that though there are efficient heel strikers out there, the majority of heel striking runners have poor form and are inviting injury. “I would start a mid strike build which requires a resetting distance build to develop the muscles and tendons needed for the more stable and efficient mid strike,” he says.

Bethany Rutledge is a coach based in Atlanta, GA. Her favorite training sessions are miles logged with her two vizslas, Sadie and Bailey.