Middle-Distance Running: A Winter Training Guide
BY CHARLIE WAKEFIELD
The winter can be a daunting time of the year for runners that thrive on warm tracks wearing vests and shorts, replacing it with British weather, mud, and long miles. It's September, the season is over, you're excited about taking some time off, and you're ready to hit the Winter in preparation for next year. Whether you thrive in the off-season or want to survive until the summer, here are some top tips for making the most of the Winter as a middle-distance runner:
ADJUSTING YOUR SPEED
It's September. You've just finished the season off with a tasty 1500m PB that you've been working for all summer, and you're just ticking over in training with a few critical decisions to make, the first of which is, "do I take time off"? It depends on if you feel like you need it, but normally anywhere between 1-3 weeks is what I'd recommend to reset yourself both physically and mentally. A common misconception with "time off" is that it's a period where you do nothing by way of exercise at all, and potentially for some runners, a week of no exercise can be very valuable. However, I think of time off as a period where you can ease off the training and enjoy it.
For example, at the end of the season I tend to take two weeks where I’m still active, but primarily doing shorter, easier runs, cycling, some light work in the gym and even some long distance hikes or walks. Try some other sports, give your body the chance to recover fully and set yourself up for a productive winter, you’ve earnt the rest and you’ve got at least 6 months before you need to worry about getting into track shape.
APPROACHING THE WINTER AS A MIDDLE-DISTANCE RUNNER
Now you have a choice between 3 options:
- Build a distance base and re-periodise to race indoors
- Take more time to increase your mileage and build a distance base whilst racing cross country
- Increase your mileage and build a distance base without racing a full cross-country season
There is no right answer to this choice, with all of them having great potential to set you up for the summer, *if* that is your goal. Still, much like runners such as Max Burgin, many middle-distance runners see the cross country as purely an opportunity to build up strength to convert to speed in the summer and train your body to cope with an increased training load when it comes to middle-distance-specific training. If you're more of a speed-based middle-distance runner, you might choose to race indoors, but I would only recommend racing indoors during a short time window, as the primary focus of the winter should be on strengthening up for the summer.
EFFECTIVE MIDDLE-DISTANCE WINTER TRAINING
During the winter, you should increase your mileage from the summer by at least 30-40% whilst prioritising effective and specific gym work, longer sessions and different types of workouts. The types of workouts should be a healthy mixture of tempo runs, fartlek, threshold runs and hills, with the bulk of your mileage still coming from your easy and long runs. During the week, have 2-3 of your runs as training sessions/workouts, 1-2 easy runs and one longer run, typically 3-5 miles longer than your normal easy run. Look to increase your mileage for three consecutive weeks, with the 4th week reducing your mileage back to that of your second week. On Strava, this should look something like this:
You should look to increase that mileage until you hit a steady mileage you can maintain and then look to increase the intensity of your workouts. The key is variety and consistency, by that I mean you want to incorporate a range of different training sessions to a consistent training routine. A typical week of a 1:52 800m runner during the winter may look like this:
2-mile WU, 8 x 3 mins tempo off 90 seconds jog, 2 mile CD
7 miles easy
1-mile WU, (6 x 400m) x2 at sub 3km target pace off 2 minutes recovery, 1 mile CD
6 miles easy, GYM
Interval session on hills, variety of paces and strides, aim 12 – 24 hills total (depending on length, incline, nature of session)
12 miles steady
I will often use the treadmill, too, during the winter for steady and easy runs along with tempo work, and whilst I'd say being outside is usually better, if the weather is terrible or the air is very cold, then I would highly recommend using a treadmill sometimes. Just ensure to set the incline to at least 0.5% and keep some water nearby.
I am also a firm believer in what's known as winter or maintenance speed. This is where you incorporate at least some work at a faster intensity every week, such as post-session strides or a speed-specific fortnightly session. This ensures that whilst the bulk of your training is still shifted towards slow twitch gains (type 1), your fast twitch muscle fibres (type 2A, 2B) are still engaged. It also makes the transition towards the outdoor season significantly easier, as you will already have some speed base going into the start of the season.
If you're looking to race on cross country or the road in particular, having a solid foundation in speed can help you kick out in a sprint finish. Speed is often overlooked in the winter, but it can add a fourth dimension to the set of skills you can pull out in a cross-country race, and whilst it shouldn't necessarily be the focus of your week if you're base building towards the summer, it's important that it isn't neglected.
If you are set on racing indoors, however, then you would look to periodise to race twice in the year, for a shorter period during the winter and a longer period during the summer season, essentially taking two opportunities to base build for a decreased time instead of one extended period throughout a cross country season. If you're not set on racing any cross country, then I would still advocate racing a few times throughout the winter, even if it's just a parkrun. Still, at the bare minimum, you should try to test your fitness and use the opportunities in the winter to race stress-free.
THE SEVEN ROOMS
In the book "Training Distance Runners" by Peter Coe and David Martin (which is pretty much the guidebook to distance running and a must-read despite some quite technical sports scientific explanation), they describe what they call the seven domains or "rooms" of distance running. These are as follows:
4 TYPES OF MIDDLE-DISTANCE TRAINING
General aerobic fitness and overall condition to respire and function aerobically whilst strengthening the cardiovascular system and muscles, e.g., easy runs, long runs
Fitness anaerobically, i.e., without oxygen, at your anaerobic threshold and the ability to maintain and work at the anaerobic threshold without fatigue, e.g. higher intensity intervals without producing excessive lactate (200m – 800m repeats at 1500/3km pace).
AEROBIC CAPACITY TRAINING (AKA VO2 MAX TRAINING)
Pushes your aerobic threshold to achieve faster speeds for longer without going into anaerobic metabolism, e.g., tempo runs, progressive runs, threshold runs, tempo intervals (5-10km pace).
ANAEROBIC CAPACITY TRAINING
Training to increase the time you can sustain anaerobic respiration without excessive fatigue, e.g., speedwork, anaerobic intervals.
3 AREAS BEHIND THE SCENES
Stretching, drills, and productive recovery
CIRCUITS AND WEIGHTS
Strength and conditioning, agility, plyometrics, specific strength work and injury prevention
Balanced diet, minimised stress levels, injury and illness prevention.
In the winter, the primary focus of your training should be the first three – aerobic and anaerobic conditioning and aerobic capacity training whilst maintaining all three areas behind the scenes. You may start to incorporate anaerobic capacity training as you get closer to track season and indeed maintain throughout the track season going into races to be as sharp and conditioned as possible.
Depending on what kind of runner you are, you may benefit from a different balance of these types of training. However, during the winter months, you should prioritise aerobic gains over anaerobic, as the longer cross-country races are primarily aerobic.
If you do race indoors, this balance will shift towards the anaerobic side, which you should discuss with your coach depending on what races you're targeting and the distance. If you favour the 800m and are more of a speed and power-based middle-distance runner, then I cannot understate the importance of gym work along with maintenance speed throughout the winter.
OFF-SEASON TRAINING FOR DISTANCE RUNNERS
The reality of training for middle-distance runners in the winter is that there is no one correct way to train, as each runner is an individual, and their needs will vary to produce the best results. If there was one correct way to train, everyone would surely be following the same plan and training the same way.
The most important thing in the winter is to enjoy it, stay healthy and put in consistent work tapered to you as a run to unlock the greatest amount of your potential in the summer when you're back in shorts on a sunny Watford evening or BMC meet about to chase that sought after PB.
ABOUT CHARLIE WAKEFIELD
Charlie is predominately an 800m/1500m runner, but he also runs 5K and cross country.
As part of our blog team, Charlie will primarily be making content focusing on middle-distance events.
His goals over the next 5 years include achieving an England/GB vest on the track and breaking the 4 minute mile!