RUNNING : Winter training tips

This article will only take a few minutes worth of snow inspiration

I’ve been training & running year round for decades and winter is always a special running season for me, November hits and always look forward to it.

I never understood why so many runners stop training in the winter, okay, snow and the cold is the reason but when you love running why stop ! And when you are a trail-mountain runner the elements is just part of it.

The last five years I’ve seen a growth in people running in the Chamonix valley, it’s now a culture, I love seeing the community motivated to head out on a cold and snowy morning. I easily have a dozen runner show-up at my Patagonia Chamonix Trail event, whatever the weather.

Many say they stop running but cross train with Nordic skiing and ski touring but remember to progress as a runner you need to run, cross training is not a concept for performance but more for recreational individuals. It’s important to practice different sports and I always recommend it but you can’t substitute ski touring for running. It does not prepare you to have running legs in the spring.

If you want to improve your marathon time it’s not by ski touring all winter that it will happen.

There is huge benefit to be a multi sport athlete but if you want to perform you need to run to do so !

For example I love skate skiing and ski touring, I train and push myself in both sports but I do it for the love of those two sports not to cross train. I still run throughout the winter so my legs can stay running fit, my mechanics smooth and all the benefits I get from my winter training block.

The brain remembers what you repeat including movement, that’s how we progress, the reason consistency is so important.

If you have running goals and stop running in the winter I highly suggest you rethink your training, winter is a great opportunity to gain some run fitness with a minimalist program.

First and foremost winter running is a sport in itself like trail running, track, or road running. It has a different dimension beside the fact the ground can be icy, invaded with fresh powder and the trails can turn into uneven white concrete.

Now let’s get down to training
Winter is a good time to cut it short with volume, keep the legs spinning with short quality workouts, mostly on flats, and small rolling terrain with some short hill repeats. It’s a recovery cycle, meaning no long distance or large vertical gains.

We go back to the foundation of running ; flat, strides, smooth mechanics, oxygenation and working on leg speed & strength.

It’s false to think the off-season is all about going easy, so much can be gained during the winter months. One reason I’ve been able to maintain a good running fitness for decades is due part to my winter training.
 Such a small dose makes a massive different.

It’s important to include uphill sessions but very short (20sec to 1min) and running fast (75-85% of max) 
to build strength and power.

Only once or twice a week and for 5 to 20 minutes of total intervals (with average 45 sec recovery between reps) depending of your fitness level and objectives, pick a road with a small and challenging grade and go for it.
Minimal recovery needed and start-end the workout on flats with moderate pace focusing on high cadence.
It’s crucial to maintain uphill & downhill muscle strength & balance, also important factors for injury prevention and performance.

A few weeks back I was reading an article in an American running magazine suggesting uphill interval is for fast twitch (type 2) fibers training so only good for power training… false!
First and foremost the type of muscle fibers is muscle specific (and DNA & gender) e.g. hamstrings are prominently type 1, slow twitch.
We can do uphill intervals focusing on aerobic or anaerobic training and most importantly we train the climbing muscles
 ; hamstrings, gluteus and calves.
Then depending of the speed, intensity, reps and sets, endurance or power training is promoted. In the winter we focus on uphill power, short and fast.
Hope that makes sense !

The goal is to build a good armor for the spring.

When spring comes it’s time to increase volume and we need strength to endure the distance.
A science proven mater that is more than often neglected.

 Even if you only run three to four times a week for 1 hour each sessions with a third of the volume focused on quality sessions – you will considerably gain.

Get a grip
Winter running engages the toes and foot muscles a lot more than summer due to the ever changing ground conditions, the BALANCE FACTOR is a great opportunity for some cheap neuromuscular training and a lot more efficient than the Bosu ball !

Our toes are very important for balance & stability when running, visualize a tiger mid air about to land vertical on a tree trunk, the claws are wide open ready to GRIP.

Same for us when running in the winter, well we should…. but if you have a weak foot or a narrow, rigid shoe, well you can’t-

Next time you head out pay attention, can you feel your toes & forefoot spreading when you land on the ground and are the toes flexing on toe-off ?

In the winter I run with my lightest trail shoes, which have a good sole and a minimalist drop* (I suggest I drop between 4-6 )
Why ? Very simple, closer to the ground, more stable !

Important, the heel cup should be rigid (tap the back of your shoe) and a very flexible forefoot.
Why ? More apt to engage the big toe flexor & foot muscles, with a stable rear foot well secure in the shoe.

You don’t need to spend a fortunate on Gore-Tex shoes and if you don’t want to get your feet wet, don’t run outside, simple !
A major downside of Gore-Tex it’s not breathable, so more prone to sweating, foot swelling and blisters occurring.

If we try to sell you a maximalist shoe with a high heel, lower toe (high drop), narrow and rigid forefoot, I can guarantee you will have a few good falls this winter. A maxi shoe restrains forefoot mobility and deactivate foot muscles.
Would you start running in high heels in the snow ?

I have never used crampons, back when living in British Columbia I had one pair of shoe I had custom made with screws for when forestry roads would get really slick but that’s it. 
Crampons can be useful in a race environment or in steeper terrain and when very icy.
But I see way too many people wearing crampons even when conditions are great… remember the above info, Get A Grip, and build foot and toe strength. The more you will run without your crampons the less you will use them.

Winter is a chance to be very alert to foot placement and build lower leg & foot strength, the core of running.

Personal tips
When snow is deep on the single track I wear lightweight knee high ski socks. It’s a great way to protect your skin for chafing, it doesn’t take much, the shin area is very sensitive and once affected it hurts like hell !

When unsure if the roads are slippery or not- black ice is not always visible, just shuffle your full feet on the ground and keep running at same speed. I do that on & off when on the roads early morning to check conditions since the risks of slipping is at the highest. I gain confidence and keep my momentum.

Never not go run because it’s too cold !
It’s a great mental strategy, don’t find excuses. 

The cold makes us feel alive, embrace it.

Everything is accentuated from eye lashes freezing and front thighs getting cold (I suggest wind shield tights to avoid that).

Cold running builds resilience and character, comes summer when the wind picks up and it’s down pouring you will remember a lot worst.

Your brain will automatically stimulate quicker muscle contraction to increase core temperature, in return you will catch yourself running faster… pay attention, the brain is way smarter then you think ! 

When it’s very cold I always focus on negative splits or steady state sessions. I stay warm, it’s motivating and i focus on task not how cold my fingers are.

A favorite tip: put your shoes, socks, gloves and hat against the heater 30 minutes before heading out !

Not true
Doing high intensity sessions in the cold is bad for your heart & lungs : it’s individual, what is very cold for me might not be for you, prevention is key wear a buff over your mouth when very cold.
Believe me I trained & raced for almost two decades in temperature ranging from -10 to -45 Celsius between Alaska, the Canadian Rockies and British Columbia and I’m still running without a defibrillator !

Winter running tips:
When very icy- do not run, take a day off, go skiing or hit the treadmill (or both)
When snowing hard get out first thing in the morning, roads are not slushy yet and shoe-snow grips at it’s best.
When really cold run mid-day when the sun is out, first it will be more enjoyable and the ground won’t be as slippery.
Where a buff over your mouth, it also keeps your face nice & warm
Mix your training between trails and roads depending of conditions
Spend more time on roads and flat terrain

Remember, we train and run because we love it, enjoy your winter !

I hope this article gave you some inspiration to modify your training or to just get out for a run !
Important: adjust my training suggestions depending of your run fitness and goals


I have a new program for 2021, STRIDE Virtual Running Team & Training Camps
The Winter virtual camp starts first week of February, a chance for some quality training and to meet runners from around the globe

You can find great foot, lower leg and running exercises in my book Trail, les clés pour performer sans se blesser

Enjoy the snow… merci for reading,

*shoe drop reference: height difference between the heel and the toe box.
A maximalist shoe as a high heel and low to box, the grade is higher than 10.
Average minimalist shoe is between 3-8 drop
Barefoot zero drop

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