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Do you have big race plans for the spring and summer? Are you hoping to run faster than ever and set a new PR next summer?
Jenny Simpson and Laura Thweatt are right there with you. Even though they race at different ends of the competitive spectrum, Simpson and Thweatt have both started training for their own lofty running goals they want to achieve next summer and fall with a similar approach.
But for now, Simpson, one of the world’s top 1,500-meter runners on the track, and Thweatt, an elite-level marathoner, are both running fairly slowly with a rather low-key approach to training. They’re serious and dedicated to their daily runs and long-term training plans, but, for the most part, they each view the winter months as a time to create a foundation for faster running in the spring and summer.
You should do the same by taking their insights and tips on how to build an aerobic base, how to develop strength, how to stay motivated without doing too much, and how to prepare your body for PRs.
6 Things to Master in the Off-Season to Run Faster
1. Understand what you want to do and what you need to do.
The winter is an ideal time to recalibrate your mind and reset your body for the goals you want to achieve, says Simpson, the 2011 world champion and 2016 Olympic bronze medalist in the 1,500 meters. She suggests taking time to think back to your previous races and pinpoint the missing elements or weaknesses you need to improve upon and then easing back into training with an approach that will eventually put you on a path to achieving those goals.
Did you come up short in your marathon goal? Did you not have enough speed to set a new 5K PR? Did you need more strength to hold your form in the final miles of a half marathon? Or maybe you set a new PR only to realize you could have run much faster. Once you assess what needs to be done, you can develop a training plan to do that work and set new goals (possibly with the help of a running coach or training group) for the upcoming season.
During the winter, your training plan might start with a relatively loose set of weekly activities that will allow you to build into a more rigid set of daily workouts that are more closely tied to your specific running goals, Simpson says.
“Whenever you end a season, no matter if it was super successful or if you wound up disappointed with how it turned out, you always think something like, ‘Oh, if I only had more time to focus on this or that,’” Simpson, 35, says. “Now is the time to leverage that feeling of your work being incomplete knowing you have two or three months to focus on the things you need to. So I always suggest runners to think backwards from their goals and focus on what they need to do to get there. This is the time you can do it.”
2. Build your mileage slowly.
Thweatt, 32, finished her 2021 season with a strong effort at the New York City Marathon, placing eighth overall in 2:27:00—a time that ranked her sixth among American women for the year. But her PR is 2:25:38, and she knows she can run faster. After taking a break from running to let her body recover and let her mind get refreshed, she reset her mind and eased back into training.
She began running at an easy pace several days a week before adding in some longer runs (up to about two hours or 17 to 18 miles in length), some longer tempo efforts (slightly slower than marathon race pace) and some basic fartlek runs (for example, alternating 3-minutes fast efforts and 3-minute recovery jogging efforts) as a means to gain some semblance of general running fitness.
“For me, winter training is all about going back to the basics and keeping it simple,” Thweatt says. “I’m not doing a lot of fast, fancy stuff in the winter. It’s more about getting the miles in and doing more effort-based workouts. The goal is all about building a base and a foundation that I’ll want to have next spring and summer when I’m starting to put some of the sharper workouts on top of it and entering races. And, to be honest, I can’t do the workouts I’ll need to do in the spring and summer without the foundation I put in during the winter.”
By late winter, Thweatt will have extended her long runs to about 20 miles and her weekly mileage volume to the low 90s, added some longer, faster-paced tempo efforts and eventually some spicier workouts on the track (for example, 5 x 1-mile with 3 minutes rest).
You might be running 30 to 50 miles per week and your long runs might max out at 8 to 15 miles, but the process of building an aerobic base is similar.
“Even if you’re running shorter events like the 5K, 10K, or half marathon, I really think you need to lay down a foundation before you can build speed,” Thweatt says. “You don’t need to be running 100-mile weeks, but if you’re slowly building your mileage and adding one long run every week you’ll start to build a base and that will not only help you in the spring when you want to run faster, but it will also go a long way in helping prevent injuries, too.”
3. Run fartlek workouts, not speed workouts.
Fartleks runs are an ideal winter training workout because they are so adaptable, Simpson says. Doing fartlek runs without worrying about your actual pace or looking at your watch for splits is a good way to touch on speed in the winter without the intensity or stress of a more structured workout on the track.
“When you’re heading out for a fartlek, you don’t have to be intimidated by it,” Simpson says. “It might be a workout in which you run 5 x 5 minutes at a hard effort, and honestly, that’s not much different than a 5 x 1-mile workout on the track. But there’s something about heading out for a fartlek run that seems a little more appropriate for this time of the year and less intimidating because it’s not quite as structured.”
4. Get stronger.
As a middle-distance runner, Simpson relies on a strong physique to produce the stabilizing strength needed to hold her form during a race and explosive power for all-out sprinting to the finish line.
“I’m not going to be able to do really fast, explosive running without a good, strong foundation of balance,” Simpson says. “In order to support plyometric explosive movements, you need to understand the lowest common denominators are balance, foundational strength, and a strong core.”
The winter months are an optimal time to hit the gym, both to start a foundational strength program but also to make sure it’s part of your routine. As to what kind of strength program you engage in, that can vary greatly. Both Thweatt and Simpson suggest starting slowly, focusing on the consistency every week and possibly consulting a strength coach who understands running strength.
Generally speaking, Simpson says, work on your core, glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves, but start small and aim for consistency. If you can’t visit a gym regularly or don’t have access to free weights, you can gain considerable strength with body-weight exercises, pedestal and plank holds and plyometrics movements and jumps. Core work is easy to do around your house, but the key is being consistent, Simpson says.
“It’s the one time of the year that you have to introduce strength training at a really slow place,” Simpson says. “After my season ends, I usually have been away from the weight room for a little while. I’ve kind of learned over time that if I gradually get back to a consistent program in the weight room in the winter, it will allow you to be consistently tough in the weight room when you’re training hard and running fast in the spring and summer. But when your season gets going and you have hard workouts and races to focus on, it’s hard to start a strength program. It’s hard to introduce heavier weight workouts or even pre-hab strength routines if you don’t already have a strength foundation or it’s not already ingrained in your routine. By the spring, it can feel like a lot, physically and emotionally, to add that on to your faster running sessions.”
5. Run hills, do strides, practice drills.
Both Thweatt and Simpson suggest holding off on true speed work until aerobic fitness and physical strength increase. However, they both are big proponents of doing hill repeats, running strides on a regular basis, and practicing strength and form drills. Those will enhance your running form, develop musculature that will support it, and create muscle memory by way of fluid repetition of movement.
A hill repeat workout is sometimes called “speed work in disguise” because it requires a strong effort and fast-cadence running, but lacks the acute intensity of doing interval work on the track. Strides, or build-ups, are a series of short, fast sprints done at about 80 to 90 percent effort over 50 to 100 meters. In other words, they’re hard, but not all-out. There are dozens of drills you can do to build strength and/or enhance form, and ultimately, allow you to develop greater range of motion and build speed.
Like fartlek runs, hills, strides, and drills set the physical foundation that will allow your body to run faster when the time comes.
“Those are all easy things to do in the winter when you can fit them in,” Thweatt says. “They all small movements and only a tiny part of your training, but if you do them consistently, they can help build speed and get faster long before you’re really trying to run fast. They’re a great way to build up a foundation for speed while you’re mostly building your base in the winter time.”
6. Be patient (and have fun).
Like Simpson and Thweatt, your running goals for next spring, summer, and fall are months away, so it’s best to approach the lead-up to your key races as a journey, Simpson says. That requires consistency, a good amount of patience, and the ability to trust the process over several months of training. Build long-term discipline instead of relying on short-term motivation, Thweatt says, by remembering that road to reaching your running goals is long and full of unpredictable highs and lows. It’s your collective effort over time that will get you to your goals, not any one specific workout or long run.
Don’t get hung up on sticking to a rigid schedule in the winter, especially knowing that weather can change and make it hard to run outdoors and the holidays, vacation and family time can crimp your time and cause unnecessary stress, she says. Work diligently every day and do your best to follow your training plan, but don’t get too bogged down in the details if life gets in the way. In the winter, it’s always better to err on the side of ramping up slowly and ensuring you’re getting enough recovery time than it is to risk overtraining.
“This is the time of year that you don’t have to hit every single important element of training,” Simpson says. “Don’t allow it to be that intense of a part of your season, because that intensity is coming in the spring. The uncompromising sense of not allowing yourself to miss a particular run or session of strength or whatever isn’t going to serve you well. If you’re traveling for the holidays and you can’t find a place to do strides after your run, that’s fine. It’s not going to make or break your season. Work hard and have fun and you’ll make a lot of progress this winter.”