It’s been so much fun watching many of you train for hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering goals. (To join in, check out the Facebook group.) But now that summer is over and you’ve climbed your mountain or hiked your trail, what should you do in the off-season? In today’s post we’ll talk about your winter workout: what to prioritize, what to let go of, and how to stay motivated.
Winter Workout Challenges
I get that it’s really hard to stay in shape when you don’t have a big goal on the horizon.
Also, it’s normal to struggle with motivation after a long training season. Your workout routine may be feeling a little stale at this point, especially if you’ve been doing lots of sport-specific training.
You also may be beat up physically. Hard training takes a toll on your joints, your hormones, your nervous system, and your immune system. So it’s normal for your energy to be a bit lower when winter rolls around.
And then along come the holidays and all the upheaval and stress that accompany them. You’ve just spent 102 hours at the mall, you’re broke, and now you have to drive cross country to Indiana so your in-laws can shove pie after pie your way. (Can you tell I’m not a big holiday person?)
But here’s the good news: Winter is a perfect time to rest, rejuvenate change up your workout. That way you can roll into spring training fresh and excited. With a little creativity, you can make winter your favorite training season — one you actually look forward to.
Winter Workout Goals
If you spent the summer training for a big hike or climb, it’s hard to know what workouts to prioritize during the off-season. Here are some helpful goals to work toward:
Rest and rejuvenate
The first rule of the off-season: take one! Reduce your training volume (frequency and duration) to 30–50 percent of your peak volume.
Remember, you can’t be at peak fitness all the time. Not only is it physiologically impossible, it’s hard on your mind and body to maintain a high training intensity for months on end.
Think about it this way: you still want to be hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering when you’re 60, 70, 80 years old, right? So don’t put too much wear and tear on your body by training hard year-round.
Instead, use the off season for fitness activities you enjoy — especially if they don’t fit into your normal training routine. Go to a Zumba class. Take a little kid hiking. Ride your bike.
Maintain your base aerobic fitness and strength
Keeping your base fitness year-round will allow you to ramp up much faster when training season comes back around. For hikers, backpackers, and mountaineers, this means:
- 1–2 long, slow distance workouts a week. Keep the pace conversational, an intensity of 3 or 4 on a 1–10 scale. These workouts don’t need to be sport-specific, so feel free to ride your bike, cross-country ski, or hop on the rowing machine at the gym.
- 2 full-body lifting session at least twice a week. Do 3–4 sets of 8–10 reps for each exercise.
Prevent excessive weight gain
It’s normal to gain a few pounds in the off season as your calorie expenditures drop. But too much gain can affect your health and athletic performance.
Winter workouts can help to keep your weight and metabolism healthy. It also means you can enjoy some holiday treats (those pies!) now and then.
To fight winter weight gain and preserve your aerobic capacity, do 1–2 high-intensity interval (HIIT) workouts every week. HIIT is a great fat burner, because it revs your metabolism and keeps it burning faster for several hours after you quit.
Pro tip: HIIT workouts can also be super short (ahem, traditional tabata is just 4 minutes). So save them for those busy days where you have to run to the mall, battle the tree monster, and wrap presents.
Correct muscle imbalances
When you’re squatting massive loads during your strength period, you’re probably not thinking about which leg you’re favoring. And you’re probably not fretting that your hamstrings are getting neglected in favor of your glutes.
But the truth is, almost everyone gets a little (or a lot) out-of-balance during sport specific training. The larger the imbalance, the more likely it is mess up your body mechanics and predispose you to injury.
So winter is a great time to return to weight lifting fundamentals and balance your muscle groups. This means using unilateral and targeted exercises to work a specific side or muscle.
For a great tutorial on correcting imbalances, check out this great strength imbalances article by Mike at Muscle for Life.
My top winter workout tips
So what can you do to keep active during the colder months? Here are some fun winter workout tips and ideas:
1. Keep hiking
I’m a big believer that hiking is one of the most fun ways to do a long, slow distance workout. Seriously, would you rather spend five hours on a Stairmaster or walking in the woods with friends? Easy question.
One moderately-paced hike a week will help to maintain your aerobic base. You can even throw in some intervals if you want, because snow makes great resistance.
A lot of hikers start working out in the gym when the weather gets cold, because they don’t want to freeze. But with the right clothing and gear, it’s possible to have a pleasant hike even on cold, windy days.
Some helpful blog posts:
2. Join a winter race series
One of my best (and most productive) off-seasons involved joining a winter road race series. I decided to work on my 10K run, a goal that I never have time and energy for when I’m training for mountaineering.
And all those high-intensity running workouts paid off. I came into the spring training season stronger than usual.
This race series (like many of them) was holiday-themed, and it was great to start Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Valentine’s Day, Saint Patrick’s Day and Super Bowl Sunday with hard exercise. I could go to parties afterward and eat without guilt!
So check for a race series in your area. It could involve running, biking, snowshoeing, or whatever motivates you.
If there’s no race series near you, create your own. Get together with your friends and enter five races that look fun. You can even change up the sports.
3. Fundraise for a charity race
Training for a charity race is a great way to stay motivated through the winter. It’s so much easier to go out in the cold and exercise when you’re doing it for animals, kids, the environment, and other great causes.
Some larger nonprofits actually organize racing teams. In return for fundraising, they provide you with a coach and entry into the event. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training is one such program. (I’ve done three events with them, so contact me if you have any questions.)
You can also use Facebook to launch a fundraiser and share your training photos and updates.
It might seem like winter would be a terrible time to fundraise, because everyone feels broke around the holidays. But remember that many people give to charity at the end of the year in order to maximize their tax deductions.
So be sure to fundraise for a qualified nonprofit and remind potential donors about the tax benefits! (I’ve actually raised about $8,000 through Team in Training in the winter, and I always use this strategy.)
4. Master gym workouts
Got gym-timidation? It’s totally understandable. I’ve been lifting since high school, and I still feel anxious when I go into a new gym.
That being said, gym workouts can really take your fitness to the next level. It’s a lot easier to do a high-quality HIIT workout on a treadmill than it is on a trail. And certain muscle groups are hard to target without machines.
The good news is that November and December are historically the least crowded months at gyms. So winter is a great time to join and start making yourself at home. This way, you can get to know the equipment and fine tune your workout without an audience.
Warning: things will get crazy at the gym in January when everyone shows up to work on their New Years Resolutions! But by then, you will probably be feeling more confident about exercising in front of people. Also, about half of those new exercisers will quit by March (depressing, right?). So things will get back to normal at the gym.
5. Take your gym workout outside
Exercising outside is a great way to raise your mood during the dark days of winter. It’s also a nice alternative to the crowded gym in January and February.
For a full-body winter workout you can do outside, check out this post and pin by Fitness Republic. These outdoor exercises actually work well all year round.
A word about running in the ice and snow: you can actually buy traction devices to wear over your running shoes. I personally use these inexpensive Stabilicers for runs in the park. Note that they work much better for running than hiking.
6. Pick up a winter sport (or change sports)
Remember when you were a little kid, and the first snowfall of the year was super exciting? Well, the best way to get that feeling back is to take up a winter sport.
Winter is the perfect time to enjoy activities you love that don’t have hiking- or mountaineering-specific benefits. So feel free to snowshoe, cross-country ski, and backcountry ski your heart out. You can even buy skins for your skis so you can hike uphill with them.
And if you’re in a warmer climate, that doesn’t mean you have to miss the fun. Winter can be the time you enjoy your “other” sport like mountain biking, road cycling, swimming, or team sports.
7. Fall in love with yoga
So a lot of people feel like yoga is only for willowy 20-somethings who look hot in tight pants. They feel like it’s definitely not for them.
I used to feel that way too, but I’m so glad I changed my mind.
Yoga is a great way to pursue your off-season goal of rest and rejuvenation. The focus on breathing helps to clear your mind and reduce stress. And the movements will improve flexibility, which helps with range of motion and injury prevention.
Depending on the type of yoga you practice, you may also get cardio and strength benefits.
And no, you don’t have to be super flexible or hit every pose to get a good workout. Just show up and do your best.
If you feel self-conscious walking into your local yoga class, you have some options. For me, it helped to go to a different class that had a variety of ages and body types. You can also practice yoga at home with an on-demand yoga video service like Gaia.
So there you have ’em. All my best winter workout tips.
Happy training, and be sure to hop in the Facebook group if you want some extra moral support through the colder months!
Originally posted Nov. 6, 2018.