A Summer Olympian’s Tips for Training Through the Winter

By Mara Abbott,
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor

With each winter storm, the decision: Grab a towel and head for the trainer, or gather your puffy coat, shoe covers and neck gaiter and get outside?

Personal preference guides many of those moments, but both indoor and outdoor workouts have benefits that you can leverage in your winter training plan.

Holiday obligations, cold weather, and short days combine to make December a tough time to get training in. Often, a good first step in creating a successful winter training plan is to set a specific goal for the season. Don’t let this be about your goal for next July – rather, come up with a quantifiable metric that you can link to your hoped-for performance at the end of January.

A near-term goal can help keep you motivated and provide a strategic framework for decisions about where and when you should schedule your workouts. Even if the goal is informal, let your coach in on your process so that he or she can frame the value of workouts you do each day and how they will help you get there.

Here are some tips you can use to keep your wheels spinning until the snow melts.

Get the most impact from your interval workouts

I know many athletes who choose to do the bulk of their interval workouts inside on a stationary trainer – even on beautiful summer days! – because it allows a more specific, controlled effort (I will confess that I never did this, but people I respect do).

Trainer intervals can be even more impactful in the winter, when roadway sand and ice lie in wait around every corner, ready to disrupt your effort or worse, sweep your sprinting wheels right out from underneath your oxygen-deprived body.

Interval workouts are a great choice for days when you need to ride indoors because their structure and inherent challenge makes the time go by quickly. Frequently, interval workouts are lower volume, making for an effective session you can get in before the sun even comes up.

Talk to your coach and see if it makes sense to structure more short, hard workouts into your training plan during the winter months in order to make the most of your trainer workouts and your limited time.

Multi-task family fun

Whether it is a family Christmas movie-watching tradition or a football game that can’t be missed, the mobility of a stationary trainer or rollers can allow you to let holiday screen time double as training time. In a time-honored Abbott family tradition, my older brother and my dad make plans to take turns riding the elliptical trainer in my parents’ basement while watching sports together.

Holidays are often full of family obligations. If yours is willing to tolerate a little eccentricity, try to find ways to integrate a workout into time together.

Get outside without structure

If you live in an area with unforgiving winters, try to find a way to take some of your high-volume workouts outdoors, even if that means deviating from your specific sport. Maybe cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or trail running with a set of spikes can fill in for portions of scheduled long, steady sessions.

If you don’t consider yourself a winter fan, seeking out a season-specific outdoor activity – or even some particular challenge – might make the cold months a bit more pleasurable. I’ve long been a cross-country skier, but this year, the big winter goal I’m excited about is learning to skate ski. (And, if I’m very lucky, one new, horse-owning friend might teach me skijoring in time for the Sheridan Winter Rodeo.)

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Even if you’re still maintaining a regular training schedule, it is tough to transition from four-hour rides in the sun to weeks spent indoors under artificial lights. Even if winter sports aren’t your bread and butter, find sort of an outdoor outlet year-round to help keep motivation high when daylight hours are low.

Value brief hits of fresh air

I’ve been a bike commuter for many years, but when I lived in Boulder, my wintertime commuting was most constrained by temperature. Try as I might, I could never seem to find an outfit that would keep me dry, warm, and able to fit through an average doorway once the temperature fell below 10 degrees on rides that averaged about 20 minutes.

I now live in Buffalo, a small town in northern Wyoming, which measures roughly a mile across. My longest possible bike trip would be under 10 minutes – even if it is icy and cold outside, my mountain bike and I will arrive before frostbite sets in.

My mini-commutes made me realize that even a five-minute hit of fresh air can completely shift my mood. Even if your only outdoor opportunity on a given day is a bundled up walk around the block, don’t underestimate the mental and emotional benefits of spending time outside.

Watch the weather

I was spoiled by Colorado winters. Sure, it snows, but sunny skies typically clear the roads within a few days – it was extremely rare to miss outdoor training for a full week.

Even if you live in a less forgiving climate, if you pay attention it is often possible to modify your training based on the 10-day forecast.

I’ll admit – once you have a week’s training plan written into your mental calendar, it’s tough to adjust. The effort is worth it, however, if the manipulation allows you to have a higher-quality training session or keep mentally fresh, so check in regularly with your coach (who might not be familiar with your local weather patterns) about which workouts can be easily swapped or adjusted.

One of the most important lessons my CTS Coach, Dean Golich, taught me was the importance of being able to work with the unexpected. Bike racing presents many factors that will always be out of your control. Sometimes, your success will depend on your ability to be resilient and adapt to change – and those characteristics can be honed through continued practice.

Do you have any favorite strategies for managing winter that you would like to share with the CTS community? Leave them in the comments below!

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Comments 8

  1. I raced USSA Nordic skiing years back. During ski season I trained on skis as someone would train to run in summers. I found Nordic to be an incredible total body conditioner. Core, hamstrings, lungs, arms, shoulders and cardio in particular. It seemed like nothing I did in the summer ever fully prepared me for Nordic. I had to get on skis. However, you need groomed/tracked areas to train. I got away from it and have been doing interval training inside on machines in the winter – easy to dial in any workout. This year I’m going to go back to Nordic and SkiMo workouts supplemented with inside on machine workouts to focus on heart rates. For me it is easy to dial in any heart rate on a spin bike, a little harder on a treadmill. I’m associated with a running group in the mtns. They share info about which trails might be runnable or maybe should be snowshoed – very valuable in the winter. That helps because they continually change. That’s how some of us get out on some trails with spikes.

  2. Nothing is worse than being cold and wet a long way from the finish of a ride, so I utilize a system I call ‘Rain Loops’ which works well for winter weather too. Ride short loops around your start point, say 5-25km (they don’t have to be a repeat of the same loop each time), if you get too cold or wet, just abort the ride the next time through the starting point. Usually, you can gauge when one more lap will be the limit of your exposure time. You won’t be in a constant headwind (because of the circular nature of the plan), and you can pick up extra/dry clothing at the ‘start/finish’ if necessary. Also, the mental aspect of knowing you won’t have far to go to get warm and dry if necessary seems to allow you to ride on a bit longer.

    1. I do the same in San Francisco, keep to a small loop in the Presidio with lots of short choppy hills. If I get caught in the rain, all is not disaster, just a quick jaunt back home and the satisfaction of a solid :45 minutes outside. Better than the trainer/gym bike plus the badge of honor for getting some work in during questionable weather.

  3. When the weather is dry but the temps are too cold, winter is a great time for riding and running your local trails. Its energizing to get out into nature and I fell less pressure to go hard when I’m just glad to be outside. I also find that the trails are usually a welcome respite from windy roads.

  4. My limit for heading outside is around freezing. The danger of black ice is quite real where I live when it gets much colder than that. However, a good indoor trainer setup and careful selection of Zwift routes offers me opportunities to get an acceptable simulation of outdoors when conditions are adverse. What I work to avoid is the temptation to just sit on the couch and watch the snow fall this time of year. That sort of lethargy makes it much too hard to regain form when spring finally returns.

  5. Trail running in spikes? Where I run that would give me about ten minutes before my shoes got stuck in the roots! 🙂

    Good read as always, Mara!

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