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Olympian Mara Abbott’s Winning Winter Training Strategy

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By Mara Abbott,
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor

As a native Coloradan, I love changing seasons. I have my favorite times of year, but I really like the variety and appreciate the every-so-often obligation to shift my habits and priorities along with the turn of the year.

In training and in life, I’m generally quite content to do the exactly same thing day after day. Ritual can be comforting, but I know as an athlete that too much repetition can lead to injury or burnout – that’s why I consider myself lucky to have always been able to count on Mother Nature to shake it up on a seasonal basis.

If you’re a cyclocrosser or a skier, winter may be the thing you look forward to, rather than a challenge to be endured. However, whether you’re a cold-weather junkie or you live in sunshine year-round, read on – a bit of regular change and reflection can benefit us all.

Stress-test your motivation

It’s one thing to train when the sun is shining and you have a chance to compete every weekend, but things sometimes look a bit different when it is snowing and your goal race is six months away. This makes the shift in seasons a great time to evaluate your long-range goals.

It’s natural to experience ebbs in motivation when the payoff seems far away and less tangible. However, If you are really struggling to train through the winter, it might be worth chatting with a coach – or another trusted life advisor – to see whether your goal still matters to you. I wrote about authentic goals for CTS last winter, and you can revisit the post here – do yours still measure up? Bumping up against challenge and change helps us to re-evaluate and course correct when we get stuck in a rut.

Work out your daylight and clothing strategies

Even with top notch motivation, winter does present unique challenges. I find that if I’m prepared and confident ahead of time, I’m more likely to actually get my workout done when I wake up and it is cold, dark, rainy, or snowing.

Find clothing that works for you. This doesn’t mean that you need to go shopping for new and expensive gear. After my hands froze one too many times on a winter ride, I appropriated a pair of old ski mittens for the task – no fancy cycling glove was up to the challenge. Don’t feel like you need perfect gear before you can venture outside. Feel free to work with what you have and become an opportunistic upgrader as Goodwill, Ebay, and local sales present themselves.

As daylight hours become scarce in northern locations, you need to plan ahead for your workouts. That may mean getting a lighting system to keep yourself safe if you will be out in dim light or grey weather. One old teammate from Sweden only got about 6 hours of light each day to do all of her training. Most of us don’t have it that bad, but I still find that planning ahead helps keep me focused and streamlines my workouts. Make a schedule that you can feel confident about at the beginning of each week. Before you go to bed each night, lay out your gear (or get your bike set up in its trainer!) so that you will be ready to take advantage of whatever sliver of time you have to work toward your goals throughout the winter.

Consider a seasonal training emphasis

If it’s tough to get outside for regular training sessions where you live because of weather or time constraints, consider talking to your coach about whether it makes sense to add some variety to your program for a few months. That might mean incorporating more strength training in the gym, or taking the opportunity to work on agility drills or flexibility.  Maybe putting some traction gear (or sheet screws) on the bottom of your shoes and getting out for a hike, or going for a cross-country ski could be an endurance miles stand-in for sweaty hours spent staring at your living room wall while spinning your legs in circles. Chat with your coach now about the best plan to keep you mentally fresh and physically challenged year-round.

Find a buddy

It’s harder to bail on a cold ride or a dark run when you know that a friend is waiting for you. Setting up training dates with friends can help keep you active and motivated through the winter. If you are a solo trainer or are working with time constraints, look into creating virtual support – programs like Zwift allow you to compete and train with others from the comfort of your own home.

Even if you aren’t technologically savvy (and I fall strongly into that category), a winter solution could be as simple as finding an accountability buddy who you can text or a call at the beginning and end of each workout. Several years ago I had a roommate who was a professional open water swimmer. Her practice schedule was fixed, so in the winter I would set my alarm clock so that I could ride my trainer while she was at the pool. My competitive streak hated the idea that she might be finished before I was, and it was more fun to enjoy breakfast together rather than enduring the smell of fried eggs wafting under my bedroom door while I was still chamois’ed up.

Evaluate your goals.

Give your coach the full benefit of understanding your big-picture vision as you build a training plan together. Athletic goals are important – but if spending time with family or traveling during the holidays is a priority for you, be sure to lay that on the table. Perhaps it makes sense to remove pressure now and aim for a goal race in June rather than March. Being your best athlete will demand balance, honesty, and constant self-re-evaluation. The chance to shift habits and look at our life patterns and goals with new eyes is one of the gifts of the changing seasons.


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