The Marathon Cross-Training Guide: Winter Exercises

If you think training for a marathon is tough (it is, and incredibly so), then add winter weather into the mix. Low temperatures, miserable conditions, and shorter days will make you think twice before you roll out of bed and lace up those running shoes. Luckily, there are techniques and approaches for the winter that can help you get the most out of these unforgiving months — so that the next time snow hits, you can hit right back.

1. Get outside when you can

Running outside is more unpredictable and thus more challenging than running indoors. The gradient changes without warning. The road or trail has uneven patches, which forces you to engage your core more often, making your body and mind more responsive and flexible to change. If you can get in some outdoor miles twice a week, that would be great for the winter months. Be sure that you have the right gear: a moisture-wicking base layer, a wind-resistant jacket, and wind-resistant pants are all essentials if you want to brave the elements and not freeze in the process. That said, this section has “when you can” in the title for a reason. If you find that you’re doing more unintentional figure skating than running, it’s time to move the workout inside. It’s not worth injuring yourself..

2. Train your core

Remember that it’s not all about cardio and legs. Your core helps keep you stable and maintain your posture. When you extrapolate it out over the course of the marathon, a strong core helps minimize running inefficiency and prevent injury when you get tired. A good core routine two or three times a week can drastically improve your overall performance. You can find an entire core routine here, and below are some of the highlights:

3. Own the treadmill

When the weather outside is frightful, the treadmill can be your best friend. When training on a treadmill, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Incline: Make sure to vary your incline, and remember that a 0 percent incline on a treadmill is similar to running slightly downhill on a real road due to a lack of wind resistance. Try to keep your incline at more than 1 percent or 2 percent at all times to better simulate a level-incline run.
  • Vary your speed: Similar to the point about varying your incline, do the same with your speed, too. Varying even just a few miles per hour here and there during a run can help simulate what it would be like in the unpredictable outdoors.
  • Set goals: You can also dial in your ideal speed and incline using this chart. Take a moment to calculate your target time and then keep track so you know whether you’re up to speed. Training is great, but having goals is the only way to stay truly accountable.
  • Interval training: Want to get a better workout in less time? Do a little interval training. For example, after warming up for 10 minutes, alternate 30-second sprints (6-8 mph) with 30-second recovery periods where you’re standing off the belt with a foot on either side rail. Do a series of 10, then do an easy recovery jog for 5-10 minutes before resuming another interval of sprint and recovery. Don’t forget to cool down after you’re done with another easy 5-10-minute jog.
  • Go long: At least once or twice a week, push your run to 60 or 90 minutes, sticking somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 – 75 percent of your max heart rate.
  • Go fast: In at least one of your training sessions during the week, push yourself to 90 percent of your max heart rate. Start out with a steady jog to warm up and then crank it up for 3-5 minutes at 90 percent. Then dial it back down to a steady jog

4. Use this time to re-evaluate

If you don’t have a pending marathon on the immediate horizon, use this time to do things that you wouldn’t normally do when you’re training for a marathon. Build strength, do some yoga, work on your posture, take a spin class — maybe even swim a little if you have access to an indoor pool. When you’re in the thick of a final training push before a marathon, you might not be thinking about any of these things, but when you’re putting on boots and scraping ice off your windshield, you tend to look at life a little differently. And who knows — you might stumble upon something that works for you that you can fold into your ongoing routine.

5. Step up your nutrition

There are a few things you need to focus on that might not come naturally in the winter. For starters, make sure you’re getting plenty of hydration. If you go for a long run outside, you may not be sweaty, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t need to rehydrate. Secondly, make sure that you’re getting enough vitamin D. If you aren’t able to get outdoors very often, take some vitamin D supplements. Lastly, if you’re taking water or food on your outdoor run, make sure it isn’t going to be affected by the low temperatures. You don’t want to go for a drink of water and get a block of ice instead. Try wearing a hydration vest under your jacket. When it comes to food, go for things like fruit leather or granola bars that will hold up in the elements.

6. Focus on posterior chain

Your legs are everything, so make sure you’re giving them the care and attention that they deserve. Instead of just focusing on running, spend time strengthening your legs, particularly your posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, calves). It will help you create stability while you run and help prevent against injuries. Focus on a few low-weight exercises, including these:

  • Squats
  • squats (2)

  • Single-leg deadlifts
  • Single leg deadlift

  • Lunges
  • lunges

  • Step-ups
  • Step Ups

  • Donkey kicks
  • Donkey Kicks

With the right mindset and an effective training regiment, winter is just another season on the calendar for a runner. By taking advantage of what bad weather offers you (a chance to focus on getting stronger and experimenting with new things), you can get the most out of your body even when you can’t get the most out of the road. By following a few of these key principles discussed above, you’ll be one step ahead (or perhaps several) once springtime rolls around.