Winter Training Prepare Spring Marathon 02042 700x394

Winter Training To Prepare for a Spring Marathon

BY Ryan Bolton

If you have a spring marathon on your race calendar, how you train through the winter can make the difference. Use these tips and workouts from coach Ryan Bolton to stay on track to reach your goals.

Longer days and warmer temperatures are just around the corner, and according to certain weather predicting ground hog, spring is coming early this year. However, many of you, especially those with a spring marathon on your race calendar, are in pretty big training cycles right now while still in the dead of winter. Yes, some of you live in year round warm climes, but many of you don’t have that luxury. Therefore, you need tools to help you get through these last final days of winter weather when training is getting very important.

First, I want to clarify a few things. Cold weather training is certainly doable, and even advised. Yes, braving the sub zero cold is likely getting a bit old by now, but sometimes it just has to be done. The cold air won’t “freeze your lungs” or give you a cold. You won’t die, just cover up. What can get damaged is your skin. If you live in a really cold climates, it’s imperative to cover your skin properly. Anything left open to the air can get frostbite. The first 10 minutes of the run may feel cold, but if dressed properly you will quickly create your own little micro climate and have a relatively enjoyable training session.

A Fine Line Between Brains and Brawn

One of my least favorite old school coach quotes is, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”. That’s total bull and best saved for movies and your high school football coach. My college coach used to say “there’s a fine line between tough and stupid”. We’ve all been there….don’t be that guy. There are times when you need to make that judgment call that shows you do have some brains to go with your brawn. When your footing is bad, the windchill is well below zero, or you just can’t get yourself out the door, you need to find an alternative. An injury from slipping on the ice or frostbite on your nose are sure signs of crossing the line.

When the conditions are too extreme or when you do need a break from the depths of winter, the following tips and workouts can help get you to you spring race in peak shape.

Training Camps

When the weather outside is frightful, you can leave. Training camps in nicer climates are a really great way to cure the winter blues. This takes planning and a budget, but I highly advise this option, especially if you have big spring marathon goals. Every year, I plan multiple winter training camps for both my age group and elite athletes. It gives them something to look forward to, something to train for, and much need sunshine for their pasty white legs.

If you are on a budget, avoid a structured training camp and do your own thing. Book a ticket or fill up with a tank or two of gas and head south. Since training is the main focus, your accommodations can be cheap and simple. Your room is going to be a place to sleep, so you don’t need anything fancy. Live like you did in college; on energy bars and corn tortillas. Hey, it’s training camp, so your training should be the focus.

If you want a bit more lush accommodations or need more structure and a good environment, attend a training camp that is put on by a reputable coaching group. There are many, many options to choose from, with budgets ranging from dirt bag to luxury. Pick your poison and commit. As mentioned above, this takes some planning and preparation, but once committed, you’ll be glad you did.

Treadmill Workouts

It may be a bit of a cliché, but the treadmill can be really good for you and a nice alternative to outdoor running. It’s a stable surface with no interruptions and can do what you tell it to. Boring? It can be, but the following are three workouts that will keep your mind happy and body fit when running outside just doesn’t seem like a very good idea:

1. Pyramid Threshold Hills

This is a great workout to work on strength and threshold. It’s also a relatively long workout (it can be modified to be shorter), thus allowing for some good aerobic work hitting both your aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. Running for 1:20 on a treadmill may be a long time, but sometimes that’s necessary.

Start with a 15 minute warm up in heart rate zones 1 and 2. Then, set the treadmill to a 1.5% grade and a pace that will allow you to be in low zone 3 heart rate and do the following pyramid:

  • 1 minute at 6%, 1 minute at 1.5%
  • 2 minutes at 5.5%, 2 minutes at 1.5%
  • 3 minutes at 5%, 3 minutes at 1.5%
  • 4 minutes at 4.5%, 4 minutes at 1.5%
  • 5 minutes at 4%, 5 minutes at 1.5%
  • 4 minutes at 4.5%, 4 minutes at 1.5%
  • 3 minutes at 5%, 3 minutes at 1.5%
  • 2 minutes at 5.5%, 2 minutes at 1.5%
  • 1 minute at 6%, 1 minute at 1.5%

Remember, your speed should not change at all during this run, adjust the grade only. This is 50 full minutes of solid running, with 25 of it likely near threshold. Finish with a 15 minute cool down.

2. Neuromuscular/Turnover Work

A shorter workout, this develops leg turnover and acceleration speed. The really nice thing about this session is that it won’t take a lot out of you, but it will provide some nice benefits to turnover and to develop neuromuscular pathways.

Run for 10 minutes in heart rate zones 1 and 2. Then, run 40 minutes straight with a jump in speed to 90% maximum effort every 4 minutes for 15 seconds. Ramp up the speed, hold, then bring it back down to the 2 zone range (3:45 at zone 2, :15 acceleration x 10). Focus on good form and relaxing during the accelerations. Run easy for 10 minutes to cool down.

A key point with this workout is to retain perfect form while doing the “spurts”. It’s necessary to develop a map for your body to run fast and hold form. This workout can be made shorter by doing less intervals. However, do not cut the “down” time between the accelerations. This should always be three plus minutes.

3. On/Off Fartlek

This is a traditional fartlek workout, done on a treadmill, that works muscular endurance. Depending on race goals and current fitness level, the total duration and/or amount of intervals can be adjusted to range from 6 to 15 times through.

Perform a 10 minute warm up. Then, run 1:30 “on”, 1:30 “off” x 15 for a total of 45 minutes. The on portion should be in heart rate zone 4. A good pace goal is 110% of marathon race pace. The off parts should be 1:30 per mile slower than the on sections. It is very important to not run too slowly during the offs. Pay close attention to this and don’t let yourself slack. Finish with 10 minutes of easy running to cool down.

As fitness progresses, ramp up the amount of intervals (up to 15), not the time and/or recovery period. If using pace as a guide, go off current fitness race goal pace, which may be different than actual goal pace.

Adventure Workouts

Where I went to college, sometimes it was so windy and cold outside that we had to seek shelter in some form on basic aerobic run days. Therefore, we did “alley” runs. It wasn’t the best option possible, but with the inclement weather, it was certainly better than nothing.

Instead of running a traditional route, we would run up and down the alleys throughout town. Ultimately, it ended up being a fun thing that we would have to resort to on occasion, and we were building fitness in the process. Your city may not have alleys, but the point is at times of compromise, come up with something fun and inventive to get in your running time. Time and pace are less important on these days, with the main goal of getting in necessary aerobic work when your other, more normal options, aren’t available due to wind, cold, snow, or ice.

Another “adventure” workout favorite of mine is to either explore a new neighborhood or check out a new trail. Once again, your pace will likely be down when “exploring” like this, but you are still getting key aerobic base building while running in zone 2. Select a route that will take you by a new restaurant that you want to check out, run by the car dealer that has your dream car in the lot, go see where that left turn you never take on your usual trail takes you. Basically, get out and get it done while keeping the mind fresh. Like most runners, you probably get stuck in your normal routes and ruts. Use these days to liven things up a bit and break the monotony of winter.

Cross Train

I’m a huge advocate of strength training for runners. Not only is this a great time to be putting in strength sessions, it’s also an easy alternative with the relatively short days. Plan your strength sessions to take place when running isn’t doable, in the evening or early morning.

You can also take advantage of the snowy weather by getting out to snowshoe, cross-country ski, downhill ski, etc. All of these activities are very good for different parts of fitness. Snowshoeing can build aerobic base fitness while cross-country skiing can work threshold and beyond. If you haven’t tried cross-country skiing, believe me, it’s tough stuff. Downhill skiing or snowboarding is a really great strength workout and can work the lungs a bit too. The important thing when implementing snow sport activities is to be safe and stay injury free while also getting fit.

Missing or Skipping a Workout

There are times that you will just have to skip a workout. This is not the end of the world and will likely have no effect on how well you run in your big race coming up. Athletes that I work with, especially the elites, miss workouts on occasion. Whether it’s due to laziness, being tired, bad conditions, etc., it just happens sometimes, and that’s OK. As long as it’s doesn’t become habit, missing a key session every once in awhile is fine, and in fact, human.

Whether you have a specific goal time you want to hit, or just want to finish your first marathon, taking steps now is critical to your future success. Take a trip, use the treadmill, or use alternative training methods to stay on track.

Avatar1501791502 7
About Ryan Bolton

Ryan Bolton is the Founder/Director/Head Coach of Bolton Endurance Sports Training (B.E.S.T.) and The Harmabee Project based in Santa Fe, NM. He is also an elite level coach with Training Bible Coaching. After a successful college running career that included All-American and Academic All-American honors, Bolton became a professional triathlete with a sole focus of competing in the Olympic Games. In 2000, Ryan represented the United States in the Sydney Olympics and then went on to compete at a top level in long course triathlon racing. In 2004, Bolton received an MS in Human Nutrition, with an emphasis on stress metabolism in 2006. Combined with his BA in Exercise physiology and long term background in endurance sports, this education provided Ryan with a perfect background for top level coaching. To contact Ryan, email him at, and follow him on Twitter @CoachRyanBolton.