Running in the fall and winter months can take on several different forms. The best strategy really depends on what your upcoming year will look like in terms of key races and the timing of those races. The first and most important step is to figure out your goals for the upcoming season and work backwards. This will help you decide the best course of action for your fall running plans. Here are four different strategies to consider.
The first strategy is to give the rigours of regular structured running a break. If you have just finished a season of racing, now might be the time to relinquish some of the structure you are used to and simply run without too much specificity. The fall months are an amazing opportunity to get off the beaten path and into some unexplored territory. Instead of hitting the pavement, hit the trails. Forget about pace for a while and run on feel. Let the terrain dictate your effort. If it’s flat it’s easier, if it’s hilly it’s harder. Some light parameters are a good thing like weekly mileage or time goals, as long as it’s progressive.
One of the key considerations, if this option is the best fit, is to make sure you still include a small amount of training at higher intensities. This can be as simple as including some strides at the end of a run. A stride is simply a 60 to 80 m acceleration up to roughly 5 km race pace or faster. You only need to do five to 10 of them a few times per week. They are a great way to stay in touch with increased leg turnover and will make the transition back to more structured workouts a great deal easier.
The second strategy is to use this time as a run focus. As the days get shorter and the weather cools off, the outside conditions are usually less conducive to bike riding, but very conducive to running. Dedicating a block of training that leans more heavily on running in the fall months can pay huge dividends in the coming season, particularly if running is not your strength. The best approach is a progressive program that targets and puts pressure on your two primary thresholds (ventilatory and lactate). Two high intensity workouts in the week are enough and they should be separated by at least 48 hours. One of the workouts can include intervals of 2 to 5 minutes and should be at an intensity at or higher than your lactate threshold (roughly 80 to 90 per cent). You only need to do 15 to 20 minutes of work at this intensity to get a benefit. The work to rest ratio should be 1:1.
The second workout can include longer intervals in the 8- to 20-minute range and can be just below your second or lactate threshold. These are often referred to as tempo runs and the time spent at intensity should be in the 20- to 40minute range. The work to rest ratio can be 2:1.
Outside of the two higher intensity runs you can focus on gradually increasing your overall run volume at lower intensities, or down around your first ventilatory threshold (roughly 65-70%). A great addition to this strategy is to include some fall running races. Racing is one of the most effective ways to apply stress and stretch your current ability.
The third strategy is relevant if you are racing early in the new year. In this case you will need to be more specific with your run training as you come closer to the race. Unless the early season race is very low on your priority list then it’s better to consider the big picture and train within the context of your more important race dates.
The fourth and often overlooked strategy is to include some running stimulus in your program that is different to what you normally do throughout the year. For example, if you are primarily focused on full-distance racing, the fall can be a great time to incorporate a block of higher intensity running. This can include one or two interval sessions during the week where you apply training stress in and around your second or lactate threshold. It can also include some running races in the 5- to 15-km range.
Likewise, if you are primarily focused on short distance racing throughout the year, the fall might be a great time to add some volume to your program, especially if you have had a full race season where the longer training runs and rides have been neglected. Increases in volume should always be progressive so your body has time to adapt to the increases in impact load.
The body often responds well to new stimulus. It challenges you in a different way and this can lead to significant increases in performance. Stepping out of your comfort zone is important if you want to keep improving. Changing stimulus has the added benefit of providing a mental break from the usual grind.
The fall months present an opportunity for huge running gains but it’s not a one-size-fitsall approach. The most important thing you can do is figure out which of these scenarios applies to you. Perhaps the biggest opportunity is that you usually have time and space to change stimulus and apply new training stress loads to your body. Stressing your running in a different way will often help you improve overall and it also provides a nice mental break.
Former Ironman Canada champion Jasper Blake is the head coach at B78 Coaching.