This is a preview article from the Dec 2020 / Jan 2021 issue of UltraRunning Magazine. Not a subscriber? Please consider becoming one

Winter Workouts

By: Jason Koop

Let’s face it, the days are getting shorter and colder. Runners everywhere are digging out their headlamps from the far corners of their gear bins. We search for the rechargeable battery pack and then the odd charging connector that only fits that particular type of headlamp. Now that you’ve found a way to light the path, it’s onto the stuff that will keep you warm, starting with gloves. And not just any gloves, the perfect pair of gloves. No, not the slightly-thicker-than-medium ones, but the windproof mitten that goes over your fingers (because it’s colder than medium thick) and the capacitive fabric over the index finger (because, Instagram). You fumble through the random drawer containing all of your winter odds and ends, which include no less than 8 Buffs, 4 hats, 3 neck gaiters (yes, those are all different), 3 masks (a must-have accessory in 2020) and a vanilla GU from 2006. Seven mismatched pairs of gloves later, you find the ones you are looking for. Now it’s on to the jacket. And then the tights. And finally, a hat. All of which have not seen the outside of your dresser in the last nine months. Oops, too late. This dance of the forgotten winter accessories has now cost you an hour and you’ve run out of time.

The truth is, any of those gloves would have done the job. And yes, a Buff can serve as a neck gaiter and vice versa. But, for runners everywhere, this annual gear shuffle is another rite of passage postponing the inevitable. You are going to be shuffling through an LED-illuminated corridor for the foreseeable future.

Winter workouts are some of the most important. They set the tone for your big, audacious summer goals. And, with the haphazard racing schedule of 2020, my guess is that most of this readership is a bit further behind the fitness eight-ball as compared to normal years. And all of that is fine, as long as you get back on the training horse now while it’s dark, cold, and lit with a headlamp (i.e., now). Winter is also a good time to work on your weaknesses, as you have plenty of time to develop in these areas. For many runners, this is steep technical running and speed. Here are a couple of my favorites that are motivating and perfect for this time of year.

Find the Steep

Steep and technical running has been the bane of many an ultrarunner’s existence. The funny thing is, many runners have some steep and technical terrain that is readily accessible, they just under-utilize it. So, go and find the steepest hill nearby which should take you at least over a full minute to tackle. The workout is simple: warm up (more on that later) and run up the hill as hard as you can for one to two minutes, then jog easy back down. Pick your stopping point by choosing a landmark that you can easily identify the next time around (like a rock you have a particular affinity for, or that tree branch you almost always hit your head on). Your goal is to make it to that exact landmark in the same amount of time for the entire set of intervals. Your effort level on each uphill should be maximum – a 10 out of 10 – so you are running as hard as you can. Accumulate 12-18 minutes of uphill time in however many intervals it takes (usually 8-10). Cool down for at least 20 minutes.

If you have a particularly technical uphill you can do these on, that’s great. This workout will force you to focus on foot placement as any missteps will be exaggerated by your effort. Because of the technical nature of the trail, you might not get as big of an aerobic benefit as you would otherwise, but that’s OK. If your uphill is less technical, that’s fine too. The speed and effort will exaggerate the technicality of the trail so you will still likely get some benefit.

The Need for Speed

I get it, ultrarunning is slow. But that shouldn’t stop you from doing speed workouts every so often, particularly in the winter. Because this time of year is so far away from most summer races and objectives, it’s a perfect time to work on some good old fashioned foot speed. Don’t worry, you will have plenty of time to slog it out and do your ultra-shuffle, back-to-back long runs later in the year.

Speed work starts and ends with one goal: run faster.

I know it sounds trite, but all too often I see speed workouts that are designed with something other than speed as the ultimate goal. This is often the case when the rest is too short, there are too many intervals, or the intervals are too long to derive any speed benefits (or some combination of all of the above). The end result is that while you might be running faster than you normally would, you are still not developing speed to its fullest potential. So, before you engage in any true, meaningful speedwork, remember that you will be going really fast for a short amount of time (by ultrarunning standards), then giving yourself copious amounts of rest before the next interval.

These workouts can be done 1-2 times per week. I usually prescribe them with 1-2 days of recovery in between workouts. While they look simple on the surface and contain relatively little hard work, they will pack a punch. So make sure you give them the proper respect with a thorough warm-up, and one or two easy days until the next hard workout.


Steep Uphill Intervals

  1. Find an uphill with more than 10% grade. Preferably one that is rocky and technical.
  2. Warm up
  3. Run up the hill as hard as you can for anywhere between 1-2 minutes. Remember your stopping point.
  4. Run back down easy
  5. Repeat until you have accumulated 12-18 minutes of uphill time
  6. Cool down

Speed Workouts
8 × 200 If you have access to a track, you might as well use it, as the track is just about the fastest surface you can run on. After a thorough warm-up, do 8 Σ 200 meter repeats with 3-4 minutes recovery (either walking or very easy running). Yes, that much recovery. Run the 200s as fast as you possibly can for each interval. All you need are 8 intervals (10 if you are a very experienced runner) for a whopping one mile of work. It does not look like much, but remember that speed is the name of the game.

8 × 30 seconds If you don’t have access to a track, you can do this on a flat section of road or bike path by doing 8 repeats of 30 seconds hard, 3 minutes easy. While you might be able to run slightly faster using a moderate section of downhill road or path, it’s usually not worth it because of the increase in injury risk. In reality, you can contrive this speed work in a variety of ways as long as the interval length is 15-40 seconds, the total amount of interval work is 3-6 minutes, the recovery between intervals is 5-8 times the duration of the interval (3 minutes recovery for a 30-second interval, for example) and you run as fast as you can for each interval.


The Proper Warm-Up

Both of these workouts require a bit more attention to your warm-up than you are likely used to. Fortunately, you can spare some time as these workouts are relatively short. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Run easy for 15-20 minutes
  2. Perform 10 leg swings front to back and 10 leg swings side-to-side (each leg). Repeat 2 additional times.
  3. 10 seconds skipping, repeat 2 additional times
  4. 10 seconds fast high knees, repeat 2 additional times
  5. 6x20 seconds running strides. Gradually speed up during the course of the 20 seconds. Rest 1-2 minutes.
  6. Go do your workout!