Guide to getting faster this winter, without actually running faster.

One of my athletes recently moved from Asia to Switzerland and training in something other than rainforest conditions was a whole new shock to the system. She sends me a beautiful forest trail covered in snow. The caption read, “How do I actually get faster in this?” Some context to the story- she ran a fall marathon and we are using the winter and spring to not only build base but to then switch over and work on getting faster over the 5 and 10k distances before returning to the marathon. The truth is, you can get faster! It might not show up on the stopwatch in January and February (for us northern hemisphere dwellers), but come time to hit the spring racing season, you’ll notice that the efforts are now lining up with much faster splits. Here are six areas to focus on during the winter months to get faster. 

  1. Be consistent in running. I know the holidays can be a tough time. We may miss a day or two for a couple week stretch in December and that is not of a big concern. Overall, we tend to be pretty good. The real problem comes when the amazement of winter snow wears off and a fun jog in fresh powder becomes a slog over icy sidewalks. What once was fun and exciting is now a serious chore. A missed run can turn into two. A fresh snow storm comes and it adds another 1-2 days. It’s easy to miss 4-5 days a week. Once we do it once, it seems to break a threshold, and this happens more often over the rest of the winter. Before you know it, 30-50% of your runs could be missed. Getting faster doesn’t have to mean running faster, but it does mean getting some work in regularly. 

There are a few things to help you with this. Some we will discuss later, but for the context of this area, let’s focus on what’s going to help you be outside. Check out my article on how to dress for the winter. A late addition to the shoes part of this article- there are so many good options here. Things like Ice Spikes, Yak Trax, sheet metal screws, and winter-specific shoes (waterproof and aggressive traction). Not to mention lighting options to help navigate the dark morning or evening runs. 

  1. Get stronger. As we hinted at, getting faster doesn’t always have to mean running a bunch of sprints. It has become well documented that strength training improves running performance. Things like maximal speed, muscular development, neuromuscular development, running economy, and time to exhaustion are all improved. There’s a number of ways to go about this and that’s probably a conversation to have with your coach. However, I will say this, if you don’t do any strength training, don’t go right from zero to olympic lifts/plyos. Work through progressions of learning movements, light weights, and so forth. 
  1. Work on mobility. At its simplest, Speed = Stride length x Stride Frequency. So, if we want to run faster, one, or both of these variables need to be increased. A lot of focus is put on 180 spm, which is debatable. My focus would be this- whatever your stride frequency is, it won’t change a whole lot between your 5k and your marathon pace. The faster you run, the faster the stride frequency will be, but not by crazy amounts. If you follow the Chi method of thought, the focus of your efforts will be on stride length. Without diving down another rabbit hole, I can get on board with this. However, you have to be really careful here as to how you are going about it. A lot of times we just throw that leg out further before smashing our heel into the ground (overstriding). You’ll see this by a significant decrease in stride rate despite an increase in stride length, and you probably will feel like you are working harder to run at the same pace. 

No, where we really want to be is at a place where stride length increases, but the stride rate is about the same. When I look at all the runners I have worked with over the years, and this point, decades, I usually see three common issues that will affect stride length. The first is tight and weak glutes. The second is tight and weak hip flexors. The third is tight (and possibly weak) calf muscles. More importantly, it’s the ankle mobility in general stemming from the achilles and moving into the calf muscles. Sometimes it is in the anterior shin muscles/tendons, too. 

We can go a lot more into these topics, but that would be way beyond this discussion. I also recognize that most of you simply want some actionable steps. 

Overall leg strength 

This is a quick routine from Physiotherapist Brad Beer. Get his book- You too can run pain-free. 

Glute Activation

Coach Nikki’s quick glute activation routine you can do before pretty much any run. 

Dynamic Warm Up

From my friends at Athletics Kinetics

Overall Mobility

I have had two different massage therapists recommend that I do this routine for my tight hip flexors and back. I highly recommend doing it a few times per week. 

  1. Learn Effort over Pace

Here’s a post and video discussing effort vs. pace and how it can help you overcome that feeling that you aren’t getting the work in because the pace doesn’t match up with the effort. 

Winter Speed Workouts: Effort vs Pace

  1. Utilize a treadmill

The treadmill debate can be as hostile as a discussion revolving around politics. Yikes! I used to be hardcore and then I had some pretty nasty falls, saw friends break ribs and get actual frostbite, and for what? Some bragging rights? If you want to do it, that’s up to you, but I have seen just as many people be successful putting in the miles on a treadmill, too. For those who avoid it, a lot of times it’s because they have a hard time running fast on them. I totally get that, especially if on a home-grade treadmill without a wide base and the only thing to catch you is the spare bedroom wall. 

There are ways to get around this and I have done it by manipulating a speed I can be comfortable with running and a grade that I can tolerate. Here is a post I put together a few years ago with a grade conversion calculator to help you out. It’s not perfect, but it makes a big difference. 

Treadmill Running: What’s grade got to do with it? 

Another big advancement is with things like iFit and programs like Zwift and Outside Interactive. These can be great tools in taking your mind off watching the hundredths of miles tick up on a screen. Plus, if you are training for a specific race, you can even get some great visualization of your race without actually doing a course tour. 

  1. Get in a group

Misery loves company… maybe. But, having accountability partners is even better. Finding a running group can help you get out the door. Admittedly, it’s a lot easier for the three other seasons in finding training partners, but use those same connections to see if anyone is willing to meet up. You never know, they might be in the same boat as you and just waiting for someone else to get the ball rolling. Check out sites like www.usatf.org and www.rrca.org for running clubs in your area. Another option is checking out the Strava. See what groups are in your area and reach out. It’s a good way to see if a group would have the people in your pace range to be a good fit for you. 

  1. Gear 

Obviously, you want to dress the part, but that’s not the purpose of this post. Shoes, however, have come a long way. We can thank the ultra and trail running boom for a plethora of shoes built to grip but aren’t as comfortable as cinder blocks. 

Two shoes I really like are the Brooks Catamount for workouts. As coach Mike says, “They are pretty much the tempos with traction.” What a world we live in where we can play a performance-based trail shoe! 

For everyday running, I have always used the Cascadia or the Brooks Adrenaline GTX, but the GTX doesn’t look like it’s available anymore. I am personally looking into the Brooks Divide series. It doesn’t have the waterproof feature, but the tread is way more aggressive. Besides, one step into snow above the ankle and the waterproof feature is pretty much null. 

There you have it, six ways you can enhance your running this winter to make you run faster, and not a single one actually involves running faster. Which ones do you use? What areas do you see as being of benefit to your situation?

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