For a long time I used to dread this time of year, and for pretty good reason. Winter is cold and dark. It’s hard to stir up motivation to be social; watching Netflix and ordering in soup dumplings becomes far more appealing than bundling up and hailing taxis in the snow. Despite the intentions of New Year’s resolutions, it’s also historically been a prime time for me to pack on a few pounds. Forget the crisp salads of summer, my body craves richer, more comforting foods. It’s also harder to get out of bed in the dark and get to the gym or pile on all the layers required to exercise outdoors. Most people I talk to agree that bears really have it right–hibernation during these months is really the way to go.
After years of battling a bit of seasonal depression, I think I’ve finally turned this hibernation theory on it’s head. I’ve found some genuine love for January, February, and March. When I first started writing this I was tempted to say that this has become one of my favorite times of year. That’s bullshit. I can’t lie–summer is my front runner and spring and fall have an almost endless number of great things going for them. Still, there is something awesome that I think the winter season has that sets it apart from the others: a lack of expectations. We don’t look for many breakthroughs or big triumphs when it’s cold; many of us are just trying to get by. I think that makes a great setting for unexpected progress.
I love working out really hard in the winter because it almost feels like I am doing it in secret. I’m not out running races. I wear hoodies and baggy sweaters everyday. I walk around outside in a huge black puffer coat. I draw little to no attention to myself. For a tall, big-haired woman living in a big city, it’s a welcome respite to travel under the radar. By the time spring comes, I feel like I’ve had enough time in my cocoon to emerge and be seen.
My workouts so far this year have not just been hard on the intensity level–it’s really been all about the details. I’ve decided to strip all three things I do–yoga, strength training, and running, down to the studs, and build them back up in the most optimal way that I can. Winter is the perfect time to get into the nitty gritty and work on form and rehabbing injuries or bothersome areas. When the warmer months come, I’m hoping my body will be running like a well-oiled machine. Perhaps it will even be game for a performance or two.
I tell everyone who asks, my favorite times to practice Bikram yoga are the winter and the summer. In the summer I am already fairly warmed up when I get into class, so I can carefully push my flexibility. It’s a great time to discover what I am capable of and realize the falseness of many of the limits I had set for myself. It’s also a great way to adjust to summer temperatures. While everyone else is “dying” when it’s 90 degrees, I’m perfectly comfortable.
The winter is great for hot yoga as well. Obviously, it feels amazing to drop all the heavy layers and get into a toasty room. Since the frigid temperatures outside do not allow my body immediate flexibility like the warm temperatures of the summer do, I’ve taken to focusing more on strength and alignment. While running the marathon was fantastic for me mentally, it was really hard on my body. I’m incredibly impressed by all the people who ran a fall marathon like I did, and are now already in training for something in the spring. That’s just not how I’m built. I’ve got big heavy bones and ample hips, and the repetitive pounding on the concrete for really long distances is not what my body wants 12 months out of the year.
My right hamstring is something that’s bothered me for years. What’s been sort of cool is that the past few weeks, I’ve made a few discoveries about it. I’ve always known that my left hamstring was much more flexible than the right. Now I’ve come to realize that my left side is also much stronger and is constantly compensating for my right side. In almost all of my postures, I’m making adjustments that are throwing my body out of alignment. This winter is all about getting in balance. This has meant that for now, I am not going nearly as deep into many postures as I normally would. I’ve sacrificed balance for depth for too long. All that depth–all that looking like I’m going really far into the postures is not worth anything if it’s throwing my body out of alignment and only strengthening one side. Now I’m performing something as simple as a sit-up, and noticing a dramatic difference when I slow down and make sure I’m using my entire abdomen to pull myself up, not just my left side. Needless to say there’s been a lot of “Oh, that’s what that’s supposed to feel like” moments in the past few weeks.
While I was dedicated to maintaining my strength training during marathon training, I definitely did not make any new strides. Lifting during that time was really all about staying injury free. I learned a few years ago that I really needed to strengthen my hips and my quads if my knees were going to withstand all the miles I wanted to put on them. All that has worked swimmingly, but I’m anxious to get back to a more focused program. My hubs and I were looking at photos from our 2016 summer holiday a few weeks ago, and they really made me miss my body from that time. I was strong and lean (for me), and my metabolism was working super efficiently. I think strong means different things for different people. While my aerobic endurance was great running long distances and my mental stamina was through the roof–it’s not the type of strength my body really thrives on. I like building muscle. I like gradually being able to lift heavier weights. I like banging out push-ups like it’s nothing. When I look at the pics below all I think about is how comfortable I felt in my skin, inside and out. I felt like me. While my insides still feel pretty great, I’m anxious to get back to having the outsides match. For me this means pushing running out as the focal point of my fitness, and sliding strength training in.
Just like my yoga practice needs some focus on form and realignment, so does my lifting. For the moment I am forgoing making huge gains and progressing with weight, until I’ve made sure I’m performing each exercise correctly and am actually targeting the area I’ve meant to. Right now this means I’m often getting in less reps than I’d normally like to due to time. However I think the attention to detail is going to pay off quickly. The past two weeks I’ve had that really good sore feeling on my rest day after lifting–the kind where you know things are actually changing!
I’ve officially taken it inside for the winter. I bought a new winter running jacket a couple months ago only to realize my body no longer has the desire to run outside in anything under 40 degrees. It’s funny, I’ve been running in extreme cold for years. Now suddenly, I think after running the marathon, I don’t really feel like I’ve got anything to prove anymore. In fact if there is anything the marathon taught me, it’s that the distance doesn’t make me a runner. It’s my desire, love, and my dedication to the sport that qualify me. I’m excited to run in 2018, and to write about it as a person who no longer has a huge goal to work towards.
I definitely am looking to get faster this year and I think that ties in nicely with my desire to get stronger and even a bit more lean. Right now I’m running 3 days a week and keeping the total mileage at 15 miles or under. I’m running intervals on all three runs and even adding a mile or so of intense incline walking at the end of my “long” run on Sundays. It feels great. One thing I love about running shorter distances is that it allows me to run on “empty” and really helps me burn fat more efficiently. It’s tough for me to slim down running long distances because of the way they require me to fuel my body. While I am sure I took in far less carbohydrate than most runners do during marathon training, it was still way more than my body prefers. For now I’m thrilled to be taking a break from the gels and the chews. I’ve even cut out coconut water and my morning banana, which had become an almost daily hydrating/electrolyte necessity, and seemed to contribute to my fuel stores. Getting back to running without sugar has been difficult, but I know it’s what I want my “normal” to be, so I’m happily struggling through it.
Right now I am averaging somewhere between a 9 and 10 minute mile pace (closer to that 10 minute mark) on all my runs. I plan on staying in that range for all of January as I slowly build up my fitness. As these winter months progress, I hope to start shaving those averages down. I would like to eventually race a 5k in the low to mid 8 minute range. In 2016 I was doing this easily on the treadmill, but I’ve never been able to race on the road at the pace. I’m looking forward to putting in the work that will help me meet that challenge this year.
How is everyone else handling these winter months? Do you feel like your fitness is declining or amping up? Anyone else going back to the basics like me? Anyone trying something completely different than their normal routine? How about all of you training for Spring marathons–how’s the winter running comparing with the training you did in the summer? Anyone taking a complete break from running this winter? I’ve never done that–curious how it feels!