British Sailing Team Physiologist Ian White advises on how to maximise your training during winter and reap the rewards next spring.
The weather is getting worse, daylight hours are shortening, and the temperature is dropping; not ideal conditions for optimising training. The winter months are, however, key to the year ahead: a time when you can focus on training without the stresses of competition, and instil the learnings from the previous season.
Here I hope to provide useful tips on how to maximise the winter months and reap the rewards next spring.
1. Set clear objectives
The autumn period offers a great opportunity to reflect on the previous year, taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of training and competition performance.
Once you have completed a thorough review you can start setting targets for the year ahead, preferably with another person who can check and challenge your thought process. A mix of small short-term and larger long-term goals will support motivation across the winter, when it is easy to become lost as to why you are training.
The next bit is important, and is often where things can go wrong. A review process will highlight some physical gaps and areas to improve, but this doesn't mean that you suddenly flip the entire training process.
There are some fundamental training principles to focus on across the winter, in which priority areas can then be intertwined to individualise and maximise the outcome for yourself. A plan should allow gradual progression of training load, with blocks of time prioritising identified physical gaps.
2. Be flexible
At the start of the week, write down your overarching goal. Look at the week's forecast and consider how you will adapt to different scenarios.
Now you have a plan, see it as a direction of travel as opposed to a rigid blueprint. I always advocate for flexibility in training structure that adapts to incoming information, and the winter months throw up more variables than normal that need to be managed.
Setting overarching objectives for a training week allows you to be flexible when it comes to upcoming bad weather. There is no point completing your long session outdoors in the middle of a storm and hitting the gym on a sunny day.
Work on creating a balance between having a 'plan A' structure and being flexible to the forecast for the week ahead. Having overarching aims, as opposed to must-achieve sessions, prevents you chasing a session that isn't appropriate for that time. This includes being happy to cut a session short if conditions become dangerous, or to maximise a beautiful winter's day.
3. Keep it interesting
Write a list of different ways to achieve your goal, for example base endurance qualities. Consider what exercise would achieve the goal whilst adding fun and variety in across winter.
Building training volume as the weather worsens and light diminishes can be demotivating compared to the summer months. Rather than fighting this, use it as an opportunity to have some freedom with training. Whilst specificity is an important element of training, it is much less important over the winter months as you build foundations of work as opposed to readying the body for competition.
Add in elements of cross-training that you enjoy, adding variety to the training process. Many world-leading athletes will add different forms of training across the winter to build general physical qualities. Consider what may be fun within the winter months, while still adding a training stimulus, such as switching over to a mountain bike on muddy trails rather than clocking up miles on the wet or icy road.
How to minimise injury and illness risk
The first principle and priority within training should be to maximise consistency. Unfortunately, the winter months create a higher risk of injury and illness (if not managed well) that can drastically impact training consistency and physical outcome.
The most important priority is to stay safe. A lack of light, a drop in temperature and bad weather lead to an increased risk across a variety of sports.
- Invest in clothing to keep you warm and dry and ensure your equipment is winter-ready. Make sure you are visible, whether it's lights on your bike or high-visibility clothing.
- Stay within your limits and err on the side of caution. Consider what conditions are too risky, or what safety procedures you need in place.
- Train with other people if possible and let others know your route.
The winter months place greater stress on the body, and importantly the immune system, with the prevalence of upper respiratory symptoms increasing. Best practice within this area sits in the often-overlooked area of doing the basics well:
- Maximise rest between sessions. During the winter there is a tendency to cram everything in during daylight hours. Consider what sessions could be done in the morning or evening (gym, indoor training) to maximise rest and recovery.
- Get 8-10 hours of sleep a night. Adequate sleep will support immune function, as well as supporting adaptation to training.
- Minimise stress outside of training (often the most difficult). Remember stress is not just physical; all life stresses add up and increase the risk of illness.
- Fuel for the training ahead. Get the right balance of energy for the work you are completing and a balance of carbohydrate, protein and fats. Calorie restriction and minimising carbohydrate intake is a major risk factor for illness during heavy training, and therefore should be balanced carefully if implemented for a specific goal.
- Fill up on fruit and vegetables, focusing on a variety of colours and sources. Lots of colourful fruit is great, along with classic winter leafy vegetables providing vitamins and minerals to support a whole host of health-related functions.
Winter training supplements
Along with doing the basics well, some supplements can be considered to support a balanced diet in maximising immune function during heavy training and higher risk periods.
- Vitamin D: An essential vitamin known to influence several aspects of immune function. Skin exposure to sunlight accounts for 90% of vitamin D, and there is evidence of deficiency in some athletes and the general public across the winter months, with an associated increased risk of upper respiratory symptoms.
- Probiotics: Live micro-organisms that when consumed over several weeks can increase beneficial bacteria numbers in the gut. Consumption has been associated with various gut health benefits, along with reductions in upper respiratory symptoms.
- Vitamin C: An essential vitamin that reduces oxidative stress and supports immune function, with evidence showing a reduction in symptom incidence during heavy exercise. There is a possibility of reducing training adaptation response, therefore it should be considered during high-risk training periods.
- Zinc: An essential mineral involved in several immune functions. There is no evidence supporting zinc preventing upper respiratory symptoms (high doses may in fact decrease immune function), but evidence supports use as a treatment when symptomatic to reduce symptom duration.
See the opportunity
Rather than seeing winter as a difficult time to train, see it as an opportunity to lay down the physical foundations for the year ahead and prioritise development of identified gaps. Set clear objectives for the winter period but allow flexibility in your application, working with the weather rather than against it.
With competition far away, allow variety into the training process, increasing interest and motivation. To maximise progression, prioritise consistency, and do the basics well to minimise risk of injury and illness. Optimise the winter ahead and reap the rewards as you move into the spring with the physical foundations translating into better performance.
Ian White is a physiologist for the British Sailing Team and the English Institute of Sport, supporting sailors towards the Tokyo Olympics.