In our monthly column in partnership with Strava, we take a deep dive into compelling data points that reveal the more human side of sport.
While summer race goals might feel far off, athletes know winter is an important time to commit to consistency. With new year’s resolutions right around the corner (see our recent column on how to meet your yearly mileage goals), we looked at how the most consistent runners use their winter season to get stronger and faster.
Cross-Training Can Help Athletes Stay Consistent Through the Winter
Consistency is key for progressing training and minimizing injury risk. Staying consistent can help you avoid injury, and avoiding injury helps you stay consistent.
Muscle fiber growth and recruitment is improved with consistent stress and recovery cycles, and you don’t need huge efforts to reap the benefits. Short bouts of running (even just 10-20 minutes a day) can produce adaptations down to a cellular level. Consistency is also critical for aerobic and metabolic adaptations, helping your body more efficiently transport oxygen-rich red blood cells to your muscles via capillaries through increased capillarization, a process known as angiogenesis.
When it comes to winter training, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Twenty to thirty minutes on a treadmill or running in the snow is always better than zero (in the context of good health and recovery).
Suppose your goals are primarily to stay healthy and active through the winter. (While we didn’t assess how cross-training affects fitness or speed, it can be assumed that increased consistency and activity frequency usually correlate with improved speed, fitness, and health.)
In that case, cross-training can be an important part of your winter training regimen. Most runners on Strava don’t just run. Seventy-five percent of runners cross-train in the summer, too, using activities like outdoor cycling, walking and hiking to increase their activity frequency.
Runners who cross-trained in the summer had a 20 percent higher chance of staying active through the winter. Eighty-nine percent of athletes who cross-trained in the summer continued to be active throughout the winter, compared to 74 percent of athletes who didn’t cross-train through the summer and continued to be active in the winter.
Consistent athletes stay consistent through the winter. Twenty-four percent of athletes who run three times a week continue to hit that cadence in the winter, while 58 percent further reduce frequency. Fifty-two percent of athletes who run seven times a week in the summer continue to do so in the winter, with only 48 percent reducing run frequency. Still, half of all committed runners scale back to an extent in the winter, but more on that later when discussing offseasons.
Don’t Fear the Treadmill
While many runners may not be thrilled to take their runs indoors and onto the dreadmill, consistent athletes gravitate towards the treadmill when conditions are tough.
The share of indoor runs doubles from December to February on Strava, with 16 percent of all runs occurring indoors. The treadmill can be a great training tool for athletes, with elites like Elsey Davis logging significant ‘mill time before her Golden Ticket win at UTMB’s Val D’Aran.
According to Strava, winter cross-training also moves indoors, with activities like indoor cycling, strength training, and walking as the most popular cross-training options.
Many Runners Take an ‘Off-Season’
While there’s been much discussion about what constitutes an off-season and the benefits for athletes, Strava data shows that many highly committed and consistent runners take a down-season from higher volume.
Data suggests a modest off-season won’t set reasonably consistent runners back too much, but that athletes who are already running at a moderate to low volume (less than five times a week) should focus on maintaining a base of consistency through the winter rather than rushing to take time off of already low volume.
We’re not saying don’t take time off. Winter can be a great time to emphasize cross-training and strength training and enjoy a new mix of winter sports. But the higher your healthy volume is coming into the winter, the more flexibility athletes have to add additional winter activities into their training without sacrificing fitness. The athletes who have the most success (defined as returning to consistent running come summertime) put themselves in a position to jump back into spring training with a bit of a base.
Ideally, runners shouldn’t need more than a few weeks to get back to their main-season training volume. Swings in training volume increase the risk of injury, and weeks spent “getting back in shape” are less effective at progressing your training forward.
Runners who reduced running volume (defined in average weekly distance) in the winter by 1-10 percent averaged within ten percent of their summer average mileage in spring (March-May). Runners running three times a week in summer who reduced volume in winter by 1-10 percent were still able to put in spring training weeks just seven percent shy on average of their summer mileage.
Usually, this difference is a few miles a week, which is fairly easily re-established. On average, runners who ran five times a week remained within ten percent of their summer average mileage. Runners who reduced volume by 11 to 25 percent were still able to build back effectively in the spring, with three-time-a-week runners only 14 percent behind summer volume and five-time-a-week runners 19 percent behind their summer average.
Runners who reduced volume by 50 percent or more struggled to make up the volume come spring. Three-time-a-week and five-time-a-week runners couldn’t effectively bridge the gap in spring between their winter off-season and summer volume.
In winter, of runners who run three times weekly during the summer, only six percent stop being active altogether, suggesting that many fall back on indoor cross-training activities. Even among athletes from this group who paused running in the winter, 64 percent still logged at least one non-running activity per week. Of runners who average seven runs a week during the summer, there are still low inactivity rates (only eight percent halt activity completely), but only 23 percent of the group average at least one non-run activity a week.
In sum, folks who don’t cross-train don’t have much to fall back on in case of injury or crappy weather, and having a cross-training option that helps you stay active in those scenarios can help you stay more consistent and support your running in the long-term.
Tips For Reaching Your 2024 Mileage Goals
Staying on track for a goal is a tough line to walk. In 2022, 22.8 percent of Strava users who set yearly mileage goals finished within 80 to 90 percent of their goal. So close! Thirteen percent were within 10 percent of their goal. For folks within a stone’s throw of their yearly mileage but didn’t quite make it, here are some data-driven tips to make 2024 your most consistent year of running yet.
- Focus on the hard months. The toughest months to stay on track were November, December, and February (except January, when many people panic-commit to a goal and stay consistent for exactly one month). Focusing on consistency in the tough parts of the year will set you up for year-round success.
- Every bit counts! The median distance for goal completers’ individual runs was 24 percent higher than those who didn’t make it. Yearly goals aren’t achieved with heroic efforts and super-high volume days but through weeks and weeks of easily attainable consistent volume.
- Find a friend. Athletes who ran with other folks in 2022 had a 17 percent higher goal completion rate. We are similar to the folks we surround ourselves with, so surround yourself with stoked goal-getters this year.
- Consistency is key. Folks who met their goal had 15 percent more active days than goal-setters who missed their goals. To quote author Brad Stulberg, “Don’t aim to be consistently great; aim to be great at being consistent.”