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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Find out more about the British Sailing Team
This article is written by nutrition professionals, and is aimed at nutritionists and athletes. It is not intended to replace advice from your own doctor or nutritionist. Please consult a professional before trying supplements.