It’s winter where I live – this is the first time I can say this in my entire life. Unless you consider the New Jersey suburbs of Manhattan as a region that receives a proper winter (I do not), I’ve never lived in a spot that’s had such an extreme season shift as the one I am experiencing now. Part of our motivation for moving our family to the French Alps for a sabbatical year was to experience just that; we knew that we loved these mountains in the summer, but would we keep loving these mountains through the bone-chilling cold, ice, and snow? That was the question that could really only be answered through direct experience . . . but early poll results point to “Yes!”
And so, the days are getting shorter than I’ve experienced before, and the air is getting colder while the snow piles up on our favorite summer trails. Winter is coming and with it a change in the approach to life, fitness, and training. I’ve been taking a “forced break” from training during the month of December for the past several years of running, but this year, for a multitude of reasons, the need for it is even greater than before.
I’ve known that European mountain runners approach training and their race calendar differently than many of us in the United States, but I couldn’t appreciate how different their season really looks from the season of an average runner living in a mild climate location like the Bay Area until moving here. Most of my running friends from Berkeley run all year round – we are fortunate enough to be able to, and especially in dryer years the “winter” sometimes brings the best and clearest running conditions. There are races scheduled 52 weeks out of the year, and one could ostensibly run an ultra at any time in the calendar cycle without driving more than a couple of hours from the house. It’s a privileged life for sure, but it’s also easy to get stuck within a hyper-focused training modality and miss the forest through the trees.
Even the best trail runners in the Alps are never “just” running as the bulk of their training. Sportive life in these mountains is a never-ending mélange of activities; in the summer it’s easy to spend your time trail running, swimming, mountain biking, climbing, hiking, and parapenting, all in the same week. Most inhabitants are really just counting down the days until enough snow falls and the ski season starts, eager to slap on their skins and start climbing real vert in search of winter fitness and fresh powder. I was running in the summer once with a local that took the time to explain to me that he was really only running in July to make sure he was in good shape for SkiMo season in January.
An approach to fitness like this has the intended effect of building a holistically strong mental and physical body over the years. Not only that, but you experience the mountains throughout all of the conditions and seasons, and are more prepared to adapt and survive when the going gets tough during long summer outings and events. I remember reading an interview with the one and only Francois D’Haene where he was asked about his training for an upcoming UTMB. He replied that he was not just trying to get fast or strong with running, but that he was trying to get strong in the mountains, because that’s what it actually took to throw down a blistering fast lap around Mont Blanc. If you watched him run away with the 2021 Hard Rock through a storm at 14,000 feet, then you know that he’s not just a strong runner, but he is just plain tough in the mountains.
This year is also the first full year I’ve been a coach, and it’s been fascinating having an outside perspective on so many athletes and their training cycles throughout the months. I think there’s a common misconception that coaches spend a lot of their time telling runners to run more or to run harder, and in reality we spend most of our time telling runners to run less, take more recovery, and make sure the hard runs really count. I prioritize building in cycles of adaptation and recovery for my athletes throughout the season, and I try to make sure that they are taking a nice long break from the training and racing grind at some point along the way. When we’re deep in training and competition mode, it’s hard to realize how much of a social and mental toll this sport can take on us as well. It’s really important to be able to hit the pause button every so often, look up, and assess your surroundings.
So what should an athlete be doing during this long December if they’re not stacking vert and crossing finish lines like usual? Live a normal life for a bit!! Take time to hang out with your kids and families NOT at a race or event. Give yourself the liberty to eat some extra sweets or pie. Spend some time planning your race calendar for the future, while at the same time not obsessing over running and the plans and logistics for next year. I often tell my athletes to specifically not think about running for a bit (believe me, I know how the hamster wheel in our brains can spin constantly thinking about this stuff). Your mind deserves a break too.
While you’re taking a spin through the normal world for a bit, how’s that strength and cross training regimen going that you’ve been promising to start up since January? Guess what – now’s a perfect time to double down on full body strength and flexibility. You’ve got more time on your hands now that you’re not heading out for hours on the trails, and you can afford to direct some of that to strength and flexibility work. Consider simple exercises like Roche’s Mountain Legs workout, that literally only take five minutes of your day but will produce results by the time you lace up your shoes again. Beat the January yoga rush and head to a studio to try a class (or follow one online) – I still believe that yoga is one of the best activities we runners can do to bolster our efforts on the trail. Push your comfort zone and try some sports that you wouldn’t normally mess with in the build-up to an important spring race. I’ve committed to swimming laps in the local (indoor, heated) pool this winter, and it’s been both a humbling and fortifying endeavor at the same time. Where else can you work cardio and core in such a zero-impact manner?
It’s a scary concept to grapple, but the truth is that pulling yourself out of the running world for even a few weeks will make you that much more eager to jump back in, and make you really appreciate it for what it is. Your friends and family will thank you, and if you do it correctly you’ll emerge even stronger than you were before. It might feel like a long December, but it’s an investment that is sure to pay huge dividends the following year.
Mat is currently living in the shadow of Mont Blanc, taking his own advice and filling up on tartiflette while eagerly waxing his skis for winter. Check out his coaching website at Flowstate Running to learn more about the Flowstate Approach.