Training During Illinois Winters: Part 2

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Craig Virgin, Guest Blog Writer

Last week I discussed creative solutions to adapt your running training outside during the cold wintery months here in the Midwest. It can still be done on most days. However, there are times (like the recent Polar Vortex!) when either the outside temperature, wind chill, or road surface conditions just make running outside either impossible or very unwise. That is when it pays to move your training indoors. I want to discuss indoor cross-training in this week’s CCIM blog post.

Nowadays there are many workout gyms or clubs in the C-U area to join or purchase a daily pass to. If you do so, you may decide to hop on an indoor treadmill to run and that is only natural if you are training for one of the CCIM race weekend events. Just be cautious to first read and understand the control panel instructions for proper operation. Start out walking or jogging slowly before picking up to your desired running speed once you are warmed up and feeling loose and confident. Running or jogging on a treadmill is much like outdoor training but it does feel a little bit different. Be careful until you totally adapt to the new “running technique” on the moving belt.

Seven to 10 MPH is probably your top desired speed, and I would suggest starting out “flat” and not doing more than a half to three-degree incline at most during the workout. It is okay to listen to an audio book or music through earbuds but be careful if you watch TV while on a treadmill. It is easy to stare upwards and lose your concentration and proper location on the moving belt with TV. If you get off the “sweet spot,” then the treadmill can throw you off the back… just like George Jetson on that old Jetson’s TV cartoon show!

Keep a water bottle and a small hand towel ready to dry your face and neck during the workout as one can sweat like crazy while running indoors. Setting up a small portable fan to blow air on you while on the treadmill also is helpful… if the fitness center will allow. There is usually a built-in heart rate monitor hand grip on most treadmills today. I find that I can easily get my heart rate up to 130 to160 BPM on the treadmill, just like outside running.

Or, you can also choose to cross-train with another indoor aerobic activity that can be lower impact and give your legs and joints a break for the day. My favorite indoor low-impact aerobic exercise after running is the elliptical machine. Choose a model that works both the arms as well as the legs for a higher heart rate. Find a unit that has a fairly long stride, as that is more like running. I personally like the Cybex Arc Trainer the best because it allows me to set the machine to also lift my knees higher, which is more like “real running.” But there are certainly other brands that work well, too. Try several until you find one that you are comfortable and happy with.

I would suggest starting out with the manual mode operation against the most resistance level that allows you to still comfortably maintain ideal leg speed/tempo for your desired fitness level over 20 to 60 minutes. Or, you can choose a built-in computer program that mixes up the pace or resistance for you. Just react to the automatic changes during the workout! Many of the elliptical machines have a built-in heart rate monitor via a hand-hold plate that will give you a heart rate measurement that is maybe not perfect but “good enough for government work.” I find elliptical machines can get me to 120 to 140 BMP during most of my workouts.

Another of my training secrets is to alternate going forward and backward every five minutes. This approach works slightly different leg muscle groups and keeps me fresher mentally, which makes the workout go faster. It also works both the quads and hamstrings equally, which is good for the knees! I have had several physical therapists recommend this method to me and it works. Watch your HR monitor and you will see that your heart will probably beat faster going backward than forward! Also, you can also certainly watch TV easier and safer on an elliptical machine because you are holding onto something and can’t really fall off when distracted!

Another good indoor aerobic training tool is the indoor bike, either the upright or recumbent style. They even have cycling/spinning classes at many fitness centers now with instructors that will put you through a hard 45- to 60-minute workout at varying paces, both sitting and standing, or you can ride on one by yourself in manual mode and just peddle away listening to music or watching TV for as long and hard as you wish. I find I can safely watch TV while on the bike. Just make sure you get your seat height correct for proper knee angle while pedaling hard. Again, if your selected indoor cycle will allow you to pedal both forward and backward, then alternate direction every five to 10 minutes or so to work the opposing mid-leg muscle groups. It will make the time pass by faster and you’ll notice stronger feeling legs and walk more stable afterward.

Finally, you may also have access to an indoor swimming pool. You can choose to do traditional lap swims with goggles for your aerobic workouts or you can run back and forth in the water standing up and leaning forward in the three to five-foot depth area with just your head/neck/shoulders out of the water. Again, alternate running forward or backward every so many minutes or laps. I would advise you to wear protection for your feet while running on the concrete floor of the pool for either traction on the slippery pool bottom or to protect the vulnerable nerve endings in the balls of your feet. There are specially designed water training shoes from several manufacturers or you can use an old pair of racing flats.

You can also choose to run in the deep end of the pool while wearing either a flotation running vest or simply by using a snorkel and mask. You can also add webbed swimming gloves and your aqua shoes for arm/hand/leg resistance. You will quickly find which leg stride/motion/pace will keep your head or snorkel tube above water enough to breath freely and really work up a high heart rate while moving your arms and legs in a motion as close to running form as possible. The added bonus of a swimming pool workout is that it lengthens and stretches out your muscles more than a high impact running workout. You often feel much looser and relaxed afterward, almost like you just had a massage! But I always crave food and a nap following my pool time!

Finally, I really love to mix and match some of these activities in the indoor gym. My personal preference is 10 to 15 minutes on the cycle to warm up, then 20 to 30 minutes on the elliptical, followed by 10 to 20 minutes on the treadmill. If you can get a 45- to 60-minute cross-training aerobic workout in on a bad weather day, then you will surely not lose much running fitness conditioning during really bad weather and you may even strengthen some muscle groups that will improve your running and keep you more injury free. Getting into the pool in addition to this program is also therapeutic and fun for me.

Those runners who are middle aged (or older) may elect to cross-train all year long to save their legs/joints from the pounding that normal running only training imparts on the body. It may also help you to prevent injury or recover from injury (or various orthopedic surgeries in my case!) as well as have a more well-rounded fitness to boot! I would also encourage you to do some weight training or mid body core training as well as stretching two to three times a week to improve your athletic performance—and prevent injuries. Total fitness is the surest formula for a long and healthy life! Adding cross training helps achieve that.

In closing, when terrible Midwestern weather (like we just had here in Illinois) hands you lemons, don’t moan and complain. Just make lemonade! Be creative and flexible to find ways to maintain your CCIM marathon/half marathon training and fitness. You may just find you can have some fun days as well! The self-discipline, perseverance, and mental toughness to “stay the course” in your training during harsh winter weather will certainly come in handy between miles 18 and 26 or miles 8 and 13 come April. Mental toughness and physical toughness will go hand in hand to get your best results over 5K, 10K, 13.1 or 26.2 miles at the 2019 Illinois Marathon race weekend. Good luck with your winter training!

Illinois native son Craig Virgin is the featured celebrity runner and guest speaker at the 2019 Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon Weekend. It will be a homecoming of sorts for Virgin, who is a member of the inaugural University of Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame class. Virgin competed at the highest level for the Fighting Illini from 1973-1977 and then went on to an outstanding world-class running career over the next decade or so after graduation. Many of Virgin’s top high school and college races were run around the old Memorial Stadium track and field where the CCIM events now finish. Virgin was a three-time Olympian in the 10,000-meter event.