Feast or Famine Winter Training: A blessing in disguise?

Chicago’s freezing weather has forced me to hibernate for days at a time. Last week’s brutal -50°F windchills knocked out a couple days, and this week a combination of sub-10°F temperatures with stiff 20-30 mph winds have compelled me to flex in a couple of days off.

This has led me into a feast/famine schedule, where I’ll run 4-5 days in a row, then run very little for a few days, then repeat. If Chicago’s weather can stabilize into something consistently tolerable, I’ll resume a more normal training schedule.

But I realized this schedule is very similar to one that emergency workers (hospital medical staff, firefighters, law enforcement) follow, along with to some extent expo workers.

They work long hours for several days in a row, then they get several days off in a row. In the case of emergency staff, working a regular 8 hour shift is often impractical when attending to real-time emergencies. In the case of expo staff, they work when convention services are needed, and those periods often come in peak-season blocks rather than everyday on a 40 hour schedule.

Obviously, there are drawbacks to life with such a schedule. No one ever argued this was an optimal schedule. However, not only do workers put in entire careers on such a schedule, but (taking a bit of a logical leap here) it’s entirely possible that runners could to some extent do fine on the same schedule.

In fact, runners kind of do. We train hard for goal races in 8-24 week cycles… then we take longer breaks before resuming training for the next goal. Even the famous elite Kenyan runners take weeks or months off following their marathons.

We couldn’t train as hard as we do unless we took breaks at some point. Sometimes, injuries or life force those breaks. But many end up taking them by choice or other willing circumstance. It’s during these breaks that the body and mind rebuild, allowing us to train hard the next time around. You don’t grow stronger during training, but during the recovery between bouts of training.

So back to this strange-to-many feast or famine schedule: Imagine 4-5 days straight of moderate running, with a long run at some point, perhaps a speedwork session early on… then 3-4 days of no training, or perhaps a short run or two during that period… before another 4-5 days straight of moderate/long running.

That moderate period might really beat you up, but then you get that long subsequent period to heal up from all that work. You’re possibly almost chomping at the bit to get back at it two days before you resume training. By the time you get back to longer runs, you’re physically and psychologically fresh.

The latter situation is actually the idea behind a marathon taper. You spend months grinding yourself to get ready for the race. Then you scale back your training to too-little-running, so that your body and mind can heal up and running can become fresh again once it’s time to run the actual race.

I won’t go as far as to say everyone should do this. If I had it my way, I’d have trained normally over this past month, instead of having to stall training for 2-3 days due to severe weather.

But in a way the severe weather was an opportunity to rest up and recover. So long as I maximize the time to train while the weather is good, the time off could maximize the recovery and growth from that training.

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