Superfit Magazine

Spring 1986


For Better Performance, Let Mother Nature Be Your Coach

Chances are good that right now your exercise program has about pizzazz as a gray sweatshirt. It's 20 degrees outside, and you've got the wintertime blues so bad you can dance to them--that is, if you had the energy.

Take heart. Those cold north winds may be carrying some valuable advice--Mother Nature's way of saying, "Take it easy."

Nine years ago, when I moved from Washington, D.C. to Northern California, I went on a running rampage. Every day was perfect: each dawn whether it was in June or January, offered little excuse for leniency. As a result, between April and December of 1978, I completed in eight marathons and two ultramarathons.

Then, during the early part of 1979, I had trouble just getting out of bed. Each morning, I'd have to lower myself to my hands and knees before I could loosen my taut tendons. Aspirin became my Life Savers; ice and heat treatments my evening cup of tea.

But most disappointing, my marathon times had improved by only three minutes. All the suffering...all the sacrifice... Somehow, training in heaven had made me feel like hell.

Actually, much more accomplished athlete than I had been similarly seduced. For instance, Olympic cyclist Roy Knickman logged 400-mile training weeks last year under the mid-winter California sun only to find his legs as sluggish come spring as if he had spent the off-season on a wind-trainer. And Mike Duncan, winner of the 1984 Humboldt Redwoods Marathon in California, missed much of the 1985 season with stress fractures in his lower pelvis, a direct result of running too much.

"We tend to get lulled into overtraining because of the favorable conditions here," explains Duncan, a resident of the Golden State. "There's such a thing as too much of a good thing. I'm already waxing my cross-country skis, hoping the layoff will bring me back strong." TAKING A BREAK

The layoff, the winter. Athletes view bad weather as an obstacle to overcome. But if it's really a hindrance, why hasn't the blue-sky state of California produced more than just a handful of elite long-distance runners? If constant training does make you sharper, explain Derek Clayton's 1969 world record in the marathon, which came after an injury-induced rest period, a record that has endured for 12 years.

"Athletes do need a season off," says Bill Rodgers, four-time winner of both the Boston and New York marathons, "a time when you can be away from the unique stress of competition. This is both a mental and physical recovery period... Of course, it's possible to train at a high level all year but somewhere results must suffer."

Wisely, Mother Nature has provided those in the north with just that break. It's called winter and even though many of us complain about the constraints it places on our training programs, these are often necessary restrictions we probably wouldn't place on ourselves if we lived in more temperate climes.

While Rodgers' competitive level left him no choice but to forsake his home near Boston each winter for balmy Phoenix , he also had a unique understanding of where the peaks and valleys should come in his yearly training cycle. Most people lack this expertise and are probably better off letting Mother Nature be their coach. It's a natural safeguard system that usually results in fewer injuries and a sharper competitive edge once the race season finally arrives.

Ron Drassel, a chiropractor and triathlete from Minneapolis, lets the seasons dictate his training schedule. "Here in Minneapolis, we have roughly a six-month outdoor training season," he explains, "and then we go indoors, where we modify the training to concentrate on areas overlooked during the summer... You slow things down a bit and, as a result, you recover both physically and mentally. It makes you hungry for the outdoor season when it finally comes. A SEASONAL SCHEDULE

Natural periodization can benefit any athlete regardless of the sport. Not only does it help the body peak fro competition, but it also protects against overtraining, injury, and psychological burnout. Instead of trying to train through the ice and snow, transform winter into a preparatory phase in your conditioning program. Diversify your activities so as to increase strength, flexibility, and coordination.

In the spring, gradually let your body warm with the season and re-acquaint your muscles with the sport. Set sensible goals and concentrate on not doing too much, too soon.

Come summer, you'll be ready for the most intensive of training seasons. Pepper your workouts with intervals, time trials, and long tests of endurance, all building toward the fall and that local 10K or club century. Afterward, it's time for celebration, recovery, and reminiscing. Then, it all begins again.

Even if you live in a temperate climate, periodization is a valuable training tool. All it takes is a little more willpower and the ability to pace yourself. Vern Gambetta, former women's track coach at the University of California at Berkeley, offers these suggestions for preparing for an October marathon in slightly more cooperative surroundings: PREPARATORY PHASE ONE--Mid-November through December--long, slow runs peppered with fartlek and race-pace running. PREPARATORY PHASE TWO--January through May--gradually increase both total mileage and intensity; this is the period of highest mileage. COMPETITION PHASE--June through October marathon--first month transition from preparation base to emphasis on speed and technique; follow transition with sift to fartlek, fast-paced runs, interval training at goal pace and race simulation; run a race or two in order to evaluate and respond to strengths and weaknesses. RESTORATION PHASE--Mid-October through mid-November--a period of active rest; mileage reduced to about 50 percent of normal; intensity cut way down.

So take heart. Don't let that howling north wind or those rumbling snowplows depress you. Consider winter as Mother Nature saving you from yourself and rest assured that you may be able to go faster and farther next year because of it.