Conditioning for Runners:
The Ultimate Winter Workout
By Roy Stevenson

I suspect that many runners regard the short, dark, rainy winter days as an excuse to take it easy. This makes their attempts to regain their previous hard-earned fitness so much more of an uphill struggle and wastes a lot of time.

The off-season should be seen as a time when you put in as much conditioning work as you can comfortably handle. With the winter months looming up, it’s time to establish a concrete fitness plan and set some goals for your winter conditioning program. Here’s some advice that will help you achieve these.

The Goals of Your Program

Improving your running is all about learning to delay fatigue while maintaining a higher wattage for a longer period of time while running. Your conditioning goals are to lay a solid aerobic foundation for the higher intensity training to follow, work on maintaining your flexibility, and build your core strength.

Aerobic Conditioning for Runners

Running for sustained time periods requires a high level of stamina. We call this cardiovascular or aerobic endurance. Many adaptations happen with aerobic training; increased capillary beds that deliver more oxygenated blood to your working muscles, increased proliferation of mitochondria to process your ATP, and an increased oxygen uptake that enables you to distribute more oxygen. The combined effect of these is to enable you to resist fatigue for longer.

It’s important to keep up several days of running each week, including at least one long run. Winter is also a great time to introduce some cross-training into your program. How and when you do this running and cross-training is your choice. Some runners cut back their outside running and hit the treadmills, bikes, elliptical trainers, stair machines, swimming pools, etc, at their nearest fitness club. Others bite the bullet, throw on the Gore-Tex, and slog through the rain and wind out on the roads every morning or night (wearing their reflecting vests, I hope!). At least in winter, you won’t have to deal with the overheating problems that you experience in summer.

How long should your conditioning phase last? A solid three months is what is required to make long-term changes to the aerobic system. And how many days should you be training? As many as you can squeeze in given your time, personal, and energy constraints.

A Typical Weekly Conditioning for Runners Program:

Day - Workout

Monday - Recovery Day: short run (30-45 minutes slow) or aerobic cross-training

Tuesday - Strength Training or aerobic Cross-Training (45 minutes-1 hour) or Core Training

Wednesday - Faster paced run: can be fartlek, intervals, hill repeats, or tempo run. This run should be 1.5 hours

Thursday - Recovery Day: short run (30-45 minutes slow) or Aerobic Cross-Training (45 minutes to 1 hour) or Core Training

Friday - Rest Day No Training

Saturday - Long Run-1.5-2 hours steady pace.

Sunday - Medium distance run-1 hour steady pace

Programming Rest and Recovery into Your Conditioning for Runners Program

Gradually increase your weekly mileage and the distance of your long run. Avoid racing during your conditioning phase. Every third or fourth week, you’ll need an easier week where you do less volume than the previous three weeks, to allow your body to adjust to the high volume of training. Simply cut 20-30 minutes off every training run or cross-training effort.

Muscular Strength/Power Conditioning for Runners

We no longer believe that running alone is enough adequate conditioning for the sport. Running is hard work. Physiological benefits of resistance training include increasing the size of your fast twitch muscle fibers and motor units, improved neuromuscular coordination and thus better muscle fiber recruitment, greater resistance to muscular fatigue, greater storage of intramuscular energy stores such as glycogen and Creatine Phosphate, a lower risk of injury, and a faster metabolism.

The following strength-training program is a series of multi-joint exercises that gives you a bigger bang for your time spent working out. It focuses on the major muscle groups, the legs, buttocks, back, core, shoulders, and arms, used while running.

Designing Your Off-Season Strength Conditioning for Runners Program

This program should be followed for 10-12 weeks. The strength and core training workout can be done 1-2 days each week, with at least one rest day between each session.

Start your resistance-training program gradually, especially if you have not done weights before. Beginners should enlist the aid of a personal trainer to ensure they do the exercises with good form.

Exercise - Description

Leg Press (Quadriceps, calfs, hamstrings, gluteals) - Adjust back pad for comfort. Lean back on machine with back firmly against pad. With legs shoulder width apart, and ankles, knees and hips aligned, slowly straighten legs. Do not lock out your knees. Press heels against the platform through full range.

Lunge (Same as above) - Stand upright with feet together, holding two dumbbells at your sides in overhand grip. Slowly take a large step forward with one leg, bending both knees. Your rear knee should come close to the floor. Using your extended leg, push yourself back to the starting position, reversing the movement. Advanced lunge: keep moving forward with each step, instead of returning to your original standing position.

Flat Bench Knee Ups (Abdominals) - Sit on the end of a flat bench, hands just behind the buttocks, gripping the bench. From a straight leg position, flex knees in front of you as high as they can go, then return to straight leg position. If this is too difficult, do standard sit-ups.

Back Extension - Adjust back extension machine so you can fully flex your torso below it. With hands crossed in front of your chest, slowly straighten your back while breathing out. Straighten back to 180 degrees, then slowly lower torso while breathing out.

Cable Seated Lat Pull downs - Sit at a lat pull down machine with back straight. Lean backward a few inches with feet on floor. Hold bar with both hands, slightly wider than shoulder width apart, hands in overhand grip. Bend at elbows while pulling the bar down to the top of your chest. Squeeze shoulder blades together. Slowly control the bar back to its highest position, so that your arms are straight. Keep your shoulders locked in their joint throughout the entire movement.

Barbell Chest Press - Plant feet firmly on floor, buttocks, head and shoulders on bench. Grip bar so that your hands are above your elbows to start. Pull shoulder blades together and hold them there, while lowering arms so that upper arms are parallel with floor. Do not lower any further than this. Push arms straight up, above elbows. Reverse this action slowly and repeat.

Cable Seated Rear Delt Row - Plant feet firmly against the foot platform and keep trunk vertically straight at 90 degrees to the bench. Place two pulley handles on the cable. Grip handles, with wrists facing downwards, elbows facing outwards, and slowly pull the handles straight back towards your chest. Keep your shoulder blades squeezed together through this action. Slowly return to start position without bending forward.

Standing Biceps Curl using Ezy Curl Bar - Stand with legs shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent. Tuck elbows in to sides, and aligned under shoulders. Hold Ezy Curl Bar with hands and forearms facing inwards and upwards. Slowly contract biceps and pull bar up as far as it will go. Slowly return to starting position.

Barbell Overhead Shoulder Press - Sit on bench with bench back pulled up to support your back. Feet flat on floor with barbell supported in both hands, at chest height. Push barbell directly up over your head while straightening your arms. Slowly lower barbells to chest height.

Triceps Extension (Push Down) on machine - Sit in triceps press down machine with feet on floor, leaning slightly forward. Lock shoulders down in their joint so they do not ride up around your ears. Grip handles with hands facing inwards. Slowly push bar downwards to full arm extension. Slowly return to start position.

Flexibility Conditioning for Runners

You should do a few stretches for your back, shoulders, hamstrings, quadriceps, calf muscles, hip flexors, buttocks, and arms, especially after finishing each workout. The goal of your stretching is to prevent a further reduction in the range of motion about your joints that may come from strength training and aerobic activity.

Strengthen Core Musculature Conditioning for Runners

Running requires for you to maintain your upright posture, often for hours, without fatiguing, so your core muscle groups need to be strong.

The BOSU Balance Trainer provides a fun element for an addition to your training program and makes a nice change from running those miles on the road. It’s a blue rubber dome-shaped platform like the hemispherical upper third of a Swiss ball It has a flat black rubber base 25inches in diameter.

The name BOSU is an acronym standing for “both sides up”, meaning the platform can be used lying flat on its base in a stable position, or turned upside down, and used as an unstable platform for other more demanding exercises. Here are five great BOSU exercises that can be done as an adjunct to your strength-training program.


Place BOSU round side up. Face it and place your right foot on the centre of the BOSU. Slowly lower yourself down by bending your knee to a right angle. Slowly straighten your leg. Repeat ten times with each leg.

Progression: do more repetitions and more sets. Then hold dumbbells at your side, as you get stronger. These can be modified to faster moving lunges, bouncing yourself off the BOSU as soon as your foot hits it.


Place BOSU flat side up, with round side on floor. Grip sides of BOSU tightly with hands—you’ll see hand grip on the sides of the base for this. Slowly lower yourself by bending your arms, and then raise yourself by straightening your arms, doing the traditional push up exercise. If your upper body is not strong enough to do this, start with bent knees.

Progression: increase number of repetitions and sets.

Reverse Abdominal Crunch

Kneel in front of the BOSU, base up, round side down on floor. Place your forearms in a V position on the base, with fists together. Straighten your legs and trunk, and then raise your backside upwards to a right angle. Slowly lower your backside back down until your trunk is straight again. Repeat ten times, (if you can).

Progression: increase number of repetitions and sets.

Side Crunch

Place BOSU round side up. Lie sideways across BOSU with your ribs resting across the round centre part of the BOSU. Upper arm should be back behind your head. Lower arm should rest across your chest. Contract your side abdominals so you tilt upwards, and hold for 3 seconds. Lower, and then repeat. Repeat ten times (if you can).

Progression: increase number of repetitions and sets. Advanced: hold your body straight while lying on your side for ten seconds.

One Leg Balance

Place BOSU round side up. Stand with one leg on center of BOSU, slightly bent at knee. Lean forward with arms extended out in front of you, and other leg straight out behind you for balance. Hold for ten seconds. Repeat 10 times.

Another variation of this is to hold one leg out to your side, balancing with your arms.

Progression: hold for 20-30 seconds. Do up to 15 repetitions.

If you stay with your winter conditioning program you’ll emerge next spring a different runner, with performances that you thought were beyond your ability. So much of the key to success in distance running is simply putting in enough conditioning to be able to handle the faster training in the few months prior to your races. Give these schedules a try—you’ll be thrilled next season when you have your first race.

You can find additional running specific information at my running tips website:


Price, Robert. 2005. The Ultimate Guide to Weight Training for Running.

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