So, it’s finally happened! Our little trip to the Croatian coast to visit family extended it wonderfully for a week or so but now things have gone beyond the point of no return. Summer’s over and the inevitability of bare trees, low sun, short days, long nights, cold, wet, miserable November hits you. YAY!
Now I’d be the first to say that the summer months are the best, they really are. Yes hard deep winter can be wonderful in the right places – clear crisp snowy days in the Alps or the Scottish Highlands for instance – but everything about the summer makes it truly life’s reward. Warm days, wonderful light (sorry, as a video director I’ve got a thing about light), leaves and flowers to lift the spirit.
But, and it’s a big but, we all need variety and change in our lives and it’s the same with our sporting endeavours. To do well in a challenge, an event or race, you need to prepare. To prepare well, you need variety in your training – to target different aspects that, as a whole, will give you the strength and stamina to succeed.
So, while I do mourn the passing of the Summer, I’m also looking forward to Winter, which will be very different and have its own unique components when it comes to training and sport walking challenges… and it all starts with Autumn.
This is an important time for sport walkers and runners alike. The work laid down in winter will bring big benefits when the time comes for those spring and Summer challenges, so everything we do now has a purpose and I think that’s the first thing to remember when sitting there with a cup of tea looking wistfully out of the window as the light fades half way through the afternoon. We’re not losing something, we’re moving into a new phase where we’ll train and walk differently and this time will bring fresh challenges that will be just as rewarding as those big summer adventures.
For me, Autumn is a time for preparation firstly. Yes I do structured work but I also give myself a bit of space to ease into it. There’s no point getting to October and going, “right, I must hit my Autumn targets”. That’s not what this time’s for. Autumn and Winter are times for building foundations both physically and mentally. It’s a time for ‘base level’ training, which means building muscular endurance through easier, long walks and building strength by carrying weight.
Now you might think, where’s the difference then from the walks I do in summer? They are challenge walks, where I go long and also carry a load? Well, the difference may be nuanced physically but it’s your approach to the walk that is the key difference. Through Autumn and Winter, you walk to train, so the clock is less important, even redundant (except to measure your progress).
You walk to strengthen your body and mind during these months, not to test it. So, for instance, a long training walk in the winter would be about the amount of time you spend walking, not about the distance you can cover or your speed. It’s about training your body to become stronger with walks carrying heavy loads for increasing periods of time.
Overall though, while everything you do should be targeted to bring gains, it’s a period when you can largely just go out and enjoy yourself. You need miles in the can and weight on your back, so one really good idea is to use these walks to recce sections of bigger planned challenge routes or to discover new locations and paths.
You can also do supplementary work in the gym or swimming pool on those dark wet days, to give additional benefits and also do cross training, maybe on the bike on those glorious clear winter days. Overall, it’s a period when you really just need to be focussed on doing as much activity as you can without really worrying too much about performance. If you do the work, when the time comes to push yourself a bit, you’ll be surprised at how much you have progressed.
This is why Autumn brings a really positive change. It allows you to be less technical about your preparation, while knowing that the work you do will bring real benefits, as long as you focus on spending good, quality time walking for as long as you can and carry weight to increase your strength. You can do this gradually too, so treat Autumn as your warm up and get into your rhythm. Then, when Winter hits properly, plan nice long walks and just aim to accrue time. It’s how many hours you’ve walked each week, not how fast or how far.
Also, with weight, don’t suddenly start packing a big rucksack full of heavy kit or ‘free weight’ plates, do it gradually. Maybe carry a bit more weight on all your walks and then do one shorter walk each week where you pack an extra 5kg to start with and then increase the weight by a few extra KGs each time until you’re carrying the heaviest pack you can reasonably walk with for a couple of hours. It’s better to carry less weight to start with for that length of time and add weight as you get stronger, rather than going for the heaviest weight straight away over a shorter time.
Now, although you don’t need to worry about performance so much in the Winter, you do still need to take a scientific approach to your activity. Don’t leave the sports watch behind, take it and track your work, just don’t be looking for speed or distance improvements. Observe your heart rate as well and see how it drops over time with your weighted walks for instance. Use the tech to inform, not to test and measure. Use it to learn what works for you, what you find hard and then see how, over the next five or six months, you gradually improve.
The key thing is to always keep in mind what this time is for. It is to prepare you for next Summer. You can still give yourself challenges along the way – adding weight, tackling hills, going dawn to dusk, doing night walks etc but focus largely on the enjoyment factor of just walking in each situation and you’ll be best placed to stay injury free and make good progress.
Of course the other great thing about the winter is that it’s the time for planning next year’s challenges and that’s a great mood lifter. It might feel like the day pass so slowly that Spring will never arrive but if you’re active plotting new routes, working out logistics, training and preparing yourself and your kit, then these next two seasons will feel like they really have a purpose and the things you are able to do will seem far more important and valuable.