Using Offseason Adventures to Build Fitness

By John Spinney | Jan. 30, 2019, 12:34 p.m. (ET)

Goggles N Gloves

Winter can be depressing for many runners, cyclists and triathletes. It can often mean more time on the “dreadmill,” the indoor trainer and/or bundled up for slippery runs. I spent many years doing that—hours upon hours on the trainer in the winter, running on the dreadmill several times a week when conditions were nasty outside.

Too much of this indoor training can eventually burn you out. If it hasn’t happened already, consider yourself lucky. If you live in an area that sees a fair amount of snow, there are other options you can pursue to supplement your base training. These activities will not only offset the boredom factor of indoor training and be a lot more fun, but also can build significant fitness!

I try to build adventure into training plans whenever possible. With my athletes, this typically happens the most in the winter base period because once the more specific phases of training set in, you just have to get the sport-specific work done if you want to reach your goals. There are no shortcuts!

But what if there were things you could do in the winter that would supplement, even build aerobic fitness, AND were super fun? There are so many options now: fat biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, alpine touring skiing and skimo, split boarding. I’m going to touch on these, then focus on alpine touring (because I am biased and because it’s the most fun and most conducive to building muscular endurance).

You should know that as an athlete and a coach, I am HUGE on muscular endurance. Anyone who has been to a camp I coach knows this, and has heard me repeatedly speak about protecting your muscle mass by keeping your body in an anabolic environment as much as possible—especially for the masters athletes out there. I am one of the guys you can thank for all the Z1 low-cadence workouts at QT2.

Triathlon is a strength endurance sport. Your success as a triathlete hinges on good bike durability (a type of fitness that makes you more fatigue resistant on the bike and better able to access your pure run fitness off the bike). The hallmark of good bike durability is muscular endurance. You can build it with high-muscle tension, low-cadence work on the bike. For swimming, it’s swimming with big paddles. For running, it would be steep running uphill. Now you know where I am operating from. Everything I do in my own training and with my athletes involves a consistent dose of workouts that stimulate muscular endurance.

Now for the good part. Each of those winter sports listed above is great for building muscular endurance. So, pick your poison. If you are not a skier or snowboarder, how about fat biking or snowshoeing? Keep in mind both of those have options for racing if you are looking to further test yourself. Cross-country (XC) skiing is an excellent option for building fitness. Peter Reid, who won Kona 3 times, was known for XC skiing a lot in the winter.

If you are an alpine skier, your best bet is to try AT skiing. AT skiing arguably stimulates your body to build muscular endurance more than any of the other snowsports I mentioned. It’s essentially skiing uphill on skis with climbing skins for grip, then transitioning to downhill skiing at the top. This allows you to ski anywhere (resort, side country, backcountry). The current AT ski gear is very impressive with how well it can get you uphill and how great it skis down. The gear has an uphill mode and a downhill mode. When going uphill, your boots have a big range of motion and your heels are free so you can stride up the hill. At the top you switch your boots into downhill mode and lock your heel into the binding, so you can make regular alpine turns just like you always have. As mentioned, people do AT skiing in the backcountry and at ski resorts that have an uphill policy.

If you like to race, then you might want to try ski mountaineering racing or “skimo.” Skimo is the lightweight, high-speed, high-suffer factor, intense brother of AT skiing. There’s too much to explain about this cool sport, so check out this video. Skimo racers typically are alpine skiers that are also some form of endurance athlete in the summer like mountain runners, ultrarunners, triathletes and cyclists.

Wait. You’re a snowboarder? Check out splitboarding! This is the AT option for snowboarders! You’re a tele skier? Then you already know everything I’ve discussed above. Come ski with me!

Below are examples of how you might build some of these winter sports  into your training and have it count toward your QT2, Run Formula or Cycling Formula training. 

  • Snowshoeing/ winter Hiking = 35% running, 35% biking (use run hr zones)
  • Snowshoe running = 100% run (use run hr zones)
  • XC skiing (classic technique) = 55% Run, 35% Bike (use run hr zones)
  • XC skiing (skate technique) = 35% Run, 55% Bike (use run hr zones)
  • Alpine Touring skiing (includes telemark skiing) = 100% bike for the uphill skinning time (use run hr zones)
  • Splitboarding = 100% bike for the uphill skinning time (use run hr zones)
  • Fat biking = 100% bike (use bike hr zones)

Downhill skiing (liftserve or downhill portion of AT/splitboarding)] = lower-body strength work on 1:1 basis, e.g., 1 hour of accrued downhill ski time = 1 hour of strength work.

Winter doesn’t have to be depressing. Get outside and do some adventurous workouts that build muscular endurance and bring a huge smile to your face!

John Spinney is an endurance sports coach at QT2 Systems brands. He provides detail-oriented coaching for committed cyclists, triathletes and runners. He also runs quite a few training camps and loves working in a squad atmosphere with motivated athletes. He believes that the best fitness comes from training that embraces adventure.


The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.