The Winter Training Survival Guide

Winter training is the marmite of the rowing world, you either love it or you hate it. For some it is bottomless pit of pain with no light at the end of the tunnel. For others it is where they feel most at home, happily churning out 3x30 minute pieces as if it was nothing.  

There’s one thing that everyone can agree on and that is that it is the time of the year where you have to learn to love your unhappy place and become all too familiar with feeling exhausted at all hours of the day. 

Here I have gathered together a few responses from rowers and some of my experience as a coach to give you the winter training survival guide:

1. Rest, Recovery and Netflix

One of my first coaches told me that a training program is only as good as the recovery phases. As we will all know from our own experiences, be it seeing other athletes or having experienced it first hand, overtraining is a very real thing!

In the winter it is especially important to remember this. Sessions get longer and what were high intensity sprint sessions with maximal work lasting at most half an hour have now become hour and a half long rate 18 work with little or no rest during the session. This will end up taking a greater toll on you physically as well as mentally.

The aim on these is to build that foundation which you will later rely on in the summer however if you over train and become injured or unwell then this will set you back weeks if not months.

The way to avoid overtraining is to let your body heal. The way to let your body heal is to rest. Some days active recovery (such as going for a gentle jog or spin on the bike) will be the best course of action, other days a Yoga or Pilates circuit will set you right. Most days however, the best thing you can do is put your feet up and relax. Stick Netflix on and have a nap.

It’s also important to listen to your body. If you start to get a slight pain in your back or the beginnings of an injury then this is the time of year to take a bit of time out of training to set it right. The last thing you want to be doing is carrying that injury through to the summer when it can impact on your training.

2. Learn to love your unhappy place.

Winter training is categorically not fun. Its highly monotonous and designed to push your fitness and endurance to the limits. On top of all this, it’s cold. Very cold. For a select few this is their favourite time of the year. For most sane people however, this is a grind.

Winter training was once described to me as paying in to the bank. What you pay in over the winter, you can take out over the summer. The only problem is that in mid-January when the boats have a layer of frost on them and the erg room stinks of BO and puke this is not the easiest thing to do. This is why you must learn to love your unhappy place. 

Your unhappy place is that part of your mind that you retract into at the 10-minute mark of the 30-minute piece, the place where you no longer think about anything other than the split. You start doing complex maths, telling yourself “20 minutes is only 5 minutes 4 times so really it’s not that bad”. It’s the same place where you can go and time can disappear, you go in with 20 minutes to go and you come out with only 5 minutes left.

Although it is a painful place it is also a blissfully simple place. You only have one thought and one goal in mind and that is to maintain your assigned split. It gives you a chance to think about anything in a very simple way, you cannot overthink any problem because no problem will be bigger than the pain in your legs and the pounding in your chest. In this sense it is effectively just high intensity meditation.

Learning to love your unhappy place is simply about feeling at piece with the pain and being able to completely lose yourself within yourself. 

3. Have a Plan B (& a Plan C)

Rivers, lakes or wherever you may row are well known to be unpredictable. Always have a backup session in your back pocket so if you turn up and the boathouse is flooded, or the river is flowing too fast, you can hop on a spin bike for an hour or go for a 10k run. Also make sure you have a Plan C as well for when Plan B goes down the pan!

Part of this is being practiced at running and cycling so that it isn’t a shock to the system and you know what you’re doing. Cross training as part of an overall programme is a fantastic tool to help prevent injury and become fitter.

The more fun you can make it the better, try relay races and team activities. This will always help to take the edge off winter training. In my experience it’s always fun to try some CrossFit challenges, with named workouts such as Amanda and Cindy which will totally ruin you.

4. ALWAYS TAKE LOTS OF SPARE KIT

It’s so simple and yet everyone forgets it the one time they need it. Just always pack kit for all weather and any eventuality and check through your kit bag on a regular basis in case you’ve forgotten to repack your thermal top or lent out your jumper to a mate.

As a coach it’s amazing to see how many people forget their kit on the one day of the year when it snows or the one time over the whole winter when they fall in.

Within this I’d recommend an insulated water bottle. There’s nothing worse than drinking freezing cold water, an insulated water bottle can help to keep your fluids at room temperature and therefore drinkable.

No one enjoys winter training however it is a necessary evil. Hopefully these tips will help to see you through the darkest days and the coldest ergs.

Harry Henderson

Level 2 Rowing coach & Gym instructor

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