When Mother Nature says you can’t exercise outside, stay inside to maximize your fitness.
By Kate Bongiovanni
Off-season: the time of the year where outdoor exercise isn’t exactly an option. It’s icy. The ground’s covered in snow. It’s cold. Fewer daylight hours are cramping your style. The weather is telling you—or you’ve told yourself—to take those workouts indoors.
How do you keep up with the mileage and intensity you spent all summer building? Spending five hours in the saddle with your bike on a trainer sounds about as gruesome as a root canal. You’d rather skip that long run altogether than put in 20 miles on a treadmill. Swimming becomes more difficult when you don’t have a lake to jump in at your convenience or a pool to readily use.
But you know that if you hibernate all winter, your fitness levels are going to suffer. They did for Robbie Ventura, Vision Quest Coaching’s founder and owner, who noticed during his professional career that the more time he took off, the harder he had to work in winter and spring to reach his season-end levels. You might not be racing at the pro level, but you could easily pay the price in the first, second and even third races of the season. You’ve lost your edge, either because of what you didn’t put in or what your competition did.
“If you lose all your fitness from the summer in the colder months, it’s going to be a long, tough road back to optimal racing form,” says Angela Park, owner of Spark Multisport and a USA Triathlon level 2 coach.
There’s a simple solution to surviving the winter, and it doesn’t entail grinding out workouts to stay at the top of your game.
“I don’t think one should necessarily look to maintain peak fitness throughout the year as it is important for the body to have down time and recover,” Park says. But that’s doesn’t mean you need to sit completely still. It’s more about mixing it up and using indoor workouts to your advantage. And, according to Ventura, it’s about changing up the duration, intensity and activity.
“Cycling—whether you’re doing it on your own bike or a spin bike or anything—is a great form of exercise just to increase fitness,” Ventura says. A low-impact Spinning class is only 45 to 60 minutes, but it’ll improve fitness. An indoor cycling workout on a stationary trainer that’s less than 90 minutes could challenge you like that century ride you did in July.
“These rides can actually be much more challenging than riding outside seeing as you can push yourself continuously with no interruptions,” Park says.
Ventura says that both will increase your cardiac output. If you want to become a better cyclist, though, Ventura recommends the trainer rides where variables can be manipulated to make you stronger on the road.
“Riding indoors is a good opportunity to get some good, high intensity work in where you can do a lot of work in a very short period of time, and build your what I call range as a cyclist or as an athlete,” Ventura says. “You can really build that high-end part of the energy system indoors.”
What you don’t want is easy indoor riding for long periods of time. It’s not comfortable, it’s not fun and it’s hard on your brain mentally. “You want to have some variation to your training when you ride inside,” he says. “You want to have high intensity intervals that are not only going to keep the workout fun and exciting and hard, but you’re going to get a lot more work done in a shorter period of time.”
If you want to swim, consider joining a Masters team where you can reap the group training benefits: getting pushed. If you want to run, Park suggests hitting the treadmill for hill and speed intervals. “With the lack of hills in Chicago, faking them on the treadmill is sometimes our only option,” she says.
As for the best bang for your indoor exercise buck, you’re likely going to find it in strength training. “It often gets overlooked come tri season but is vital to speed, endurance and injury prevention,” Park says. Work with a personal trainer for a few sessions to learn some sport-specific moves. Try an interval workout like those offered at Shred415, in the Lincoln Park and Old Town neighborhoods, to fill your running and conditioning fix. Class is divided into four 15-minute blocks with two on the treadmill and two on the floor busting out squats, jumps, core and more. Use your own body weight to get stronger by practicing yoga, Pilates or a variation like River North’s Reform Chicago where the low-impact workout is designed to exhaust your muscles. All of these are indoors, and all are different ways to bring on the sweat and keep you fit.
“Indoor training can actually be a great way to get stronger and faster in any sport,” Park says. “Use this time to get ahead and try some new things that will help you become a better athlete.”
Sidebar: (Indoor) Racer Chaser
You know you can take it easy in the winter and take a break from racing, but that doesn’t mean you want to. Racing doesn’t have to mean fleeing Chicago’s chill for some southern comfort. Sure, you could run outside and tackle the F^3 Lake Half Marathon on Jan. 26, but good luck swimming in Lake Michigan—unless you’re one of the Open Water Chicago lake monsters.
Forget weathering winter’s elements. Here’s where you can race inside…without leaving Illinois.
Fitness Formula Clubs Indoor Triathlon Series. How far can you swim in 15 minutes, bike in 20 and run in 15? Chances are you won’t know unless you try this triathlon series that brings the sport indoors—in the pool, on stationary bikes, and on the track or treadmill—and has you log as many miles as you can in the allotted time to determine your ranking among the rest of the field. 6 races, February through March, ffc.com/trimonster
Indoor time trials. Vision Quest Coaching has held them. So has Endure It! with their next one on Jan. 20. The Athletes by Design Cycle Club hosts the Mid America Time Trial Series, January through April. Hook your ride to a Computrainer, power down and race the clock until you reach the virtual finish line. Jan. 20, endureitclub.com; 4 races, January through April, abdcycling.com
Masters swimming. If you’re putting in laps in the pool this winter, why not test your racing skills at a Masters swim meet? In 2012, there were 8 meets in Illinois. The events are shorter than the distances you’ll find at most triathlons—and you’re not limited to swimming freestyle (though backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly can be painful if you haven’t been practicing). January-April, ilmsa.com
Warm Your Heart 5K. A 5K run entirely indoors? Runners snake through McCormick Place with a course covering Hall A, the East building and the sky bridge over Lake Shore Drive. It’s perfect for a blustery cold January morning when the last thing you want to do is brave the Lakefront. Jan. 6, warmyourheart5k.com