(Source) In her first indoor season working under coach Alberto Salazar, Shannon Rowbury finished second in the 3,000m at the U.S. indoor championships, then went on to finish eighth in the event at the world championships in Poland. The winter season served as a dress rehearsal for what was coming outdoors.
Rowbury says that last winter allowed her and her new coach to fine-tune training during a lower-stress time for most athletes. Indoor competition is a way to test your fitness, she says.
Indeed, many of the country's top athletes use the indoor season as a training ground for the rest of the year--and say that more runners looking to spice up those dreary, cold months could do the same.
The Indoor Advantage
Adding a series of indoor track events to a race schedule can offer a set of physical and psychological advantages for all runners.
"I'm a goal-oriented person, so the indoor season really helps me focus and get the most out of my fall training," Rowbury says. "When I have races in January and February, getting in that higher-quality training gets more important."
The winter can instead be a chance to "put the spikes back on, feel a quicker pace in my legs and get the rust off from a fall of mileage," says Darren Brown, a sub-4-minute miler and national road-racing champion who now coaches his wife, Sarah (Bowman) Brown. Sarah was a last-minute addition to the 2013 U.S. indoor world team in the 1500m, after Treniere Moser withdrew.
How exactly to tap into that faster side will depend on the athlete and the distance he or she is training for, Brown says.
"A true distance runner will continue to focus on more strength-based work, such as tempo intervals and cruise intervals," Brown says. "Middle-distance athletes can use this time to focus on strength work while also mixing in a heavy dose of plyometric and other ancillary work that will serve as the base for the speed work they will engage as they move into the outdoor season."
To prepare for the indoor season, Rowbury and Erik Sowinski, who started turning heads after setting a new 600m American record at the 2013 Millrose Games, say their training is more about endurance and less about speed work. Rowbury says she focuses on 4- to 6-mile tempo runs or longer repeats of 1,000m to a mile and averages 70 to 85 miles each week. She often supplements her workouts with cross-training.
Sowinski, who went on to win the 800m at the 2013 and 2014 national indoor championships, sees those indoor months as a base-building time with just a touch of speed work. His workout intervals are longer during the winter--typically 800m, 1,000m and 1200m, compared to 300m, 400m and 600m during the rest of the year.
"My mileage is usually between 60 and 70 miles per week as opposed to closer to 45 during the [outdoor] season," he says.
Beware of Indoor Imbalances
Although indoor tracks boast controlled conditions that often allow for faster training and racing than the icy roads and sidewalks outside, they also pose their own set of challenges for runners.
The tighter turns and banked curves--not to mention the sheer number of times athletes circle the shorter (usually 200m or 300m) oval--can put runners at risk for imbalance and injury. The most common problems Brown sees from the indoor season stem from the feet, ankles and lower legs, but he also encounters hip and knee issues like iliotibial band syndrome, patellar tendinitis and adductor/abductor imbalances.
He recommends focusing on flexibility exercises like hip mobility, ankle strengthening and hot/cold treatments. Runners with a history of aches and pains shouldn't commit to an aggressive race schedule.
"Athletes who are injury-prone are better off spending the indoor season strengthening imbalances, creating proper neuromuscular pathways and improving biomechanics," he says. "A good way to prepare for track efforts and the banked indoor surface is to engage in proprioceptive exercises to strengthen the lower legs and ankles."
Beware of red flags like abnormal soreness or acute pain that doesn't go away after warming up, or that lingers longer than 48 hours.
"The indoor season is at the very beginning of a long period of high-intensity training and racing for most elite athletes. It is better to be slightly undertrained and healthy than overtrained and injured," Brown says.
For masters athlete Ron Gray, 81, who claimed third place in his age group in the 60m at the USA masters indoor championships in Boston this year, the warm-up is just as important as the actual training and prepares him for the specific demands of short, fast efforts. He typically spends 20 to 25 minutes on his pre-race routine, which includes a series of walking lunges, high-knee runs, duck walks, hip rotations and monster walks, among other drills.
The indoor season is almost like a different sport altogether--one competitors find exciting in a way that a road race or sparsely attended outdoor track meet can't match.
"Indoors, you can be at a meet that has a small turnout, and the noise echoes," Rowbury says. "Fans are right next to you. Indoor racing just has really great energy."
And the venues allow for that fast feeling, even when the streets are covered with snow.
"Part of what I love is some of the best tracks are in the country's greatest cities--The Armory in New York, Boston's Reggie Lewis Center," Rowbury says. "[Boston University] has one of the quickest tracks I've ever been on."
Sowinski first fell in love with the season while competing at the University of Iowa.
"The indoor season kind of bridges the gap between months of base training and the outdoor meets and gives me extra opportunities to compete and gain experience," he says.
More than a bridge, however, Sowinski makes it a primary focus for the year. This paid off at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston, when his 4×800m relay team, which included Richard Jones, David Torrence and Duane Solomon, clocked a new world indoor record of 7:13.11.
The 2015 winter season will be a priority for Sowinski again, as he chases a third national indoor 800m title. Similarly, masters athlete Nolan Shaheed is going all in, hoping to break several world records--particularly in the mile--in his new age group. Shaheed, who celebrated his 65th birthday this summer, has been sweeping the competition in themasters indoor mile for more than a decade. He currently holds three world records for the event, in the 50, 55 and 60 age groups. His secret? Maintaining a high level of competition during the winter.
"I think because I'm running year-round, I have a little edge. I'm in shape and have that competitive spirit," he says. "I used to use the indoor season as a precursor to the outdoor season, but with records at stake, I try to do the indoor season as a completely different piece."
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