Transition from Winter to Spring Trail Running Training

Training article written by Stephen R. Santangelo for the Spring 2021 edition of our Trail Times newsletter. Stephen has been in the fitness industry since 1979 and created his own specialty exercises & programs based upon the anthropological movement of the human body.

Winter training is time to develop “aerobic capacity” (AC) which is a systematic series of adaptations to the body’s cardiovascular, muscular, and metabolic infra-structure brought on by training stimuli. These adaptations include left ventricle volume of the heart increase, blood volume increase, red blood cell proliferation in the blood increase, capillary numbers in working muscle increase, myosin cross-sectional size increase, mitochondria numbers increase, mitochondria size increase, aerobic enzyme quantity increase, inter-muscular glycogen storage sites increase, and some myoglobin increase in volume.

As the temperatures rise, the next cycle is to increase “aerobic power” (AP). Whereas AC is based upon high volume, well below threshold pace, AP is based more on a time component and speed with less on volume. AC increases and improves the ability of our system to use oxygen more effectively at both sub-maximal effort pace and maximal effort.

Complete aerobic power development also includes adaptations at the peripheral structures; that is changes to the components of the muscle cell, and enzymes. These changes include increased myoglobin volume, dramatic proliferation of mitochondria, increased size of mitochondria, and mitochondrial enzymes increase in volume and activity.

In order to achieve AP, the need for speed training becomes imperative; intensive and extensive intervals are introduced on a weekly cycle. AP development requires many weeks of training due to adaptations which include both bio-chemical and structural changes to the body. Anywhere from 22-26 weeks is needed. This range is based upon age, fitness level and the upcoming competition schedule. Many endurance scholars and coaches designate vVO2 max (velocity at present day max aerobic power) as the single most important marker of aerobic development and aerobic fitness.

Trail Running Training

Intensive tempo overloads the lactic energy system by using medium intensity and short recovery. It is fast enough to require the body to tap into the lactate energy system to maintain muscular contraction. Therefore, it can be especially useful for developing the body’s ability to operate efficiently under the lactate conditions. Rest breaks are short in order for recovery to be incomplete in order to push the energy system into a high lactate build up. Training in this zone (lactic energy system) and to maintain proper muscular contraction and neurological balance, becomes exceptionally challenging and something only this training modality will provide.

The aforementioned training modalities can be accomplished on the trails, flat or various inclines, and on the track. The advantage of the track is the accuracy of time and distance. In order to give peripheral aerobic power development, the ideal stimulus, a session volume of 4800-9600 meters is required. For most 1600-3200 meters will suffice, when properly executed. It is through extensive intervals that aerobic power, rather than aerobic capacity is achieved. It is all about how fast one can aerobically run rather than how far one can aerobically run. Extensive tempo workouts are quite challenging since the run to rest ratio is 1:1 and the pace is fast.

Intensive tempo work is all about speed. Not speed as with a sprinter, but speed for an endurance athlete. These sessions are based on short distances from 60m-200m. Rest periods are from 20 seconds to 60 seconds based on distance. Incomplete recovery with repeated bouts of high intensity taps into the central nervous system and metabolic enzyme production in a much different way than with winter “long slow distance” (LSD) runs. To optimize aerobic efficiency these variable motor pathways/motor signals must be in place. This will advance the capacity to do both central nervous system (CNS) work and muscular endurance work under a variety of trail conditions before fatigue is reached.

Intensive and extensive intervals allow the body to regenerate from the long winter runs. Although, it is higher intensity, our CNS, skeletal structure, metabolic enzymes, chemical energy response are stimulated in a much different way than the constant pounding of high volume. Maximizing motor recruitment and neuromuscular adaptations is a method used for continual improvement, avoiding burn out by over-extending the adrenal glands, aids in staying healthy, avoiding injury/micro-trauma and balances/increases hormone production. Running economy is the most important factor in successful racing.


Zach Miller racing the 2015 USATF Mountain Running Championships in Oregon.

This method of training gives a boost in performance and mental attitude. After doing the LSD in winter temperatures it is time to warm up the body with speed training. For most of us, who live in cold winter geographical locations, we welcome the warmer days which makes it easy to add speed work to our overall program. Speed work is not conducive in cold weather, especially, for us older runners whose bodies are not as adaptable as we were 30-40 years ago. Although, we might think as a 20-year-old, being in our 60s, the health of our internal landscape must be prioritized and understood, so, we can continue doing what we love!

Remember, being tired becomes our enemy, not the goal we seek!

About the author: Stephen R. Santangelo has been passionate about life from early childhood. His passions have been rooted in art, music, science, athleticism and health. Health, Strength and Vitality are the basis for creative development in which he and his wife are driven by the relentless desire to learn and educate folks from all walks of life. Nutrition has always been a major part of his life and he and his wife have been full time organic farmers, since 2007, where they are 98% food sustainable and very active in Food Freedom politics.