It’s true that dialling down training in the winter has its benefits. This is especially true in the first couple of weeks straight after your last race when you should be chilling out and recovering from the season before you start preparing for the next.
The body and mind have a finite capacity for hard work and if you keep too much pressure on for too long you can become stale and over-trained. Usually the only way back from this is to take a lot of time off and then start over again when you’re fully recovered – something that isn’t helpful in the long run. This is one of the reasons why a period of lower-intensity training over the winter is often a sound recommendation.
That said, just because you’re in the off-season, it doesn’t mean all of your training has to be really, really easy. When people talk about ‘base training’ they’re generally referring to the accumulation of lots of mileage at a relatively steady pace to build an aerobic fitness base. There are sound theories stating why base training in the winter is a good idea, but it has to be remembered that it’s most effective when you gradually increase the number of hours spent doing it each week.
However, if you only have limited time to train after work, increasing training volume can be difficult or impossible. If this is the case then you’ll likely derive more overall fitness benefit from maintaining some higher intensity efforts through the winter in your shorter midweek sessions. You can still focus on getting longer, lower-intensity sets in when you have the time available (on days off work for instance), but if you only train using short and easy sessions during the week you’ll find your fitness eroding away as the winter progresses.
At the end of the day it’s all about finding a balance that works for you and the time you have available. When you only have a short amount of time to train, a harder session gives more returns than an easy one. It’ll also release more endorphins in the brain, which are the chemical signals that make you ‘feel like you’ve done something’.
On the flip side, you have to ensure that over the course of the winter you don’t overdo it and risk starting the next season worn out. Sometimes employing a strategy where one week in every four is very light works well and acts as an insurance policy against over training, without making it necessary to train easy all of the time.