As the weather cools, the days shorten and holiday preparations begin, it tends to be the time of year that I run a little less, eat a little more, and become a little lazy with my running through the winter holidays.

It’s certainly a lot easier to motivate to run during sunshine-filled day than it does these dark, frosty mornings. And with school holidays and tighter work deadlines disrupting the rhythm of my regular routine, I feel doubly busy for months just so I can justify taking a few precious days off from work over Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Add to the mix the travel planning, party scheduling, gift shopping and turkey baking, and not losing running fitness seems not only highly unlikely, but downright impractical.

As fun and exciting as the holidays are, it's also a pretty stressful time of year. So if, like me, running is your “sanity pill,” “happy time,” and your “peaceful place," now's when you need it most.

I understand why your running declines this time of year. The winter holidays present many more obstacles to running than any other time of year, such as:

It's cold out.
It's too dark.
I'm too busy.
I'm traveling.
I have family visiting.
I'm not training for anything.

When you have to rely on your willpower to push past these obstacles and keep running, it becomes harder and harder to do so. Drawing on willpower burns up a lot of energy that you’d rather use for other things.

So before long, running feels like a chore; an item on your to-do list that can cause guilt if not completed.

And when you get to this point, it's a lot easier to use these obstacles, or extenuating circumstances, to justify running less or not at all.

While I'm all for taking time off from running, cross training and including a lot of variety in your running practice, now's not the time to let extenuating circumstances ruin your healthy habits.

Establishing healthy running habits now will set you up for running success in the future.

I challenge you to reject the notion that this is the time of year you'll inevitably lose fitness, have less time for self care, gain weight and feel more stress.

Instead, use this valuable time to make investments in your health and running that will pay off dividends when you ramp up your training in the New Year.

Here are four ways to maintain your fitness in the off season:

1. Focus on Intention Rather Than Goals

This is not the time of year to be building fitness. Rather, the off season is the ideal time to maintain a base level of fitness and good health upon which you can build fitness the next time to begin training for a race.

It takes surprisingly little training to maintain a base level of fitness, which lets you off the hook if you miss several days--or even a week or two--of running altogether. This time of year, it's OK, even preferable, to run less mileage, run slower, take extra days off. The extra rest gives your body extra time to repair and recuperate and be better prepared for next season's training cycle.

So there's no sense in beating yourself up for missed workouts. Any fitness short-term loss in fitness will be negligible and unlikely to impact your overall fitness over the long term.

2. Be Anti-Schedule

It's incredibly frustrating to have a training schedule that you can't stick with for one reason or another. During this tumultuous time of year, throw that training schedule out the window. This is the ideal time for a flexible approach that lets you fit running around other holiday-season trips, activities and obligations. With so many other things happening, the last thing you need is for your run to feel like another thing on the to-do list.

When the opportunity to run for an hour arises, take it! Spending the whole day at Grandma's house with the kids? Let it go. Structure matters more when you're training for a race, but this time of year, it won't matter so much.

3. Instead of Force, Use Flow 

If your motivation to run really wanes this of year, go with it. Forcing yourself to run when you really don't want to isn't productive. If running feels like a chore, or something you're guilting yourself to do, it's time for a mind shift. When you do run, make it a time of play, with no objective or purpose other than to get some fresh air, spend time with a friend, be alone or whatever you enjoy most about it.

Another way to use flow instead of force is in your workout intensity. There's no need for intervals, speed workouts or hill repeats when your sole intention is to maintain a base level of fitness. This time of year, your perceived effort level should be very low, meaning your runs are relaxed, easy and don't leave you feeling depleted or exhausted.

4. Respect Your Body's Need for Rest

This time of year's shorter days and longer nights are supposed to make you want to spend more time snuggled in bed.  If you yearn for more sleep, go with it. You're not lazy or indulgent for skipping early morning workouts to get more shut-eye; rather, you're human. Besides, while you sleep is when you're body's repair processes go into overdrive, making joints and muscles stronger and more resilient.

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