Discover more from XO, MU by Melissa Urban
Three reasons to shift your workouts with the seasons
Why I'm moving from my garage workouts back to the gym, and how you can implement this strategy in your own movement routine
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A week ago, my husband poked his head into the garage as I stretched, door wide open, trying to warm up for my workout. It was 6 AM—my usual workout time—but the sun was nowhere in sight. He said, “Babe, it’s pitch-dark outside and kind of cold this morning. Maybe it’s time to…” I didn’t even let him finish, “Going back to the gym is like accepting summer is over, and I am not ready to do that yet.” He laughed, went back inside, and I finished my workout before the sun even came up.
He was right, though. It was time. So this morning, I packed my gym bag for the first time since May and drove to the gym for my workout.
For the last three years, I’ve found myself naturally flowing between exercise programs, intensities, and durations as the seasons change. It’s not something I intentionally calendar; I’ve found myself naturally flowing in this cycle for a few years now. Turns out, these seasonal shifts are money when it comes to your health, happiness, and fitness.
Summer is for hiking, winter is for lifting
Here’s how my seasonal shifts have been playing out like clockwork since I decided to intuitively follow my body wherever it was taking me, starting with the present day:
September-October: Fall shoulder season*
The sun comes up later, mornings are cooler, and I transition out of my garage (where I’ve loved working out with the door rolled up and the sunshine streaming in) back into my commercial gym. I’m still hiking a lot (fall is the best!) and still running, but I’m feeling the itch to start lifting again, and need to return to more structured mobility work. (Both things I’ve only lightly maintained during summer.) I’ll also start throwing my ruck pack back on for walks and workouts.
*In mountain towns like Park City, “shoulder season” is the period between peak season and off-season, or winter activities and summer activities. I’m borrowing the concept.
November - March: Heavier, faster (in short bursts), more structured
Come winter, I’m in the gym 5-6 mornings a week, lifting, dragging the sled, doing shorter bursts of HIIT (usually on the ski erg), and lots of mobility work. My workouts are longer too, as I return to more structured programming. I might set a strength goal or simply return to progressive overload, gradually increasing my weights, reps, or time under tension. This year, I plan to keep running, but certainly won’t log the miles I did over the summer. I’m excited to be under a barbell again, and it’s fun to sprint after a summer and fall of long-distance hiking. I’ll also do a bit of short winter hikes, lots of rucking, and some cross-country skiing—I have to stay outside year-round for my mental health.
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April - May: Spring shoulder season*
I’m restless. I’m very much bored with the gym, and my joints, muscles, and mental health are all telling me I need a break from lifting. On warmer mornings, instead of going into the gym, I might just roll up the garage door. Whiteboard season is back! (I have a whiteboard where I share messages each day behind my workouts.) This year, I started running in May, and will likely pick it back up next year. At this point in the year, I’m also itching to hike, although I’m usually stuck with the lower elevation trails as the snow melts and ski season winds down.
June - August: Lighter, longer, and flowing
It’s officially SUMMER, and I don’t want to be inside. I won’t set foot in the gym once all summer long. I’m hiking my face off, running more often and longer distances, doing every outside yoga class I can find, and supplementing all of that with garage workouts. In my garage, I’m lifting much lighter, focusing more on endurance, core, and flexibility. My gym sessions are more relaxed too (it’s hard to focus with Henry in your face), and shorter. I also don’t ruck in the summer, because summer is for moving light and going long.
The benefits of seasonal variance
It’s been interesting to see how my body naturally flows from one state to another as the seasons change. I’ve come to realize these shifts serve three important purposes in my physical health, mental health, and fitness.
1: Prevents injuries
By April or May, after a few months of progressive overload and heavy lifting (even with rest days and lots of recovery), my body just feels banged-up. My hips are sore, my knees are sore, and the heavier I lift, the slower and more sluggish I feel. That’s when I know it’s time to shift my workouts.
Some people’s bodies can do the same workouts (running, powerlifting, or sport-specific drills) day in and day out for years. I love that for you! My old lady body cannot. If I keep lifting heavy, things start to hurt. If I kept running as much as I’ve run this summer, things would start to hurt. The more static my training, the more I run the risk of an overuse injury, or getting sloppy because I’m tired or under-recovered and hurting myself more acutely.
Mixing things up by season helps my body recover from the muscles it’s been using for a few months straight, and recruit other muscles, movement patterns, body systems, and stabilizers. This has proven incredibly helpful in keeping me healthy and injury-free.
2: Supports motivation and mental health
There were many entire years when I was excited to go to the gym every single morning. I loved it! I was never bored! It all felt exciting! But at some point that shifted. I found myself wanting to move, but bored or unsatisfied with the gym environment. So I’d force myself to go, perform a lackluster workout, and beat myself up for not doing more or losing my “drive.”
When I started honoring those feelings, not forcing myself to do things I wasn’t excited about and allowing myself to explore different athletic pursuits, my joy and motivation came back in full-force. Changing your environment, movement patterns, activities, social groups, speeds, intensities, and/or equipment can be super motivating. Every year, I get excited to rediscover the tools in my garage gym, and then a few months later, I get equally excited to rediscover all the fun equipment in my gym-gym. It’s like a built-in dopamine hit every few months!
Also, even though both locations have dumbbells, kettlebells, and a squat rack, my workouts are very different at home versus in the gym, as a result of the environment and seasonal shifts. I might not do a Z-press once in the gym in winter, but as soon as I roll up the garage door, I remember how much I love that movement, and can’t wait to get back to it! I would never do a HIIT workout all alone in my garage, but in the gym, with the energy of others all around me, I’m ready to hit it hard.
It’s the same with hiking. As much as I love it, I also need a break from that. (Don’t tell the mountains.) Once the fall foliage is done, I’m happy to take a few months off and focus on weights and mobility until the snow reminds me to dust off my snowshoes. That gives me two opportunities a year to get excited about hiking, and since trails look totally different in winter than they do in summer, it’s like I have a whole new backyard to explore.
3: Rounds out my fitness
As far as I’m concerned, this is the least important reason for seasonally varying my workouts—but it’s certainly icing on the cake! Over the course of the year, I’m lifting heavy weights for fewer reps, and lighter weights for more reps. I’m doing long slow distance cardio; and short, fast, high-intensity cardio. I’m using my legs a lot, then giving my legs a break while I focus on the rest of my body. I’m inside, outside, on trails, on pavement, in group classes, and training by myself.
If I had one driving fitness goal, like hitting a 200-lb. squat, this would not be the best approach. But because I’m a generalist who just wants to feel prepared to kick ass in a variety of physical pursuits at any given moment, this approach is brilliant. I’m far more well-rounded than I was when I used to do the same workouts in the gym all year long, and because my workouts are so varied, my fitness is pretty well balanced across speed, strength, endurance, and power.
Each year, I organically find myself focusing on one area of interest (last year: leg strength/squatting; this year: cardiovascular capacity), so I’m picking up new gains all the time—gains that, as long as I’m conscientious about my training across the seasons, I can mostly maintain as the year goes on. (Right now, I couldn’t squat as heavy as I could in back May at the end of my lifting cycle, but if I gave it just a few weeks, I wouldn’t be far off. That’s all I need!)
Flow with the seasons
You can insert some seasonal variations into your workout in all kinds of ways. Maybe in the winter, you ruck (heavier and slower), but in the summer, you walk, jog, or hike. Maybe in the winter, you lift weights and do hot yoga, and in the summer, you swim, paddle, and bike.
You can vary your exercise routine by trying a new class (remember when I did two months of nothing but Pilates? I loved it!), joining a new group (running, hiking, women’s weightlifting), changing your environment (gym for home, or treadmill for trail), or getting inspired by something you saw on Instagram or TikTok. I have a friend who spent the entire summer of 2020 learning how to shuffle dance. That was her only form of exercise besides hiking. She got really good at it, and developed mad cardio!
The point is this: Don’t force yourself to stay stuck in a movement pattern that doesn’t feel good, isn’t bringing you joy, and/or isn’t what you want to do. If the changing of the seasons presents a good opportunity to make a shift, take advantage of that! But you don’t have to wait, either. It’s okay to wake up one day, say “I don’t want to do this anymore,” and do something else. In fact, that might be the best decision you could make for your health, happiness, and fitness.