Winter has traditionally been the time when cyclists take a break. There is little joy to be had applying several layers of clothing and venturing out on slippery roads. Limited daylight hours curtail the spin before breakfast or the evening chaingang. Instead cyclists have looked forward to the first blossoms of Spring and future challenges ahead. It's been a time for planning.
I prefer to take a slightly unorthodox approach to the cycling winter, particularly now I'm in middle age. The amount of hours, rest and intensity required in training is different from person to person so one of the keys for any training plan or regime is to ensure it is personal to you. It is particularly apt when juggling a full-time job, family and a generally busy lifestyle. Resist the temptation to follow others.
One of the things I have learnt with experience is there is no necessity to take a long break of 3 or 4 weeks. One or two weeks of rest is fine, but it's far better to keep the body moving. This is where Winter comes into it's own. It's much more preferable to be doing stuff indoors than out. It's a great time to focus on the things that tend to get neglected during the Summer months, such as core muscles and weight training. The latter can help correct imbalances between stronger/weaker sides. It's also becoming increasingly recognised as important for older cyclists to lift weights. Weight training increases the body's production of muscle building hormones such as growth hormone, testosterone, and insulin growth factor.
'Variety is the spice of life' as the old saying goes. The same applies to training. Winter is a perfect time to add other forms of weight bearing exercise to your training regime, such as trail running and walking. One of the benefits of cycling is that it is a non-weight bearing activity, which means its much kinder on the joints. However, studies suggest that in both men and women, some weight bearing exercise is good for ageing bones and muscles. Mountain biking or cyclocross are also great winter activities for cyclists. Both hone critical bike handling skills that can be transferred to the road. They are also pretty intense and a great workout can be had in just an hour.
Cycling mythology says that winter is for long, slow steady miles. Great if you're a pro and nothing else to do in your day, but impossible if you work full-time. Reduced daylight hours and the likelihood of training indoors on the dreaded turbo are not compatible with long, steady miles. Winter requires focus. There just isn't the time for 'junk' miles. Consequently I use winter for high intensity training ('HIIT'). Time wise, I get more 'bang for my buck' and training on an indoor bike becomes more bearable in short bursts. HIIT training requires planned rest which I'm more likely to take in Winter. There is less temptation to get out and get some miles in.
If you're firmly in the MAMIL camp, one way of not only maintaining speed but potentially increasing it, is by jacking your heart rate up into the upper echelons of its potential peak. Intensity is typically one of the first things to vanish from your workouts when you hit middle age. That's because many athletes drift into long, slow distance, not because they are no longer capable of redlining, but because this type of training feels less taxing. But intervals becoming more important as you get older and for all the reasons listed above, Winter is a perfect time to undertake intensity training.
If you plan on adding HIIT sessions to your training, it's key that you build in rest periods. Coaches call this periodisation. It's simply, delivering managed doses of stress (ie intense sessions) followed by a well-managed recovery period. Taking a day (or two) completely off can be more beneficial than a light session. The key is moderation and consistency.