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BUFFALO WINTERS have a way of forcing people to take it easy for the next few months. Those who run through the snowy weather know it's not all that bad, but it's hard to do too much when the winds are howling and the footing gets tricky.

It might be why Buffalo has so many top masters runners -- there were four champions in last year's Sorbothane-USRA Masters Circuit. They are forced by the weather to regroup and get some rest.

But what if you want to lay off completely for the winter? How much conditioning do you lose if you quit running or cross-training for the next three months?

Unfortunately, a lot.

In the first month, you drastically reduce what exercise scientists call V02 Max, the maximum rate at which you can take oxygen into your lungs, the key to aerobic conditioning. Your heart stroke volume, or the amount of blood pumped from your heart with each beat, also drops. The amount of blood pumped to your leg muscles while running is another key indicator of conditioning.

Within the cells, muscle enzymes that help burn carbohydrates slow down, and the increased capillary blood network built up by running becomes "like a railroad that has lost most of its traffic," according to Running and FitNews. "The tracks are there, but they're not earning their keep."

But all does not have to be lost. Spring doesn't have to be greeted with dread because of a winter layoff.

Dr. Owen Anderson, an exercise scientist, reports in his Running Research News that runners can reduce their workout by as much as two-thirds and still maintain endurance for up to 15 weeks.

The key is making sure that some intense training is still included in the reduced workload.

"That means that if you normally train six times per week," Anderson writes of research done by Dr. R.C. Hickson at the University of Illinois, "you could drop down to two fairly fast-paced workouts per week and almost totally preserve your fitness for over three months."

"The lesson is that it's OK to reduce your number of workouts dramatically during a break period; it's also OK to cut way back on the time spent per workout," Anderson said. "However, a small amount of intense running is needed during a break to maximally preserve fitness."

And then you can actually look forward to the Shamrock Run and the start of the next racing season in a little more than three months.

Special race

Jeff Galloway, the Olympian and best-selling author who holds a prerace clinic for the Nissan Buffalo Marathon, is always on the lookout for a good story and found one at the Portland Marathon in September.

Galloway, writing in the January edition of Running Times, tells how Special Olympics runner Art Pease started out on Portland's 5-mile course. Or, at least that's what his father thought. His son actually got in the marathon race by mistake.

By the time the elder Pease discovered what happened, his son had already run 16 miles. Race officials tracked down his son, who was feeling fine despite having run only three to four miles a day in training. He continued the race under supervision and finished in a time of 4 hours, 18 minutes.

Buffalo remembered

There were 28 American men who ran the Columbus Marathon under 2:20. Joe Henderson reports in his Running Commentary that it was the highest number since the 1984 Olympic Marathon Trials in Buffalo, when 35 runners got under 2:20.

Stretching a point or two

Do you stretch before a run? You should if you want to avoid injury. The American Running and Fitness Association has one of the best short guides I've seen.

"When you run, the calf, Achilles tendon, hamstring and lower back are strengthened and tightened," their experts write. "The more you run, the stronger and tighter they become. Over a period of weeks, months and years without stretching, this tightening can become detrimental."

So the next time you suddenly contract a tight muscle or tendon, you can get hurt. Even a change in running shoes can create a sudden and unaccustomed stretch on the heel cords.

Besides stretching, they also recommend strengthening the opposing muscle groups that running develops. Write to them at 9310 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda, MD 20814, if you're interested in the pamphlet.

Upcoming races

Last Race of the Year, Delaware Park, 3.6 miles, 11 a.m., 839-3049; Gordon's Gallop, one lap Delaware Park, 11:45 p.m., New Year's Eve, meet at the statue of the hunter, 837-3031; Mr. Ed's Country Road Race, Super Bowl Warm-Up, 5K, Middleport, 11:30 a.m., Jan. 27, 735-9989.

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