What to do this winter to boost health and immunity and take yourself into the start of next season’s training in the best possible condition.
Winter months can be a challenge for triathletes. There is a balance to be found between easing up on training intensity, allowing time for other pursuits, perhaps coping with the weather conditions, and for some resisting the urge to forget fitness entirely for a few weeks/months, to succumb to the lure of the settee, Netflix, and one more chocolate.
Without doubt this year has been a challenging year for everyone, even those who managed to race, and it could be tempting to forget training for a couple of months. Resist. Use the next few months to really work on your health. In addition to the preparation for next year, working on base fitness over the winter months is going to give you your best protection from succumbing to Covid by boosting immune function and will have a positive effect on your mental health. That can only be a good thing over the next few months where the combination of lockdowns, restrictions from ‘normal’ socialising, cold and wet weather, and shorter daylight hours will combine to make life feel more challenging.
If there is one word which is used when talking about the training of successful athletes it is consistency. Consistency doesn’t just apply during the period of time before your ‘A’ races. We find that those of our athletes who continue to be coached throughout the year and maintain consistent training start the next season from a stronger position than those who take a couple of months off and then literally start again at the beginning of the next season. Do what you can to not miss training days. Consistency becomes a habit and it is easier to maintain a habit than create a new one. Consistency of training also reduces reversibility, the inevitable loss of training gains when training stops. (Use it or lose it!)
Consistency is sometimes lost because athletes do too much with too little recovery until eventually they become ill or injured. You should be aiming for progressive overload of what you do in your training sessions but also allowing for sufficient recovery. This is where having a coach is a useful thing so you have an objective assessment of when and by how much to increase your training load. The general rule is 10% increase in intensity or volume. Gradual increases are tolerated by the body and with sufficient recovery adaptation can occur. Too big an increase is likely to lead to injury and time out from training.
Recovery & Maintenance
It is also worth bearing in mind that often it is not all about how hard the session is. The key to unlocking performance and reducing injury risk is recovery. Recovery and maintenance are individual to each athlete but are an area that is often overlooked. An effective strategy is to dedicate as much thought to this part of your training as to the ‘shiny’ sessions. This includes looking at the quality of your sleep and ensuring you are getting enough.
Enjoy Other Activities Whilst You Have The Time
Over the winter is a good time to participate in other activities you enjoy. Do so for the fun or social benefits of participating, whilst still remembering that specificity is an important principle for effective training. For triathletes this means continuing to have some swim, bike, and run sessions. Reducing the volume of those sessions from your in-season training can allow you the time to also enjoy other activities to keep your mind and body stimulated.
You might choose to still stick just to swim, bike, run but change the terrain.
Trail running gives an opportunity to get off the pavement and work on proprioception, balance and a greater understanding of how to run well. Or have fun mountain biking which will add a whole different intensity and experience to your ride if you are normally on the road, yet in return develops your bike handling skills and strength. Both of these off road options also engage you more with ‘process’ as you have to pay greater attention to the constantly changing terrain.
Now can be a good time to back off the volume. Although it’s great to get out for a long bike ride on a dry sunny winters day, ask yourself if a 6 hour ride is the best use of your time. Consider this both from a training perspective but also a balanced approach to life. Backing off the volume gives you time to do other things..
The debate between quality and quantity in endurance sports can be simply expressed as training volume (how much and how often) vs training intensity (how hard). Both are important and you will never be able to complete an endurance race without some training volume but ideally your training should always be the smallest does of training to achieve the result needed in this moment. If you’re doing an Ironman next year there will be a time for getting your body ready for long hours in the saddle but unless it’s in the next few months, you have time to do that later.
A periodised training plan allows you to improve the quality of your training in a progressive way and gives structure to your overall schedule. Success in endurance sports is gained from doing the right things in the right amounts at the right time.
Skill & Technique Development
Now is a great time to assess and identify areas of skill and technique that are ripe for development, improvement, or complete overhaul. Work on basic skills and drills, especially on the bike and run. Learn how to do it better or practice to refine your skills. If you have a coach, ask them for direction on what you need to work on. If you train yourself, take care that the information you are using to guide you is reliable. Make sure you are not spending your time doing what ‘x’ on Facebook does. Take the time to understand and work on developmental areas.
Review This Year & Plan Ahead
Be honest with yourself about where you are now, how this year went, whether the allotted time you thought you had this year worked for you or whether life has changed for you and you have less or (if you’re lucky) more time available. If you kept missing training because of work or family commitments it may be that this reflection causes you to reassess your goals for next year. You might have the goal of a podium place at Ironman distance but if your maximum training time more closely matches the time needed to successfully train for 70.3 distance this is a good time to honestly evaluate what you choose to do next year. That’s not to say you have to change to 70.3 as you might need to let go of something else in your life to free up more time for the Ironman training. Equally do you decide that another branch of multi-sport is more suited to your time availability or physical abilities.
Plan your journey. Where do you want to be as a person and an athlete in 3 or 4 seasons, they are inter-linked. Ian’s early experience (30 years ago) was that it’s easy to simply plan on a season to season basis. You then bounce from event to event , cramming in the training to move towards a finish line. Sometimes this process has little recognition of what has gone before and what comes after. A breakthrough in thinking came when talking with a coach from another sport about planning for the longer term, several seasons ahead. This changed his success as he subsequently planned better from that point onwards.
We advocate that you initially plan over a period of 3-4 seasons. This allows your goals to be linked and allows you to feel that you are being successful a step at time. It also creates a consistent opportunity to reflect, evaluate and review your strategy towards the bigger outcome. Reviews and evaluation should be an ongoing process so that you are involved in the journey and it evolves as life does. Your year 3 is unlikely to look the same when it comes around as it did in year 1. Time spent this winter looking ahead at what you do could transform your training and racing over the next few years and beyond.
Strength & Conditioning
Now is a great time to develop a habit of strength and conditioning work.
This is a dimension of training often overlooked by athletes. Strength and conditioning can and should take on a variety of forms to allow a greater range of benefits. Incorporate quality key exercises from reliable training sources (not the latest feed of Instagram) including basic key weightlifting to a range of body weight exercises. Include some Yoga or Pilates, with a teacher that genuinely understands your sporting direction. Go to a few lessons, repeat what you learn regularly at home, and dip back for checks on your progress and form.
Review and overhaul your nutrition. This can include both your day to day fuelling and also your training and race-day strategies. We live in a world where for many of us accessing food is relatively easy, involving simply a trip to your supermarket and meal of choice. Do we fully look at or understand the nutritional information? Do we understand what we need for optimum function physically and mentally, both as a person but also as an athlete? How many athletes are relying on training with added nutritional products and supplements? Ask yourself do you need that energy drink for an hour on the bike in the next few months, potentially not. Have you established your tolerance to carbohydrates, our body craves sugars but do we need to feed it as many as we do.
We both eat a plant-based diet but even if we didn’t we would ensure we eat 10 portions of fruit and vegetables each day to ensure we eat a range of macronutrients, micronutrients, and phytonutrients.
Winter is a good time to look at what you are eating and establish some good habits. This increase in awareness of the nutrient quality of your food choices might also help you make positive choices at festive meals. It really is possible to eat well at this time of year and emerge into next year at a healthy weight and healthy and energised for training.
Try Some Low Intensity Training
Low intensity training, especially at the beginning, can be frustrating as you learn to run slowly. It requires patience to allow for the physiological adaptations to occur.
Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF training) is the training philosophy developed by Dr. Phil Maffetone, who coached six-time Ironman Hawaii World Champion Mark Allen back in the ’90s. The philosophy was born out of Maffetone’s observation that many endurance athletes were frequently becoming ill and getting injured as a result of pushing their bodies to incredible levels of stress in training. The method works on a basis of 180 – age, then additions or subtractions from this for injury, training history etc. The aim is to become an efficient runner staying at or below this figure. To start with this can be difficult to achieve. It can be a shock to discover that you can achieve very little speed at a low HR and may be difficult to put your ego to one side and allow yourself to run more slowly than you would like. Remind yourself of what is possible to be achieved, the improvement in running economy and how your body will respond differently. Time spent working at a lower intensity now will build great base fitness and allow you much better endurance in next year’s events.
So to summarise, our top winter training tips are:
- Build or maintain consistency.
- Have fun doing other activities during the months you can enjoy having time for them.
- Reduce volume but keep some intensity.
- Skill and technique development.
- Plan and evaluate .
- Work on your strength and conditioning.
- Work on your nutrition and explore all the positive ways of enjoying seasonal eating without destroying your body.
- Try some ‘MAF’ training and work on your aerobic function.