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Thursday, January 16, 2014

What training should I do over the winter?

One of the more frequent questions I get is what an athlete should do in the off season over the winter?

Doesn't matter the sport -- runners, cyclists, triathletes -- it can be confusing when to start ("should I be doing trainer intervals on Thanksgiving?) , how much training to do ("my friend is putting in 18 hours in early January"), and what type (should a cyclist be only on-the-bike, a runner only run?) you should focus on.

The first question you need to answer is, are you doing your sport for a living?  If you're a pro or an aspiring pro then I think it is pretty obvious, you'll likely be best served by starting earlier, getting in some decent hours in the dead of winter, and spending around half your time specifically working in your sport.  Which isn't to say that pros can't have some fun. On the contrary, this time of year I tell my athletes to go skiing if they want, go on vacation and learn to surf, jump on a snow bike and do some fun fat tire races, hit the weight room, go to the pool -- doing something different can be incredibly helpful.  Mixed in correctly, cross training can work on weaknesses, refresh the body and mind, and build some off season foundation strength on which to start the new season.  But there's no doubt that an athlete who depends on the paycheck from their races ought to get serious sooner rather than later.

If you're like most of us, and your mortgage doesn't depend on how you place at your races this coming year, then there's a lot of leeway.

So some additional questions you can ask yourself:

How familiar are you with your intended race(s)?

  • If you've competed at the distance in the past then you might be able to get away with easing into the season.  If you've done multiple iron-distance races in the last few years and you plan to take it easy this season and stick to 70.3s in July and August, then starting to get serious in March (or even April) is do-able.

What was your motivation like toward the end of your season this past year?

  • If you had a tough time getting out for workouts in August and September because you'd been going hard for months and just didn't feel like it, then take that as a cue that you may have started too early.  Many endurance athletes get motivated early and hit the ground running (literally) early in the season and are burned out by August.  Having low motivation in the middle of summer is a severe hamper to the late season and fall races.

Do you have some weaknesses to work on?

  • A great way to get a head start is to spend some of the dormant winter months working on weaknesses.  Are you a triathlete who needs to cut some time off your swim?  Then spend January in the pool working on your form.  A road racer who had some knee issues this past season?  Go see a specialist and work on your mechanics on and off the bike.

How early are your key races?

  • If you've got a big iron distance triathlon or ultra-run in early May or even April, you're going to want to get moving early in the year.....perhaps even in November/December if the race distance is new to you.
One common situation I walk athletes through is dealing with a big early race and a big race in the late summer.  This is especially challenging for long distance triathletes and runners, because of the overall impact those races have on the body.  Bike-specific races are much easier to recover from, so cyclists can generally race much more often.

For a triathlete, though, having to peak in mid-April or early May and then again in August may be a tall order, and few people can start in January, build up to May, recover briefly and then immediately begin building again all the way to August.  It's just too much.  A simple solution is to take a longer break after the early race.   Take an extra week or two and ease back into the training.

For instance, if your races are May 1st and August 1st, get thru the May race and take a good week or so off.  You could then begin to do easy workouts just to get the legs moving, but try to keep your efforts easy for another week or two.  The tricky part is working enough to keep your system primed, but not enough to be adding any fatigue.  This mild "vacation" after the first race should leave you chomping at the bit to get back to work (and if it doesn't then you might need a bit more time off) to prep for race #2.

In general, I find it's best to err on the side of caution.  Starting too early or going hard too soon can lead to injury and burnout.  Have fun over your off season and experiment with  different sports -- keep it fun. You can enjoy a new sport, and ensure that you're still enjoying yourself during the dog days of summer as well.