Best Winter Workouts

If you want to boost your performance in summer, you have to train consistently through winter. That's a very cold, hard fact


Posted: 19 February 2010
by Simon Griffiths

The popular image of professional triathletes may be of young, hyper-fit, intensely focused super-beings who spend the winter training in a sun-drenched paradise at the expense of a sponsor with bottomless pockets.

The mundane but oddly reassuring reality is that many of the country's top athletes - including Alistair Brownlee, the reigning ITU World Champion - spend the majority of their off-season slugging it out through rain, sleet and snow right here in the UK. And if they can do it, so can you.

Under The Weather

Let's face it, though; the weather can be atrocious, especially in February. Any buzz you felt from your new year's resolutions will probably have worn off; you might go through a whole working week without once venturing outside during daylight hours; and the weekends are cold, damp and miserable. Your first triathlon of the year may be months away. All things considered, staying in bed with a mug of hot chocolate has much more appeal than a bone-numbing bike ride. After all, missing one little session can't make that much difference...

Wrong. Snuggling under the duvet may sound attractive, but you'll hate yourself later in the year. There's simply no getting around this harsh fact: if you want to slash your race times next summer you have to train regularly through the winter, whatever the weather.

Spencer Smith, ITU World Champion in 1993 and '94, and now as a coach, says, "The key to success is consistency. I always knew winter training had to be done if I wanted to win in the summer. And if I wasn't doing it, I could be pretty certain one of my rivals was, and possibly in worse conditions."

Work On Your Weaknesses

The first step is to know precisely what you should be doing. Just because the weather is grim doesn't mean you can slack off. Fiona Ford, a professional triathlete, coach and founder of coaching service Triathlon Europe, says February is the ideal time to work on your weaknesses. "For many triathletes swimming presents the biggest challenge and winter is the perfect time to stay warm in the pool and improve your technique."

For those wanting to work on their biking skills a turbo trainer would be a sound investment. Failing that, spinning classes can be very effective. Ford makes her athletes do single-leg drills, simulated climbing (both sitting and standing) and over-gearing sets on their turbo trainers.

Face The Facts, And The Cold

But not everyone has a turbo trainer and even with the aid of motivational Tour de France DVDs, long-distance turbo rides can become a little tedious. And there are only so many miles you can log on a treadmill at the local gym before you go a little crazy - assuming you're prepared to pay the ruinous membership fees in the first place. The conclusion is obvious: sometimes you have to train outdoors; it's time to embrace the great British winter.

The problem for many people is taking that first step through the door. Talk to committed cyclists and runners and they'll probably tell you they come back invigorated after a good lashing of wind and rain, but they still have to overcome the initial barrier. So you need to play tricks on yourself to break down that natural resistance to venturing outside when even the rain is whining that it's too cold.

Jack Maitland of TheTriathlonCoach.Com says that it's about creating an environment and a mind-set that's conducive to training. "You can go a long way toward this by taking the approach that training is never cancelled because of the weather," he says.

Secondly, it helps to have a routine. "If we make a commitment to be at a particular training session at a regular time, it becomes almost automatic to turn up, regardless of weather. People are creatures of habit, so use routines to ensure you keep training," says Maitland.

Be Flexible, Be Amart

However, you have to adapt to conditions. Maitland's athletes work on a sliding scale. If it's icy on the back roads he'll send them out on busier, gritted routes. If it's unsafe to ride, he'll start them off with a turbo session and finish with a run while aiming to keep the same aerobic load.

Working with a monthly programme will also give you the flexibility to move sessions around depending on the conditions. British weather tends to be changeable and conditions can improve (or worsen) dramatically even over a few hours. If you really can't ride for a few days, substitute some swim and run sessions and wait for the weather to brighten up. When it does, jump back on the bike rather than run. As long as you complete your scheduled sessions over the month, it shouldn't matter too much what order you do them in.

Safety Features

The other theme stressed by experts is the need to stay safe and healthy. "While it's good to be tough, there's no point putting yourself in danger," says Smith. Maitland also doesn't want his athletes to become so cold and miserable they put their health at risk. "If it's very wet, do enough to make it a worthwhile session but save the long ride for a drier day."

Country Life

Perhaps the easiest way to continue training throughout the winter is to stay motivated, but that is a challenge in itself. Alistair Brownlee famously races cross- country in the winter to maintain his high motivation levels. He recommends seeking out new run and bike routes and finding exciting things to do. "Winter in the UK lasts a long time so on a day-to-day basis it doesn't matter too much exactly what training you do, as long as you do something," he says.

Maitland endorses the cross-country approach to racing. "It's always good to keep some speed work going through the off-season but races should be seen as part of the training, not its focus," he says.

Both Smith and Brownlee advise against too much agonising. Once you've decided to train through the winter, just get on with it. Don't wake up in the morning, look of the window and then ask yourself if you'll train that day. That decision has already been made and the only questions are whether you need to modify your training to suit the conditions and what clothes you need to wear. "Sometimes it's tough, but you will see the benefits in spring," says Smith.

Go On, Treat Yourself

If your motivation does hit rock bottom, Ford says buying some new kit is a good idea. "It doesn't have to be anything expensive, a pair of gloves or a head torch, for example, but just the fact of owning something new can help propel you out the door."

Remember also to frequently review your goals and think about what your competitors are doing, even if you are Alistair Brownlee. (His younger brother Jonathan won silver at the ITU Junior World Championships in 2009.)

"If I know Jonathan's waking up at 5.30 to swim, there's no way I'm staying in bed," says the elder Brownlee. Alternatively, agree to meet a friend and train together.

You've Never Had It So Good

It's worth pointing out that there are worse places than the UK to spend the winter. Smith has trained in New Jersey in the US, where his drinks bottle would freeze and his glasses would stick to his eyebrows. He now coaches athletes in Michigan and Illinois, where conditions can also be atrocious, and they still manage to train throughout the winter.

But if you really can't take it any more, and you have the time and the money, Smith recommends taking a break somewhere sunny. "Even if it's just a long weekend it will be enough to break up the winter and boost your motivation," he says.

"You don't need to do intense, structured stuff in February, so you can afford to be flexible and move things around. Be realistic about what you can achieve, avoid becoming ill and taking risks but keep training," concludes Smith.

Remember, he was ITU world champion two years running. He knows what he's talking about. So wrap up, take a deep breath and out you go.


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