Spring In Your Steps

It's time to pick up the pace and get ready for race season


Posted: 18 November 2009

No one really likes training in the winter - a warm duvet is always far more appealing than a cold, dark morning. But the days are getting longer, the weather is getting warmer and race season isn't far away.

So, no more excuses. Now is the time to increase your training and improve your technique.

Here are some ideas to help you spring-clean your training and make sure you reach your full potential.

1. Be inspired

Booking a trip away is great for the body and soul, and a training holiday will help take your fitness to the next level. Whether you take your bike to the French Alps or go fell running in the Peak District, you'll be so busy admiring the view that you won't even notice the 1,350m ascent. Well, that's the theory...

"We like new experiences, as they stimulate us," says Dr Victor Thompson, a sports psychologist and triathlete. "What you see, hear and smell on holiday is all new, so the body is not only stimulated by different terrain and training, but also different surroundings. So a change really is as good as a rest, as you will come back relaxed, but also fitter."

Training camps can also provide a boost to your training and confidence after a long, dark winter. Former Olympic coach Steve Trew is the founder of Personal Best (www.personalbestgb.com), which organises triathlon training camps abroad. He says that as well as a much-needed dose of sunshine, training camps provide an opportunity to meet like-minded people. "We have a really mixed bag at our training camps, from Olympians to beginners, and they all get so much from listening to each other; it's very motivational," he says.

2. Go the extra mile

If you haven't changed your race distance since you started triathlons, then the chances are your training hasn't change much, either. Even if you're not bored yet, your body will be and while you're maintaining a certain level of fitness, you won't be improving upon it.

Tim Don, 2006 World Triathlon Champion and four times British Champion, says that entering a race with a different, longer distance will spur you into changing your training. "Entering a new event can be a catalyst to varying your training and adding some different and exciting sessions which will make sure you are still enjoying what you do, which is the main thing."

Three-time national triathlon champion Jodie Swallow agrees that training and competing should be fun and believes that raising the stakes on race day can actually take the pressure off, as it changes the focus. "New distances make it difficult to make critical time comparisons, so racing simply becomes about re-setting a standard and base line to progress from," she says. "Often this makes people more positive because suddenly racing is not pressurised but exciting and a new challenge."

3. The weakest link

Few of us are naturally proficient in all three disciplines - and taking lessons can make a big difference to your performance as you will get to work on your technique, rather than just clocking up miles.

Triathlon World Champion Helen Tucker proved how focusing on your weakest area can make a real difference to performance; an injured Achilles tendon in 2007 meant she couldn't run for most of the year. "I think the injury helped me in a way because I had always struggled with the cycling and it gave me an opportunity to concentrate on it. When I started off in triathlon I used to get dropped by the bunch in the cycling. But I have improved a lot now, both physically and tactically." She went on to win the 2008 World Championships after breaking away on her bike.

According to speed and endurance coach Mark Shepherd, many triathletes neglect the fourth discipline of triathlon when training: the transition. "People lose so much time on this, so you need to practise before race day and get into good habits," he says.

4. A novel idea

Even on your rest days, you can be training your mind by reading books written by, or about, inspirational people. "Reading about a sporting achievement will give you get up and go," says Thompson, "but it can just be a story about people that are generally inspiring, such as Jane Tomlinson." [Tomlinson, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2000, completed a number of grueling fundraising challenges in the years that followed, including the Florida Ironman in 2004. She died in 2007]

"They can help you get through hardships, as it puts things in perspective. It also stretches the brain, enabling you to think more broadly about what you can do as a human and as an athlete," says Thompson.

5. Club together

Coach Mark Shepherd says that joining a club provides structure, support and coaching, as well as great flapjacks - which he says is the food of triathletes. "Training with a club is not about being competitive, it's about being social. You realise that you're not the only one doing it and it makes you feel part of a community," he says. It's also a great motivator - if you've arranged to run or bike with others, you won't want to let them down. "When you are on your own if you don't want to train, you won't. But if others are doing it as well, it drives you out the door."

6. New look

Doing the same run day after day, month after month, does nothing to improve your fitness or maintain your interest. Find a new route in a scenic area to motivate you to go that little bit harder, faster and longer.

"If you don't mix it up, not only will you get bored, but you won't progress," says Shepherd. "You need to be doing a variety of sessions at a variety of paces: speed work, longer runs, easy runs and brick sessions."


Kathryn Freeland, founder of Absolute Fitness (www.absolutefitness.co.uk) agrees that running a different route, on a different surface and at a different speed, will maintain stimulation because you have to concentrate. "It also means you are used to training on different surfaces, which will help you on race day," she adds.

You could also find a new pool to train in - many hotels will let use their pools for a fee, or why not get your wetsuit on and take a trip to the seaside, or a nearby lake?

7. The player

Music can play a vital part in motivating you during those long, dull runs or bike rides. And now you can even get waterproof MP3 players as well as cases for your iPod  (www.swimmer.co.uk has a good range).

Music can also help improve performance, which is why London's first half marathon, held in October last year, was called Run to the Beat and was set to live music.

When creating your playlist, Thompson recommends that you to pick music with a beat or lyric that will stimulate a good mood and therefore help to energise and motivate you. Alternatively, go for tunes that have similar beats per minute (bpm) to your running or cycling cadence. This doesn't mean that you can only run to fast music: just take two steps for each beat of slower music.

"Your music should link in with the movement that you're creating and therefore help you keep a rhythm, while acting as a distraction," Thompson adds.

8. Best foot forward

Mark Shepherd says that most triathletes neglect their running technique. "Many swim like fish and bike like Lance Armstrong, but they run like Dobbin the donkey."

You should aim for a cadence of around 180 strides per minute, but to get the best out of your running, book yourself some sessions with a coach. It's also a good idea to have your gait analysed, as running shoes are designed to address a vast variety of foot shapes, weight differences and biomechanical anomalies. "Gait assessment will make sure you are running in the right footwear, which will aid your running efficiency and reduce the risk of injury," says Tom Orange, Senior Technical Representative at ASICS.

9. It's all in the mind

So much of triathlon preparation is mind over matter - or should that be matter over mind? You know that training matters, but you also mind the pain. Dr Thompson says that to get the best of your training you need to find a reason to get out there in the first place.


"The decision to train or not to train, and how well you train is all mental," he says. "If you've not got this right you're not going to achieve your goals. So you need to find a purpose in every single session - whether it's improving your technique, a social, a rest session, or improving your endurance. If you can find a motivation you are more likely to do it, and do it well."

10. Off the wall

We all know that in order to complete a triathlon a certain level of fitness is required, but to reach your full potential you need a training schedule. "A plan is crucial when preparing for triathlons," says Shepherd. "Without it you will never reach your full potential, as your training will always be weighted in favour of your preferred discipline."

Kathryn Freeland agrees that training needs to be structured so you can progress in measured amounts and avoid injury. She suggests writing your schedule up on a wall chart. "It's a good way to stay motivated, as you can see what you've done and what you have ahead of you, and can tick off the things you have achieved," she says.

11. Stretch yourself

Many of us fail to stretch properly; incorporating it into your training schedule will increase flexibility, improve recovery time and help you to relax and get a better night's sleep - all of which will help you perform at your best come race day.

"Doing something calming and relaxing can be as good as a complete rest," says sports and fitness expert Jane Wake (www.body-a-wake.com). "And as stretching is best done when the body is really relaxed, your day off from hard training is an ideal time."

Wake recommends that you fit in two to four stretching sessions a week at home. "Choose a time where there is at least four hours between the stretch and your last training session," she says. "Warm up gently, either with a relaxing bath, or using a massage or tennis ball. Roll the ball around tight spots, including the gluteals [backside] iliotibial band [outside of the legs], hip flexors and quads [front of hips and thighs], pectorals and anterior deltoids [top of the chest and front of the shoulders]. Follow this with relaxing stretches for each of these body parts: hold each stretch for up to 60 seconds, relax, breathe deeply and make sure it feels good."

12. Perfect match

You've entered a race, and you need to work on your fitness but pounding the streets for miles at a time when you'll only by running 5k on race day is a waste of time and energy. What you need to do is tailor your training to your event to ensure you get the best results and to minimise the chance of injury.  

"By matching your training to your event you will make sure that you're fit for the particular distance that you are doing," says Kathryn Freeland. "It's all about smart training, so while you may run, bike or swim less, you can do more speed and agility training. And it's not all about cardio - don't forget to do strength training, too."

13. Eat yourself fit

Just because you're training hard, don't think you can eat what you want. In fact, your high-intensity workouts are even more of a reason to eat a healthy, varied diet. Mark Kleanthous, who has competed in over 400 triathlons, says good sports nutrition will help you prepare and compete to the best of your ability.

If you can't face a total diet makeover, then gradually introduce healthy foods. Every week, try a new recipe that includes an ingredient packed with vitamins and antioxidants, such as blueberries, broccoli, salmon or spinach. The Good Food website (www.bbcgoodfood.com) has some great recipes that you can search for according to ingredient, diet, cooking time, expertise and more. It's also a good idea to make a shopping list of healthy foods and stick to it.

14. And rest

Eight-time Iron World Champion Paula Newby believes it's better to be 10 per cent undertrained than one per cent overtrained come race day, so don't forget to include rest days in your training schedule.

Jane Wake agrees that rest days are important, both mentally and physically. "You need rest days to allow your muscles to repair and re-grow stronger and bigger than before," she explains. "You also need to be able to mentally switch off, as training hard requires good focus and your mind cannot do that unless it has clarity. A day off from thinking about your training schedule can improve your performance the following week. I also believe in life balance, so a rest day allows you to spend time with family and friends."

15. Mr motivator

While we're sure a gold medal was more than enough incentive for Rebecca Adlington to produce a winning performance in Beijing, the confessed 'shoeaholic' had the added incentive of a pair of Jimmy Choos if she came home as an Olympic swimming champion.

While few of us will ever win an Olympic medal, promising yourself a treat, no matter how modest, can help you reach your goals when training and competing.

"Whether it's a new pair of cool sunglasses, a facial or a meal out, treats can be motivational, but it has to really mean something to you," says Wake. "It's also important to establish the difference between treats and what you need for your training. A massage or a new pair of trainers should be an essential part of your training, so try to pick something that you wouldn't otherwise do."


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