Essential Winter Training Guide

Train smarter

When the weather turns cold, wet and icy, training suddenly seems a lot less enjoyable, so you can grit your teeth and face whatever nature throws at you, or grind out the miles on the treadmill and the turbo trainer. Or you could be smart and do both.

Elite triathlete Stuart Hayes (stuarthayes.com) says, "Training smart is the best way to improve performance. Only you can decide if it is best for you to be outside or not.

"The majority of triathletes juggle family life with stressful work commitments so there is a tendency to be run-down most of the time, which means the rain, mud wind or snow can add to these stresses. Training outside is not worth an athlete being sick or injured during most of the winter."

But doing battle with winter can offer the kind of variety you'll never experience indoors. Professional long-distance triathlete Joanna Carritt (joannacarritt.co.uk) says, "Nasty conditions make the traditional long ride or run a bit more of a challenge. You do have to be mindful of dangers such as iced roads, but if you can get out there and tap out the miles, it's a great way to warm yourself up."

Take to the trails

For triathletes who train on roads all summer, the idea of uneven terrain and the possibility of smacking into a tree can make trail riding a daunting prospect. Staying safe is easier than you might think, says Ray Mazey, coach at Mountain Bike Instruction (mountainbikeinstruction.co.uk).

"Expect the bike to feel a bit unstable. When you hit rocks and other obstacles, it will definitely throw the bike about a bit. Don't panic. When you panic, you will grab the brakes, which, of course, stops the front wheel from turning and this is when you will come off the bike," he says.

"There are a few techniques you can employ that can greatly minimise risk. When descending, keep two fingers on the handlebars, two fingers over the brake levers and apply some pressure, but not too much. The brakes should apply a slight resistance to both wheels, but still allow them to turn."  

Pay attention when you're descending, too. "Pedals should be horizontal, and you should be standing on them with your legs slightly bent, and your backside just hovering over the seat," says Mazey. "Standing on the pedals keeps you balanced on the bike and also keeps the pedals clear of any obstacles. Hovering over the seat, transfers your body weight away from the front wheel, which will make it much easier for the bike to roll over rocks."

As a general (eminently sensible) rule, Mazey offers this: "Wherever you look, that is where the bike will go. So keep your chin up and only look where you want to go and not where you don't want to go." 

Turbo power

If the roads are iced and you're not a fan of the mountain bike, you can always use a turbo trainer. Jodie Stimpson (jodiestimpson.co.uk), winner of the 2011 Virgin London Triathlon, recommends using programmes and setting goals to keep you engaged. "If it's possible, invest in a computrainer because the programmes on it can mix up sessions, you can set your own bike courses and race a computerised training partner. It keeps it interesting."

Stimpson used this approach when training for the 2011 ITU World Championships. "I set up a course that matched Beijing [where the grand final took place] so it had a hill, descent and flat, which made the hour fly and kept me focused on the session."

Hayes recommends longer reps when doing a turbo session in winter. "Try a warm-up of 10-15 minutes, then complete 4 sets of 15-minute repetitions, with 3-minute recoveries, or 4-6 sets of 10-minute efforts, with 3-minute recoveries. If you use a power meter you can come back each week and try to beat your best average watts. This will beat the boredom and give you some goals to smash."

Miles logged on the turbo or rollers can build a good winter base, but don't overdo it. Paula Dewar, BTF level three coach from V02 Maximum (vo2maximum.com), says, "If you let your cadence and heart rate drop, it becomes a junk session, and won't help you get faster. I wouldn't recommend spending over 90 minutes on the turbo."

On the run

It might sound odd but you can use winter conditions as a training tool. "Sometimes even a brisk walk in heavy snow can be a workout, as can running into high winds, when it is safe to do so," says Dewar. "If you are running cross-county, it is important to have the right footwear."

It is equally important that you choose your path carefully. "When there is snow on the ground I would recommend sticking to the parks or known running routes, so you are already aware of what is underfoot," says Stimpson.

 "Always keep the muscles warm so make sure you always wear tights; if you're running in the dark, make sure you wear luminous clothing," adds Hayes.

Up the pace indoors

If you plan to keep up with some interval work, it might be best to stay indoors. "Intervals and hill reps can be dangerous outside in winter and, anyway, they can be well replicated on a treadmill," says Dewar, though she does not recommend spending more than an hour on a treadmill.

It is important to maintain good form on the treadmill. Matt Sanderson (triathloncoaching.uk.com) BTF level-three coach, makes an interesting point: "I only recommend short treadmill sessions. A lot of people run on a treadmill as if they are walking down a catwalk, with one foot straight in front of the other. We don't advise too much use; it can alter your gait."

If you are sticking to the gym, a good way to maintain motivation is to use multiple brick sessions. These can sidestep boredom and give you a fast-paced, race-specific session that will prepare you for the triathlon season.

Dewar suggests a 20-minute steady bike, followed by 15-minute tempo run, then a 15-minute bike, 10-minute run, and topping the session off with a 10-minute bike and 5-minute race-pace run. The intensity should build as the sets become shorter.

"We would vary this, depending upon the athlete, and the time of year, but it is a good basic example of a session I might set. Winter is traditionally about long, slow sessions but a bit of speed work can be good," says Dewar.

Switch your focus

Winter is also a good time to address any technique weaknesses. Level-three coach and GB age-group triathlete Steve Cassen (cassonz.com), says, "The off season is a great opportunity to put away the stopwatch and shift your focus to reinventing your swim, bike or run technique. You can seek professional guidance from a coach to identify areas of technique that you can refine, with specific exercises and drills that you can incorporate into your weekly training sessions."

This kind of training may mean you have to limit your bike and run sessions. "To learn how to improve your technique you may have to take a few steps back in order to break through and get the overall improvements in performance that you want next season," says Cassen.

You can also work on your strength and conditioning. "Winter gives you a chance to become stronger and avoid injury in the summer, so if there were some exercises you avoided during the summer because they made you too sore, then now is the time to get on top of them so you can be strong all year round," says Hayes.

Incorporating strength exercises such as deadlifts and squats, and using the wobble board and gym balls available in most gyms, can help to iron out niggles.

Dewar says, "As the race season goes on, athletes develop imbalances; now is the time to examine yourself and try to address those. I recommend triathletes seek professional advice, and also make sure they are properly assessed before using weights, to make sure their alignment is correct."

By keeping supple and flexible you may be able to limit the chance of any imbalances returning next summer, says Sanderson. "I encourage athletes to work on their core, and also to use the foam roller frequently to get rid of any knots in the calves."

Smile through the snow

Finally, make time to enjoy the release from summer racing, and focus on enjoying what the winter has to offer.

"As an age grouper I really loved the off-season and winter racing," says Carritt. "It provided an element of distraction from triathlon, and helped me to develop new skills, from mountain-biking, to cross-country running and a host of others."

Winter races will help improve your strength and your bike handling skills, and they will allow you to add some speed work to your winter training programme.

"My top tip for the winter is to check out the cross-country, cyclocross and adventure-racing scene in your area - and get stuck in," adds Carritt.

Dewar says that training with others is important. "Winter training can be demoralising, so we try to organise group sessions and I recommend athletes get together to train."

And don't forget to reclaim some of your life, says Sanderson. "Don't be afraid of skipping the odd session. Triathletes should use this part of the year to spend time with family and friends. Now is a good time to maintain fitness, and work on form, but it is a more relaxed time of year and triathletes should take advantage of that, and get the balance back in their lives."

So whether you hit the treadmill, the turbo or the trail, do so with care, and remember this time of year is about technique, maintenance and careful preparation. Most of all, though, it's about staying safe for the start line next summer.