For triathletes in the Northern Hemisphere, the season is almost over. Days are getting shorter, the weather is getting worse, and so for a lot of people training time is becoming limited and requiring that extra bit of motivation.
At this time of year you should be planning for next season and starting to think about winter training, which usually means a greater focus on indoor training. As such, a lot of athletes find themselves asking the question of how to make the most of their winter training. With time at a premium, and training over winter naturally becoming more about an hour here and an hour there, it’s important that you make every session count. My approach is to use winter training to ensure you see the biggest overall improvement in your performance come race season.
For the majority of triathletes, the area where most gains (in terms of time improvements) are to be had is on the bike. This means you must also alter your swimming and running in a way that will allow you to focus on your bike training while not completely losing your fitness in the other two sports.
Winter Bike Training
The ‘traditional’ approach to winter training is that of building your base fitness through riding long, slow miles. If you have the time (and weather) to do that, it’s still a great focus for your bike training over winter. However, most age-group triathletes and cyclists are busy balancing work life, family life, and training. The shorter, colder days naturally mean less time realistically available to train in any given session.
The winter focus that more often than not reaps the biggest rewards come race season is increasing your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) on the bike. By increasing your FTP over winter, when you transition to more outdoor riding in the spring, you’ll be able to ride faster for the same effort. And this will translate into material improvements over all race distances.
The good news is that it’s relatively simple to increase your FTP. The bad news is that it’s not easy. You have to be prepared to spend your winter doing some hard work. But as long as you’re prepared to work hard and commit to some intense indoor sessions you’ll reap the rewards and can start seeing a noticeable difference in as little as four weeks.
Winter Swim Training
This is the area that a lot of triathletes feel they need to focus on most because it’s their weakest discipline. If you’re a “middle of the pack” swimmer or better it’s tempting to aim to become a “front of the pack” swimmer by swimming three to four times per week and knocking a few minutes off your swim time.
However, let’s view the question through the lens of ‘how do I best make use of my winter training time?’ Is spending six to eight hours per week on swimming during the winter (once you’ve factored in travel and changing time) for a two minute time gain really time well spent?
For most triathletes, I believe you’re better off reducing the swim training to once per week, or even less. This is just enough pool time to maintain your stroke mechanics and then to build up again in the spring, when there is more daylight and hence more available training time.
For weaker swimmers, or beginners, your pool time in the winter is best spent practicing the correct technique, with appropriate drills, rather than training hard with poor technique and further embedding your stroke flaws.
Winter Run Training
It’s tempting to assume that in order to improve your running over winter, you need to be going hard and doing lots of tempo and interval sets. However, if your winter bike training is effectively focussed on building power, then that will take care of improving cardiovascular fitness. You can only train hard so many times in a week, and with that happening on the bike, it frees you up to concentrate on a winter of enjoyable steady running.
This will help develop your running mechanics and strengthen your ligaments, tendons and run-specific muscles. Then, as winter turns to spring and your biking focus moves towards endurance and away from top-end power, you’ll have the strength, fitness, and run durability to start to increase your running intensity without risking injury. Since the majority of triathletes are injured by running, this is an important consideration!
Below is an example of what an Annual Training Plan (ATP) using custom names may look like using reverse periodization. You can see that the volume stays low through the winter while focusing on specific aspects of each sport. As the weather warms up in March and April, the volume increases to build endurance for race day in June.
Especially for athletes racing long distance next year, the reverse periodization approach also means that you will reach the spring season feeling powerful, fast, and strong on the bike. This means that as you naturally increase the length of your long rides, you’ll be riding faster for the same effort level.
If you are interested in finding out more about the details of how to use reverse periodization watch this free webinar about Reverse Periodization for Triathlon Performance with Rob Wilby, or check out his training plans.