As a coach, I look forward to every winter as much as I look forward to the racing season. After helping athletes to achieve their goals, the onset of winter training marks a time to help them move on to the next level, take on bigger goals and explore their limits.
There is a phrase, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always had.” There is a lot of truth in this, and it leads to the first winter mistake I often observe.
Not Reflecting on Your Previous Season
To find out if and where you went wrong, it’s important to reflect on what you actually did. Triathletes are fond of saying, “my swimming is rubbish,” but upon looking a bit deeper, it’s not as bad as that. For example, completing the distance in the A race means that they have endurance, so this isn’t the issue. A look at their GPS data might show that they actually swam at their goal pace, but they swam too far. This is a navigation issue and so the adjustment to training would revolve around some open water skills that allow them to sight accurately and more often.
This technique could be applied to every single aspect of an athlete’s training and lifestyle. It’s not unusual to discover that there was nothing inherently wrong with an athlete’s training, but that their fitness gains were limited by something else, like poor nutrition choices or simply a lack of sleep.
Making Huge Changes to Your Training Approach
Having identified limiters to progress (or maybe not having done any reflection at all) the athlete then makes huge changes to training. It’s common to see an individual move from a long slow distance approach to one based around HIT training just because they read a book or a magazine article. Not only might this be unnecessary, but it might also be totally the wrong approach for them. As can be observed in the previous paragraph, sometimes all that is needed are small corrections. In some cases, the training could stay exactly the same, but accompanied by changes to lifestyle, the results would be radically different.
Focusing on Outcome Rather than Process
Let’s say an athlete wishes to swim faster in their race. So, they try harder at every pool session, forcing themselves to swim at a pace equal to or faster than their goal pace. This is a mistake. Many triathletes can actually swim at the pace they desire, just not for as long as they want. What limits them might be fitness, but is equally likely to be technique. This flaw might be caused by a lack of specific strength in or around the shoulder complex which happens due to fatigue. Thus, the process to focus on here would be dry land strength work, followed by specific drill work in the pool. Slowly, the swimmer will develop a more robust technique and their ability to hold a set pace for longer will improve. On a daily basis, it is these small process changes will lead the athlete to their goal.
Focusing on Only LSD and Ignoring Speedwork
At one time there was a convention to follow what was known as ‘consecutive’ periodization. Start with long slow distance work to build endurance, then add strength work, and finally speed work. Unfortunately, this approach leads to drastic changes in training intensity and often to injury. Most coaches now favor a ‘concurrent’ periodization model in which all components of fitness are trained year-round. This means that during winter months, one is equally likely to find that athlete doing a small amount of speed work as they are to find them on a long easy run.
Missing “Alternative” Activities
There is a reason why the winter base period is also known as the general preparation period or GPP. It’s a time for ‘general conditioning.’ In triathlon, we move straight ahead for the majority of time at a steady pace. There are very few abrupt changes of direction or speed and so certain muscles and movement patterns get overdone and others barely used. This can lead to imbalance.
Winter is the perfect time to get your fitness from other areas, particularly those that work the body in other directions. Play some team games, try martial arts, test your spirit of adventure with some rock climbing. Heck, even CrossFit will work. Just do something different. If you must swim, then challenge yourself to learn other strokes (like butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke, if you don’t already know). On the bike you could use a mountain bike or give cyclocross a go. Both will improve your bike handling skills immensely, with a side benefit that you don’t have to compete with the traffic. Run wise, try hitting the trails.
No Social Interaction
While you are finding these new activities, look for groups of like-minded people already taking part. Triathlon can be a very solitary sport and training with a group can have some wonderful side benefits, not least the meeting of new friends. If you find yourself lacking motivation as the dark nights draw in, this may be the catalyst you need.
No Mobility or Strength Work
Every impressive building is built on an equally impressive foundation. Fitness is no different! The foundations for good results in 2020 come from consistent training which in turn is achieved out of having a strong immune system (good nutrition and sleep), and a strong robust framework (good technique and strong, stable, and mobile joints).
Usually, when training increases in volume, it does so at the expense of strength and mobility. This is a mistake. Watch any long-distance triathlon and you will see that athletes slow down not because they are out of breath, but because their form is failing due to tired and weak muscles. To prevent this, the wise approach is to reduce swim, bike, and run activities by 10-15% during the winter and replace that volume with suitable strength and mobility training. Trust me when I say that the results will be great.
Ignoring the Benefits of Sleep and Nutrition
Building a strong immune system requires as much attention to sleep and recovery as it does training. I mentioned above, these two often get marginalized. Good nutrition is a key factor, not just for fuel, but also to help repair tired muscles. Many athletes fluctuate massively between their race weight and their winter weight. A more moderate year-round approach might help to avoid this.
Sleep is the #1 recovery tool. 95% of the daily human growth hormone is released during sleep and what’s more, sleep is free. I’m always at a loss as to why athletes are willing to invest thousands in recovery gadgets when there is this simple, underused resource freely available. While it varies from person to person, healthy adults require 7-9 hours of sleep each night. If you do more activity, then you need more sleep. Simple as that; use the winter to find ways to get more consistent, quality rest.
No doubt after reading through this you can come up with your own errors, and your own opportunities to make gains this winter. These are simply the ones I observe which happen with the greatest frequency. As I have mentioned, everything is individual, so please take the time for some honest reflection and highlight your own limiters to progress. The compound effect of small changes performed on a daily basis can be huge. This is your opportunity to really set your stall out ready for 2020 and beyond!