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Triathlon Training in Cold Winter Months


Posted by Dave Lee of Dave's Fitness For Beginners under Triathlon on 23 November 2012 at 12:00 AM

Dave is a triathlete from San Jose, California. Currently 48 years of age, he has competed in many races including three swims from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco, three Ironman finishes, many half Ironmans, dozens of Olympic and sprint distance triathlons, marathons - the list goes on! At age 44 Dave was diagnosed as obese and having dangerous levels of cholesterol. Faced with the prospect of being on medication for the rest of his life, he made sudden and drastic lifestyle changes. Here, he's letting you know how to keep your triathlon training up in the winter months.

Ironman Dave Tribesports profileFor many athletes once the season is over it’s time to relax and recover.  Triathletes are no different except we have three disciplines to think about.  Take too much time off and you’re fighting an uphill battle all season long.  In this post I will discuss what the “off” season means to many triathletes, how training might differ in the colder winter months, and how to build on that great base of winter training leading into your first spring races!

By necessity, we need to make some assumptions.  Clearly, not all athletes are created equal.  Recommendations for most of us Age Group athletes won’t apply to the pros.  This post is geared toward the masses, those of us who have jobs, families, etc.  We Age Groupers are the vast majority of triathletes in the world.  

So, you’ve finished your first season or two of triathlon and you have the bug.  It’s a beautiful thing.  The multisport lifestyle is demanding to be sure and by the end of fall you are ready for a little break.  The body needs a rest and by all means take one.  Most of my colleagues take a solid two to three weeks off around November.  This means zero training.  For some, doing nothing is as hard as training for an Ironman.  It’s a good time to let your body heal whether you think it needs it or not.  It’s also good to recharge your batteries and start planning your next season.  Maybe your goal is to complete your first half Ironman triathlon.  Whatever that goal might be, it will require a training plan.  Use this time to design a regimen that will guide you to a successful race.  

By the time you’ve figured out when and how much time to take off, it’s already time to start training again.   But it’s winter and it’s cold.  I have colleagues in Canada and Alaska who train all winter long.  I don’t mean on a treadmill in a heated gym or on the bike trainer in front of the TV.  Many triathletes are Type A, OCD and motivation for training is not an issue.  But if you’re like me, it’s not always with a smile that I go outside for a 50 mile ride.  The winter offers challenges that force us to make concessions.  I like to train in real world conditions.  

Triathlon cyclingThat means:

  • open water swimming as opposed to only in pools
  • cycling on roads vs. trainers
  • running on pavement instead of treadmills

Don’t get me wrong, these things have a place in our training for sure.  But realize that the benefits of being outside are numerous.  Cycling on uneven road surfaces is more like riding in race conditions.  Running with those subtle anomalies on the ground will make your smaller, supporting leg muscles stronger.  You just don’t get that on a cushioned treadmill.  So I still recommend training out in the weather.  It’s not sulphuric acid!  

Go out for a run in the rain, you might just find it exhilarating.  Get some good lights, waterproof rain gear, and a hardcore triathlete mentality.  Then go ride your bike in the rain and even the dark.  I usually draw the line at high winds which are just unsafe to cycle in and a torrential downpour which makes the feet just miserable.  With these general guidelines many athletes can still train outside about 70-80% of the time.  

Next thing you know the leaves are starting to grow on trees and the sun is peeking though.  You’ve built a solid base by training through the cold winter months.  You are solidly fit and you are ready to move into the next phase of training.  It’s time to implement the training plan you formulated in your off season.  That means building volume and intensity levels.  This is where the real fun begins!  Let’s say your first race of the season is in late March or early April.  

One approach might be to bump up the volume and intensity levels every month: 

  • In January you have increased your volume from the winter months by say ten to twenty percent.  
  • In February you might increase it by another ten to twenty percent.  
  • In March the weekly volume should be about two times that of the intended race distance if it’s a half or full Ironman and perhaps two to three times for a sprint or Olympic distance race.  The intensity should be at or nearly race pace.  

You are a machine and you’re going to succeed!  So take a short break from training, start up your training again with renewed focus and a plan, and then implement that plan in the spring.  Have a fit day y’all!