Make the most of your triathlon off-season to prepare for success next year

Winter Triathlon TrainingYour triathlon bike‘s been put into hibernation, your wetsuit‘s in mothballs and you’ve moved all your T-shirts to the back of the kit drawer. Winter‘s well and truly here, but you don’t have to sit idle till spring.

Winter can be a very frustrating time for triathletes. The season’s been and gone, you’ve had a few weeks off to recharge your batteries and you’re itching to get going again. All the experts say that you shouldn’t start serious training until the new year. So what are you going to do with yourself between now and then?

Luckily, we’re here to help. We’ve spoken to some of the world’s leading coaches to get their expert advice. The result is the ultimate triathlon winter ‘to do’ list…

Review your season

One of your first tasks should be to analyze your season’s performances. You cannot look forward with a clear mind without first looking back. “It’s important to reflect on what you’ve done in your races this year and maybe do a SWAT analysis,” says Tri Sport Coaching’s Martin Paine. “You should work out your strengths and weaknesses. It’s quite useful to do this with a coach because they might pick up on some things that an individual wouldn’t, but you can do it yourself. Look at your results and your splits and see where you come in each individual discipline. That way you can indentify weaknesses and address those over the winter.”

Plan ahead

“After you’ve done some analysis, it’s good to plan ahead,” Martin Paine says. “You should be looking at your diary for next year and deciding what races you want to do. Quite often some of the popular ones like Windsor are already open for entries and Ironman races usually get booked up a year ahead. Planning your 2010 season will help you structure your training over the winter and beyond.”

Get properly screened by a physio

According to Leeds Met Carnegie’s director of triathlon, Jack Maitland, winter is the perfect time to get your body fully checked out by a professional – it could be just what you need to facilitate future performance improvements. “I would really advise people to find a phsyio who understands triathlon and get them to give you a functional screen,” he says. “They can assess your flexibility first and foremost – a lot of age-groupers I see are very tight, and this can compromise performance. The other aspect they can check for is muscular engagement – basically which of your muscles are dominant and which are weak. They may also find some left-right imbalances as well. Once you’ve had a screening you’ll know what muscle groups to work on, which is very important when it comes to improving the technical aspects of your swim stroke, running and cycling.”

Get more sleep

Plenty of research has been devoted to the benefits of sleep on athletic performance, and studies suggest that high performance athletes need more sleep than those who lead less active lifestyles. “Sleep is often neglected when considering strategies for optimal training and competition,” says the English Institute of Sport’s Dr Cathy Speed. According to EIS experts, a range of approaches can be used when considering how best to get the exact amount of sleep to boost performance. One of the key areas to look at is what sports scientists call ‘sleep hygiene’ – the behaviours and habits sports people engage in before getting a good night’s kip. “Just like a pre-performance routine, a pre-sleep routine should be consistent and use ‘good’ sleep hygiene behaviours to help achieve a person’s optimal sleeping state,” says sports psychologist Simon Drane. “Aside from setting up a conducive sleeping environment, the first step, and the most important one of sleep hygiene, is to be able to ‘turn-off’ from the day’s activities and tomorrow’s thoughts and slow the functioning of your brain down.”

Learn to run properly

According to specialists in “the art of running”, small changes to technique can lead to huge improvements in run times and reduced risk of injury. Canadian Malcolm Balk is one of the world’s leading specialists in ‘the Alexander technique’, a style of running that emphasizes the benefits of midfoot striking, efficient stride patterns and body lengthening. He says: “Most runners run with varying degrees of ineffiency. One of the ways you can counter inefficiency is looking at where the foot touches down when it lands. The further away from the centre of the hip that your foot lands, the more you brake. Whatever level you’re at, that’s going to work against you. If you can get people to improve their style so that they land more underneath themselves, they brake less and get injured less. Having a more efficient style means you get ‘more bang for your buck’ – you put out the same amount of energy, but you can run faster.” Changing your running style is not easy and can take a significant amount of time. Working on technique during the winter, when training loads are less intense, gives you the best chance of rectifying any issues before the season starts.

Improving triathlon pool swimming is the key to faster race times.Get a proper bike fit

If you’ve never had a proper bike fit, now would be a great time to give it a go. Trained bike fitters will study your body position, pedal power output and the aerodynamics of your bike before suggesting tweaks that could improve both ride comfort and split times. Some companies will also throw in an assessment from a physiotherapist. “The number one reason to get a fit is to make the individual comfortable on their bike,” says John Dennis of Velomotion, one of the UK’s advanced bike fit studios. “The bike should fit the person, not the other way round. There’s a lot more evidence now that comfort on the bike can lead to improved performance – more so than just aerodynamics. The system we use will advise on both body position and also on mechanical details like how long your crank should be.”

Practise your body position

Whether or not you opt to get a complete bike fit, our coaches suggest working on your body position over the winter – it’ll definitely help improve your ride times next season. “A lot of the age-groupers I see are way too high on their bike,” Jack Maitland says. “The one big thing you can do to improve your biking is to ride on the drops, and this would be a great time of year to try it. Obviously it means taking up a body position that’s uncomfortable at first, but you have to persevere. It might be that you set yourself a little bit of a programme – this week we’ll do five minutes on the drops, next week 10 minutes, the week after 15 minutes, and before you know it you’re doing your whole ride on the drops.”

Improve your swim technique

One of the most worthwhile ways to spend some time over the winter is to take a serious look at your swim technique. Many coaches, especially swim specialists like Richard Stannard, offer one-on-one sessions aimed at analyzing and improving your stroke. Such sessions will include above and below water filming so you can see where you’re doing wrong. Then, with a couple of months before your serious training starts, you’ve got enough time to put things right. “There’s no pressure at this time of year,” Jack Maitland says. “You don’t have to swim far, or fast, or fatigued, and you don’t have to race, so you can effect a change in your muscle patterning before the season. You have to make that movement thousands and thousands of times for it to become your actual, normal way of swimming.”

Go for volume, not intensity

Winter is not the time to be launching yourself into intensive speed work or the kind of full-on sessions that push your body to the limit. Instead, you should use the time to build volume via gentle aerobic base training. It will do wonders for your endurance come 2010. “Over the winter you need to be stepping down and doing base aerobic training,” Martin Paine says. “This means getting some distance in, but at a lower intensity. If you’re looking at heart rate zones, it should be the lower zones you’re training at – so zone one and two, which means quite low aerobic intensity. It’s endurance work, basically. Whatever distance you’re planning to race next year, it’s good to build a base.”

Learn to train at different speeds

According to our coaches, one of the biggest differences between age-groupers and elites is the latter’s ability to train accurately at varying speeds and levels of intensity. Being able to hit certain split times – whether quick or slow – over different distances is a sign that you are properly conditioning your body aerobically. It is not something that comes naturally, though, so you’ll need to work on it. “In order to carry out a proper training programme you have to have that ability to train at different speeds,” Jack Maitland says. “What you’re doing is conditioning your body over the whole spectrum of aerobic conditioning – so you have some easy running, some moderate paced running, and so on through the spectrum. A lot of people miss out a big chunk of their aerobic profile that they don’t or can’t condition, especially on the swimming.”

Vary your routine

It is well documented that the best start to the off-season is a complete break from triathlon. What is perhaps less well documented, however, is the benefit of mixing up your routine during the winter. Many coaches and professional athletes recommend taking time out from structured training to concentrate on just having fun – be it by cross-country running, mountain biking or taking some pilates classes. When you return to structured training, you will feel sharper mentally, more flexible (especially if you try pilates or yoga) and ready to get some serious training under your belt.

Don’t worry about your weight

It’s easy to get caught up in worrying about your weight during the off-season, but most coaches would advise against weight obsession. “People often think they have to lose weight during the winter – to me, that’s probably not that important,” says Jack Maitland. “You should only look at losing weight if you’ve eaten a lot of junk food. What’s more important is to get your training programme sorted so you can train consistently through the year, then you will naturally find your proper weight. Don’t lose sight of where you’re going to make the really big improvements.”

Injury-proof yourself

Putting in the work down the gym over the winter can help you build your core strength, and therefore make you more ‘injury-proof’. As Triathlon Plus columnist Steve Trew says:” Core strength is the most important of the ‘extras’ in triathlon training, up there with upper body mobility for swimming and, in my very humble opinion, long before strength and weights work. I would go so far as to say that athletes and triathletes particularly are unlikely to make the best use of their abilities if they do not use core stability as an integral part of their training schedule.”

You can find more winter triathlon training articles here