Triathletes that have successful race seasons consistently do two things very well:
1) Master their winter triathlon training 2) Eliminate weaknesses
You may be thinking the off-season is the time to have 3-4 months off, eat what you want and party hard?
Sorry to break it to you, but not really!
Off course, we train hard during the season, and we deserve some time off for sure but if your winter training is poor, or a bit random, you will spend the first few months of the next season, struggling and playing catch up just to get back to where you were at the end of the previous season.
What if you used the winter training season to get ahead so by the time spring rolls around you are in far better shape to spring board forward instead of starting from scratch?
But this does NOT mean continue at the same pace doing the same training you did during the season. Of course you need a break mentally and physically to repair, to rest and to change your pace to come back mentally and physically fresher.
But you are probably wondering:
How do I prepare for next year, when this last year has been so disrupted and you don't feel like you have really had a race season? How do I avoid the temptations of staying under the duvet when it is freezing wet and dark outside? Particularly when next years races seem so long away!
Every triathlete looks forward to the off-season, and this year is very different because there hasn't really been an 'on season'.
However, I think it is still REALLY important to have some time off to rest, and recuperate.
But how much time?
Can I eat what I want?
What training should I do to give me a head start on everyone else next year? How do I best spend the off-season?
These are the usual questions we ask ourselves as we finish up our last (possibly only) race and are still keen to squeeze out best performances…
But when there is no prospect of a race for a few months and the cold, dark nights of winter draw in, it is easy to lose motivation, to head to the café instead of the gym and gradually lose our way, lose focus and end up losing fitness…
One of the worst feelings is the first few rides or runs of the new season when you remember how hard it is, and even worse when you are breathing hard, you can feel the extra pounds of weight jiggling and you are suffering intense lactic burn but your mates seem to be handling it fine!
For some athletes, a winter training victory is that they ONLY put on 5kg of fat…. But I’m sure you could do better than that
Even picking one new strategy and actually doing it- could make the difference from being at the end of the pack next year to the top half, or even better!
This is a long read, but chose 2 or 3 headings that grab your attention and stick with them. You won’t regret it.
1. Review your season and plan a 90-day goal
It is silly to keep training blindly without stepping back and reviewing what happened this season.The beginning of the off-season is the perfect time to review and reflect on the last year..
What went well? What went badly? Where could you improve next year? What would you do differently?
Review your training journal. Try to identify patterns of sleep, patterns of eating, certain training sessions that made the biggest difference.
Think about next year:
What you do want to achieve next year?
Think for a minute about a goal that would really make you happy proud and glad to be alive. This should not be your coaches goal, the “appropriate” goal you should be going for but a really cool goal that would stretch you, challenge you, maybe one that no one else thinks is possible…
What would it take to achieve this? Be specific.
If you wanted to experiment or change your diet, the off season is a great time to try it. Never make any drastic changes when you are training hard or have a race coming up. Once you have got this- then extrapolate backwards- what therefore could you do in the next 90 days that would set you up to achieve this goal?
If the swim is your weakness and holding back your times- perhaps your 90-day goal could be:
By February 28th, I will be able to swim 2km in 30 minutes
What about if you would love to do a half Ironman but you always get knee pain when you run longer than 1 hour?
What if you use the off-season to see a professional, get a gait analysis then learn what stretches and strengthening you need to do?
Maybe your 90-day goal is being able to run for 2 hours without knee pain
Maybe you keep getting muscle tweaks from your hamstring and calf muscles. Maybe you do not stretching- ever!
Your 90 day goal could be I will do yoga 4 times a week for the next 90 days”.
This is not something you would have to do forever and maybe just knowing there is an end point will help you stick at it. Once you have made big improvements in flexibility, it is so much easier to maintain through the rest of the season.
Make the focus of your planning your “A” race then work back from there with other smaller races you keep you sharp, give you race practice and mini celebrations along the way.
But remember to not book too many races- you will need recovery time and a mental break throughout the year. You want to enjoy the year not feel stressed about competing every weekend!
Also remember to allow for unforeseen events, Life always throws up the unexpected so allow for this. Allow a little flex in your race schedule for illness, work deadlines, friends weddings, kids school plays and so on.
2) GET THE RIGHT GEAR!
There is a saying: “There is no such thing as bad weather- just bad clothing”.
It is absolute misery trying to go on a ride or a run with numb fingers, numb toes, never warming up and hating every minute. Winter cycling changed for me and became less hateful the day I bought bike overshoes and heated insoles. Consider your weak areas and how you can overcome the cold.
Obviously in many parts of the world, winters are very harsh.
Getting outdoors in the winter is great for getting some invigorating fresh air in your lungs, getting some daylight (if you go middle of the day) and feel happy about the world again.
Invest in proper cold weather gear that does keep you warm and dry and you will be much more able to stay on track. My other personal favourites for getting me through the winter include: touch screen gloves and a warm hat.
3) CONSIDER BOOKING A WEEK OR TWO AWAY SOMEWHERE HOT
This is a great idea- which really helps you break up the dark, cold, dreary days of winter, gives you focus and something you look forward to. Sometimes when you are in December, March and April seem a long way off! But if you have a fun trip booked in January- that is not too long to wait plus when you get back. March and April are not that far away.
You could choose between going away for a relaxing holiday or going away to an organised training camp.
Or doing a mix: Book a week’s training and another week total chill out.
If you do make it to a training camp – you will be pleasantly surprised by learning some new ways to train or a new training philosophy through the coaching teams that will be there, by talking to like minded athletes in your position and you may even come away with some new friends who you meet up along the way at different races…
4) BOOK A JANUARY OR FEBRUARY RACE
Not a triathlon of course (if you are in the Northern Hemisphere) - but there are plenty of running races on all the time and depending where you live, there may be some cycle sportives.
Having a race booked in tends to focus the mind and increase motivation to train massively. It does not have to be long or gruelling but even a 5km or a 10km gets the motivation juices flowing.
5) ALWAYS BE GRATEFUL
Wow- if you are competing or participating in triathlons, you really are one of the lucky ones. There are plenty of people who either do not have the opportunity to play in this arena due to cost, lack of access or lack of ability. It give me a well needed slap in the face when I have the occasional thought of “how difficult it is for me to get to the swimming pool.”
The change of clothes, getting wet, the irritation of other people in your lane, the smell of chorine lingering for hours afterwards, dealing with bad changing rooms, the dodgy showers and so on.. but this is NOTHING compared to thousands of people in wheelchairs who manage to get to the swimming pool every day to train and make the Paralympic swim team!
They have to rely on other people to drive them and pick them up and negotiate entrances and stairs. Getting changed and showered is so much more difficult!
It makes me remember to be so grateful for my health, my ability and the fact I have two working arms and legs.
6) PLAN A STRATEGIC PARTNER…OR GROUP TO MEET
By planning to meet a friend on a cold Saturday morning to run in the woods or by meeting a triathlon club to cycle 50 miles on a Sunday, you are then committed- you HAVE to turn up or people will KNOW you are weak, flaky and cannot stick to your word.
Obviously this is not real you!
I was a member of a rowing club at one point. I was the bow girl in a coxless four.
This meant that the boat could not go out unless all 4 of us were there. Funnily enough there was NEVER a session I missed-whether rain, hail or shine. Even in the depths of winter when tipping over into the water would have meant certain death in 20 seconds, or when we had to cut into the ice to put the boat in the water in pitch dark! Crazy right? But not one of us missed a session all year!
Public accountability is one of the best strategies you can employ to keep you on track towards your goals.
Some athletes get a lot of motivation by announcing their goal publicly on Facebook or to their family and friends or to the tri club. Then you will be amazed at how much motivation you have when other people are asking how you are going with your goal.
7) BE A BOOK WORM
Even though you may have a coach or a club that sets out your program for you (this is great for efficiency) there is always something you could improve. Use the off season to catch up on your triathlon-related reading.
You may pick up new strategies and training methods that you have not come across before or you may read something you have heard before that now resonates with you better as you are 1 or 2 years further on in your journey.
Perhaps you chose to read about nutrition and try some different fuelling strategies over the off-season. Perhaps you want to test 1 month on Paleo diet versus one month on plant-based diet and test the difference.
Perhaps you choose to read books on productivity and fitting things in. Or books on strength training or autobiographies of amazing athletes or business people, world leaders or historical warriors and conquerors and the challenges they went through to achieve great things.
Here are the ones I have heard are highly recommended, and still on my list of reading materials:
Getting Things Done David Allen
Open:An Autobiography Andre Agassi
Finding Ultra Rich Roll
Triathlon: Winning at 70.3 Dan Golding (my esteemed colleague!)
Primal EnduranceMark Sisson
The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition Caroline Alexander
I’m Here To Win:A World Champion’s Advice For Peak Performance Chris McCormack and Mark Allen
and there are so many more….
8) ATTACK YOUR WEAKNESS
Off-season is the perfect time to focus on your weakness and see if you can turn it into a strength.
What if your cycling is ok but everything time there is a hill you approach it with dread, then next you your know your friends have danced easily up the hill but you are gasping for breath with your legs screaming at you to stop?
Your friends have to stop and wait for you at the top but by the time you catch up with them, they are rested and head off. You get no rest and now have to push even harder to stay with the pack.
But what if after a great off-season of strategic training, you were first up the hill? That would be an off-season well spent!
You could find some hill repeats and do 10 reps 5 times a week. You could hit the gym and really hammer the squats. You could get a bike fit and check it is set up correctly for you. You could crank up the intensity on the turbo trainer.
What if you still struggle on the swim and find breathing in open water very difficult?
Why not book some lessons and sort this out?
Just practicing the same poor technique will not get you any better in 3 months.
Could you improve your running economy?
Even if you don’t have a running injury, if you understand how to run better and more economically, you can massively improve your times next season. So when the pressure for continued racing and high mileage is off, use this time wisely.
You will get FAR more out of winter triathlon training by improving your technique on bike, run or swim than simply blasting out more mileage blindly
Yes in the beginning you may even feel like you are going backwards.
If the coach changes your hand entry in the pool or makes you use the pool buoy or changes your heel lift in the run but trust me, ANY improvement in technique will save you minutes in the event. This is one of the smartest ways to spend your time in the off-season.
Hire a coach for a one on one session or grab a gait analysis with a running specialist. Remember, Olympic athletes get very video feedback of most training sessions and every race to identify where they can improve economy and technique.
Runners spend many hours doing drills each week perfecting their knee lift by millimetres. It is that important!
Swimmers spend many hours each week perfecting one arm drills, kicking drills, core drills, body position drills to make sure technique is perfect.
And these are guys and girls who are already fast enough to speed past us yet they still spend hours and hours each week on perfecting technique…
This is vital… if this is the ONLY thing you do – you will be faster next year- no question!
9) GET ALL INJURIES SORTED
Sometimes, high performance athletes pick up niggles.
Some are not serious enough to have us side-lined. But they are there! Maybe they come and go- or they are not bad enough (yet) for us to stop training.
If you have any of these- use the winter triathlon training season to sort these out. Do not wait until the injury blows up to have you off training for 8 weeks.
So make a point of seeing a physical therapist or sports massage therapist to get all your knots released and any chronic tweaks or strains looked over and sorted out.
It is of course most likely to blow up 2-3 weeks before your A race… get it seen to now.
10) GO ON- HAVE SOME FUN!
Remember the best results come from having a balance. You cannot and should not train all the time.
Remember to take some time off and do different things. Make sure to spend time with your family and friends. Make sure you get out and do things you would not normally do – like go to cinema, out for dinner.
Make sure you spoil those people who are close to you and have supported you all year, supported your events, shopped for your food, asked with interest about your results, washed your stinky clothes (these people deserve special thanks!!)
Also do different fun things just because you can! Go skiing, go hiking, ice skating, mountain biking, try yoga or Pilates.
These are good ways to give the body a change, give the mind a new perspective and just be normal for a while.
When you come back to training, you will enjoy it more and not feel like you are missing out on life!
11) REVIEW AND UPGRADE YOUR TOOLS
It is never a good idea to make many serious changes during the season.
The off-season is the time to make most changes if you are toying with the idea of getting a new bike-do it now. Talk to as many bikes shops as possible, do your online research, test ride a few models.
Even if you wish to raise your seat a few mms or lower your handlebars, now is the time to do it rather than in the middle of the season.
Give the body a few weeks to get used to a new position before ramping up high intensity or mileage in a new position.
If ANYTHING is uncomfortable – shoes, socks, shirts or shorts chafing, sunglasses slipping down, water bottles leaking, change them now, test out new equipment and be ready to go with kit you are proud of, that feels good next season.
Remember to look out for bargains in the off season from triathletes who are upgrading or changing their gear – you might pick up a few gems- great bikes, aero helmets, new wheels, carbon water bottles, Garmin watches….
12) WHAT GETS MEASURED, GETS MANAGED
Remember you have your 90 days goal. You need to track your progress as seriously as you would during the season.
Put your goal and training plan on the wall or the calendar, somewhere you see it every day and tick it off everyday when you have done it, so it is fresh in your mind and your motivation does not decline.
The worst thing is getting to 90 days and not knowing if you have hit your goal or not. Make sure your goal is objective and you know if you have achieved something or not.
Even if it is something difficult to measure like testing out two different diets, be sure to track every day what you ate and how it felt, how it affected performance, sleep and mood.
13) THE SECRET POWER OF LETTERS AND NOTES
There are many ways to do this- but it is a great tool for motivation and success.
Most of all make it fun and easy!
If you struggle to get out of bed in the morning- write a post-it note and stick it on your alarm clock saying “ get out of bed and run fatty!”
If you can’t face the pool in the morning- stick a note on the kettle saying, “swim before coffee”.
Or a note on the bathroom mirror with your goal of 2km in under 30 minutes in big letters.
Also some triathletes find it really helpful to write a letter to themselves.
A letter that they will open after the 90 days is up.
Give it to your parents or your spouse to give to you in 3 months time.
Write down your big WHY- and your big goals with your sub goals. Write your aim for the season ahead and how you want to feel after the off-season. Write what you will do and how you will get there.
90 days later, read what you wrote.
Many people find this really emotional and powerful as they read what they had hoped to do in 90 days.They realise whether they stuck to their goals, whether the goal was too big or too little and whether they got distracted and the goal slipped away day by day or whether they stuck to their program
A letter to yourself is really powerful and moving…. If you have never tried this- try it! It’s on my to-do list this off-season..
Open it at 90 days and mark what you achieved and any areas you did not achieve and take some learning from that was the goal to ambitious did it not stretch you enough?
Did you simply get distracted by too many chocolates, cream cakes and beer and will have to start again shedding fat and hitting the turbo trainer…?
14) ACCEPT THAT YOU WILL FAIL-SOMETIMES
While we have been discussing quite intently the power of goals and maintaining your integrity and achieving everything you say you will, also accept the possibility that you may fail or make minor fails along the way.
Maybe you say you will run 5 times per week, maybe one day you went out with old school friends and accidentally got hung over (something you would never do mid season) but you let your hair down once and slept in and felt rotten for 48 hours. Well fine- you have had your punishment- don’t dwell on it or throw the whole goal out the window- simply re commit and get back focused again.
Maybe your mum was taken to hospital and you simply did not get a run in for 3 days- do not bet yourself up- life has a strange way of trying to throw us off course.
If it was a source of laziness however that has got you off course- give your self a talking to and re-read your why. One or two missed sessions are fine but one or two missed weeks- are not!
15) CLEAR ANY JUNK FROM YOUR PROGRAM
Review your program to set new goals to make progress each year.
But in your review also look out for anything that is surplus to requirements or does not really contribute massively to your success.
Your focus should always be trying to get better results from doing less…. That way you risk less injury and less burn out and triathlon training will take up less time.
16) BUILD STRENGTH AND FLEXIBILITY
Strength training is a critical part of triathlon training. If you have not really started this yet or if you are just making a token effort- it is time to really ramp this up.
If you can spend 3 months to get really strong in the key muscle groups- you will be shocked at how good your performance is.
It is also a great break for your body from doing chronic miles- and getting over use injuries. Work on any weaknesses, any left-right imbalances and any tight muscles.
It is also a good time to move your body in different ways. Triathlon training is very repetitive and we use our body in very repetitive movements. It is good idea to stretch it and rotate it.
Yoga, tai chi and Pilates give you a structured way to make this happen.
17) STAY WELL HYDRATED IN WINTER TOO
It is easy when it is cold to not drink as much. During winter a lot of illness goes around- keep up your balanced diet to ensure good vitamin and mineral intake, and keep drinking water.
Keep your immune system high and avoid too many late nights or excessive alcohol.
Temptations are all around with Christmas, New Year Valentine’s Day.
18) QUICKEST WAY TO SUCCESS: INDOOR TRAINING
Winter is a great time to do some hard, evil sessions on the treadmill or turbo trainer.
It is important always be safe with outdoor training- and sometimes with icy roads it is just not worth slipping and breaking your leg, wrist or spraining ankle. So stay indoors if there is any danger of this.
But even if you do not live anywhere icy- indoor sessions are an incredibly fast, quick, efficient way to get stronger faster and much quicker for the following season.
For example on the bike by the time you have put on 18 pieces of warm clothing and wet weather clothing: helmet, helmet corner, inner thermals, 2 pair of socks, bike shoes, over shoes, thermal leggings, bike pants, over pants… and so on…this takes some time.
Then you meet your friends wait for them all to turn up, start riding, wait at red traffic lights, hover in slow movement traffic, wait for the slow team members to catch up.
By this time you could have simply:
• Put on your normal bike shorts • Jumped on the turbo done 10 min warm up • 5 x 5mins sprints at full throttle • 5 minutes recovery • Then 10 x 1 min sprints at 100rpm • Then cool down 5 minutes
Awesome workout done in 45 minutes- you would even have time to do 10 minutes stretching before the others return!
Treadmill workouts are fantastic as well for getting an effective speed session in.
For example: 10 x 30 seconds at 14km/hour Or do hill reps For example: 10 x 1 minute up hill at 11km/hour- highest gradient possible.
These are very tough sessions but are really great for getting stronger and faster very quickly. If you do these hard sessions- for example -once every 3rd day during your 90 days –you will see a dramatic improvement in your results.
19) LEARN HOW TO REPAIR AND MAINTAIN YOUR BIKE
There is not enough time in the season to do everything.
The off-season is the perfect time to learn how to maintain and do simple repairs on the bike. It is your responsibility as a cyclist to know what to do, have the right tools, fix it at the roadside on in the race with no help from anyone else. Do not rely on your friends or on blind hope. Mechanicals happen, things break and it could happen any time. Plus it is actually cool to know the basics of your own bike. You will come to know what every rattle and screech means and be able to fix it in a few minutes, not to mention saving a fortune at the bike shop :)
GCN has videos of very type of mechanical repair you could wish for – super clear and easy.