7 Winter Training Tips for Triathletes

The first tip? Chill out.

The winter season is a great time to both rest and cross-train. Photograph courtesy of Shutterstock.

The last triathlon of the season is over, meaning unless you’re heading to a warm climate for a winter race, your next tri race is at least four months away. But that doesn’t mean area triathletes should hang up their bikes and pack away their swim gear. The winter “offseason” provides you a great opportunity to work on many aspects of triathlons you might have neglected during race season, and perhaps even try something new.

So before you park it on the couch to watch reruns of the Ironman world championships, consider trying these seven winter training tips.

1) Take some time off—seriously.

You don’t have to take off the whole season—but do give yourself some time to rest. “Time off is key both to physical improvement and mental stability,” says Jenny Lagerquist, USAT-certified coach and three-time Ironman finisher. Don’t train at all for one or two weeks (although Lagerquist sometimes allows her athletes to practice yoga.) Alternatively, take a month (with a few days to a week completely off) to try other sports that you don’t have time for when training for triathlon. USAT-certified coach and Reston Area Triathletes (RATS) president Kevin Kunkel points out that taking time off allows you “to heal and recover physically from all the pounding received over the past training and racing months” and gives “your mind a breather and a time to get motivated again for the season to come.” Kunkel, a USAT All-American and 11-time Ironman finisher, adds that athletes can use this time to “spend time with love ones that’s been sorely lacking” during race season.

2) Winter is a great time to cross-train.
Triathlete Axel Kussman of Iron Rogue suggests cross-country skiing. “With both upper and lower body in use . . . cross-country skiing is such a great whole-body exercise,” he says. And don’t think of cross-training as just “doing something else.” Kussman points out that cross-training has huge benefits: “Using our muscles in different ways makes them more resilient and more efficient.” Kunkel agrees, noting that cross-country and downhill skiing are not only fun, but also offer strength and cardiovascular benefits: “It’s important to try some things you haven’t been doing but that will add to your overall fitness,” he says.

3) Build your base fitness.
Once your little vacation from training is over, it’s time to work on your base fitness. Lagerquist advocates using heart rate and power as training tools during this period. Athletes should determine their appropriate training zones to make sure they are staying aerobic and being honest. “Build a big base for a higher peak,” says Lagerquist.

4) Include interval training.
But you don’t want to go slow ALL the time, emphasizes Lagerquist. In order to remind our bodies of what it feels like to go fast, add a few short intervals to each workout, such as finishing off swim sets with fast 25s with lots of rest, or short bursts of high cadence and power on the bike, or using strides on the run. “Working those fast-twitch muscles is important to stave off permanent plodding and instill proper form,” says Lagerquist.

5) Don’t forget to strength train.
The offseason is an excellent time to work on overall strength through plyometrics, TRX, bodyweight exercises, Pilates, yoga, P90X, or CrossFit. “All these activities will help your mind and body recover, but also will build injury-fighting fitness for the season ahead,” says Kunkel. 2012 Ironman World Championships finisher Kenrick Smith emphasizes the importance of re-strengthening the supporting muscles “that suffer from neglect during the season from swim/bike/running all the time.”

6) Work on your weak sport.
Smith, who qualified to represent Team USA at both short- and long-course world championships in 2012, advises using the offseason to work on your weaknesses, make improvements and corrections, and experiment with new techniques. Lagerquist suggests cutting back on your two stronger sports, perhaps even eliminating one (but not swimming), and focusing on making improvements in your weak sport. She points out that “improvement work and base work can go hand in hand during the base period.”

7) Shape up your diet.
Finally, the winter season is a great time to work on your nutrition, notes Kunkel, who suggests eating more fiber, fruits, vegetables, and other non-carb-centered treats. Eating lean meats and other healthy protein sources, balanced with fruits and vegetables and other fiber rich foods, will prevent binging on high-carb foods. Kunkel stresses that “carbs are not bad. In fact, they are vital to endurance athletes. It’s just that in winter people simply aren’t working out as much in terms of volume or intensity and thus carbs should be better reserved to the higher-volume training to come in the next year.”

Alison Gittelman is a local RRCA certified running coach and triathlete. She writes about her training and races on her blog, Racing Tales.