Making Winter Work

author : alicefoeller
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Triathletes weigh in on making the most of winter training

by Alice Hohl

Winter training means different things to different people.

For some, it is a time to completely shift gears, spend time in different sports, and wait until spring to return to triathlon, renewed and refreshed.

For others, winter’s race-free weeks provide the luxury of honing in on the weak sport and beating that weakness into the ground, whether that means running six days a week or finally hiring a swim coach.

Still others find that the doldrums of winter create extra time in their schedules; Enough time to do some serious base building, putting in long miles on the trainer and treadmill.

There are Winter Training Plans with different focuses. Check out winter triathlon training plans here.

There are also several winter challenges going on in our forum.

During the year of my iron-distance race, I used the winter months to develop discipline with my daily nutrition and to build the strength and power I would need to buttress the hours and hours of slow speed endurance I would be doing in the summer.

Although some argue that strength and weight training isn’t required for triathlon, and often takes time away from sport-specific training time, as a small, slender female, I felt I needed to develop some top-end speed and power in the winter. My speed workouts in the summer seemed to be of higher quality because I had a harder goal to aim for, based on my high-intensity sessions from winter. A “moderate” bike workout was more productive because I knew what “really hard” felt like.

Core work is a good focus for me in winter, too, because my posture effects all three sports. I don’t take the time to do much core work when I’m outdoors all the time in summer, but often my poor posture and lax core tone inhibits my swimming, biking and running, and even exacerbates stomach problems on the run. (I find that when I become tired, my spine compresses, my hips tilt, and my rib cage ends up pushing on my digestive system.) If I can hold my back and pelvis straight, I feel better and run better. 

Winter Cycling

For most triathletes, the bike is the most trying sport to accommodate in winter.

There are some hard-core athletes who bike through the winter in northern locales, but even they have limits.

“I already commute cycle year round, but I tend to stop doing fun/workout type rides until the roads get nice again,” says Ian Loughead of Halifax, Nova Scotia. “We have wet sloppy cold winter in Nova Scotia.”

Loughead (BT username tkos) says he swims more and puts in more base miles in his running schedule, which was helpful last season.

Bill Graves of West Falls, NY, embraces the winter for cycling as well as running.

“I have a snowbike, so biking is not an issue,” says Graves (BT username wgraves7582). Graves signs up for a local winter weather challenge, and uses snowshoes and cross-country skis to fend off boredom and stay outdoors.

“I hate training indoors, so that is not an option,” says Graves.

For the rest of us mere mortals, there’s always the trainer.

Winter Running

Running outside in winter can be easier than you think, and often provides a healthy dose of fresh air during a season when everything seems stagnant and closed-in.

Steve Stenzel, pictured at right, (BT username stevestenzel) relishes a good winter run.

“I'm from Minnesota, and I love winter running!” says Stenzel, of St. Paul. “I hit the treadmill a few times throughout the winter, but otherwise I just hit the trails along the Mississippi River in Minneapolis and St. Paul.”

Most winter runs become comfortable or downright warm after the first 10 minutes.

“It's all about layers,” says Stenzel. “It's not as bad as people think.”

Training the Weak Spot

If your performance is uneven across the three sports, winter is a great time to buckle down, face your demons, and drill the sport you like the least.

Ryan Dailey of Maple Grove, Minn., completed sprint triathlons and Olympic triathlons over the past year, and is planning to step up to the half-iron distance next summer. Recognizing that he needs more endurance and thus more base miles, he is planning to target his weak spot: the run.

“I'm trying to up my running to five or six days week. It's certainly my weak spot, so that will get the most work,” says Dailey (BT username rdailey1).

“I felt I could have trained harder this past summer, so I'll make up for it this winter,” he says.

Base Building

Often times, especially for beginners, simply putting in the time makes all the difference. In winter, there are fewer cookouts, kids’ ballgames, and house projects. That leaves time for hours-long trainer rides, long swims and endurance runs.

“This is my first off-season so I'm working on my running, building a solid base that was sadly lacking,” says Robin Robinette of Knoxville, Tenn.

“I plan to start Jorge's winter bike program on Monday, and my goal is to get in the pool at least once, hopefully twice a week,” says Robinette (BT username rrobinette).

If you are just going to be riding your bike in place in the basement anyway, you may as well start at 5 a.m.

Strength and Core

Many triathletes just don’t have enough time in their week to fit in strength and core training during racing season. In the winter, no one will notice if you only run a couple days a week and spend two or three days in the weight room or on a balance ball.

Since you don’t need to check off a certain number of yards in the pool to feel confident about an impending race, you can hit the yoga mats or do some ab exercises for 15 minutes before diving in.

“I'm going to start P90X when the snow flies, and fit the other training as the weather permits,” says Greg King of Wabash, Ind.

Cross training and strength regimens can build important muscles, as well as preventing overuse injuries by giving the joints a workout in other planes of motion.

King (BT username curlylk) also plans to do regular swim, bike, run workouts indoors, but wants to prioritize P90X for a time.

Winter is the season when Tom Simone of Powell, Ohio, hits the weight room.

“This will also be the only time of the year that I devote any real time to strength training,” says Simone (BT username TSimone).

Simone also is giving his triathlon workouts a rest for awhile, and investing in swim instruction to improve his technique.

Trying something new

Triathlon is a great sport for cross-training, and it sure beats running every day in terms of injury prevention. But even with the varied sports, most triathletes move in a forward plane of motion almost all the time, with very little lateral motion. Over time, this can lead to weaknesses in some muscles, which causes unequal forces to be applied to the joints.

The solution is to move sideways every once in while, whether in a boot camp class, Crossfit, or another group class where workouts are varied.

Kit Hayes of Jonesborough, Tenn., likes to sign up for something different in the winter.

“I'll take the time to do some of the group fitness stuff at the gym, just for novelty's sake and to get my 90s step aerobics groove on,” Hayes jokes.

“This winter, I vow to get somewhere with strength training, and I'm doing cyclocross to help with my bike handling skills and for the social aspect.,” says Hayes (BT username Shop Cat).

Emily Waitz of Hopkins, Minn., increases her running but backs off her training in general, so it doesn’t become stale.

“I take more rest days and try different sports, classes at the gym, and a normal life that doesn't necessarily come second to a training schedule,” says Waitz (BT username BikerGrrrl).

Rest days and technique workouts

Anthony Lathrop of Carmel, Ind., doesn’t claim to be an expert, but he works out with people who are. Lathrop plans to follow their lead and allow some real rest and recovery to occur over winter.

“I'm a newbie, and just joined a group at my Y,” says Lathrop (BT username alath). “There are a lot of very accomplished athletes in the group, and they're big believers in off-season de-conditioning. They still have their same regular schedule of workouts, but they are all very light intensity.”

Lathrop says the group concentrates on form and technique without the focus on sheer volume that can occur when following a typical training plan in the spring and summer.

“They do still work pretty hard in the pool, but the runs are all pretty light, with a lot of walking mixed in,” he says. “On January 2, they start ramping up.”

“These folks seem to get some great results - plus I am trying to heal up a couple of nagging injuries. So I'm going to follow their lead this winter.”


For more ideas on making the most of your winter off-season, check out these great guidelines on how to link together training plans and Winter Maintenance Plans to get the best results.


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date: December 1, 2011


Owner at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.


Owner at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.

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