Winter triathlon cross-training tips and tricks

Hankering to get cranking on your season, but the weather got you down — or stuck indoors? Here's what to do...

As triathletes, many of us are accustomed to doing double sessions on many days, which means we’re out training at sunrise and sunset. During seasons of good weather, this is great since those times also coincide with lower heat and humidity levels. But in the cold, dark months, that may not be feasible, desirable or safe.

Winter can also be a stressful time of year due to the holidays, illnesses and wanting to do other activities that take time and energy away from training. Giving yourself permission to enjoy activities that you can do with family and friends that don’t directly contribute to your triathlon fitness is an important part of mental health and wellbeing that you shouldn’t feel guilty about.

Activities like downhill skiing, backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating and hockey can provide social opportunities, laughter and enjoyment that is so much better for your heart and soul than riding your indoor trainer alone for several hours on a Saturday. However, knowing the Type A, competitive personalities of the typical triathlete, this can also be a source of stress because we want to feel like we’ve done everything possible to have our best performances later in the year. But contrary to popular belief, in order to have a successful race season, we don’t need to swim, bike and run exclusively starting in January.

XC skiing

In reality, there are many ways to prepare well and stay injury free during the winter months if we can just be a little flexible and open minded. So what do we do? This is where cross-training comes in. I think cross-training has gotten a bad rap, and athletes think about it as an option only when they get injured or are trying to find an exercise outlet in the off-season that isn’t swimming, cycling or running.

While having a training plan is important, I strongly feel that sticking to a rigid plan all year is a major contributor to mental burnout and emotional fatigue. But first, let’s remember what the goal is for this time period — let’s say December or January to March. Most coaches use this time period for strength training and general aerobic base training, creating durability in the body and developing the capacity to perform higher intensity, race specific training later in the year.

So is the mode of exercise important? Yes and no.

In the case of novice athletes, or those new to the sport as well as highly skill or technique oriented sports like swimming, it’s important to perform those specific activities in order to maintain technique and neuromuscular coordination. Many athletes have their own opinions about the frequency that these sessions are necessary, but let’s say a minimum of 2-3 times per week for swimming and running.

When it comes to weight-bearing, high-impact activities like running that impose greater stress on the body but also provide important and beneficial adaptations like connective tissue strength, it’s necessary to run in order to maintain the previously developed strength and motor patterns, however doing too much of it is increasingly stressful for the body (and the mind if you’re running on the treadmill a lot) and increases the risk of overuse injury. Not to mention running on snow, ice and in the dark, and you risk injury due to an accident as well.

As for cycling, neuromuscular coordination and fitness come back pretty quickly after taking time off the bike, so living on the indoor trainer just isn’t worth it!

So with the principles of specificity in mind, what kinds of cross-training are beneficial and how can we use it to improve our fitness for the triathlon season to come?

Jake fat biking

Here are some ideas and guidelines for winter training when you live in a cold, wet, snowy location.

As long as you’re working at aerobic intensity to build your aerobic engine, no matter what type of activity you’re doing, you will gain some benefit. So that could mean subtle changes like shifting from road cycling or trainer riding to fat biking, where the benefits will be a direct carryover because you’re performing the same activity and movement pattern.

Substituting an activity with another of a similar movement pattern will also provide high carryover, such as cycling and skate skiing. Skate skiing is a highly demanding activity, in both cardiovascular and muscular contributions. It may actually be quite challenging as you learn, but once proficient in the technique, can provide the aerobic workout you’re looking for. It’s also a great activity to perform with friends and getting outside in the fresh air and sunshine will boost everyone’s mood and overall health!

When it comes to running outdoors in the winter, there is often a higher risk of injury due to snow and darkness, not to mention the reduced ability to run at the appropriate intensities due to slippery conditions. So rather than risk injury, most people turn to the treadmill. The treadmill is obviously a direct carry-over, however some people find that their gate changes slightly and without sufficient airflow and cooling methods, you can end up in a heart rate zone above normal for the same pace. Plus, it can be boring!

Alternatives to the treadmill include deep water running or the elliptical machine. Or, for a fresh air fix and something you can do with friends, try classic style cross country skiing, uphill hiking (microspikes are helpful for packed snow or generally slippery conditions), snowshoeing, or skinning.

At the end of every article, we remind you to FTFP -Follow the F*ing Plan- which is in part jest and part seriousness. Following the plan is important for getting faster and progressing toward your long term goals, but instead of looking at it as a strict plan, sometimes it can be beneficial to modify a scheduled workout based on weather, temperatures, schedule or recovery needs. All we have to do is shift our mindset as well and maybe we can actually get some enjoyment out of our winter training rather than staying cooped up inside for months on end.

One of the most fun winter experiences I’ve ever had was my first time fat biking with friends. Riding on snow-covered singletrack, slipping and sliding around corners and falling in the soft snow had me laughing more that day than I had in a very long time. At the end of the day, I was cold and wet but my heart felt so full and happy.

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