Winter triathlon training: 20 tips to keep motivation up

Read our advice on getting ready for the new triathlon season – off the sofa and out the door!

(Credit: Ben Winston)

It’s very tempting during the winter to simply batten down the hatches and retreat indoors. Turbo, treadmill and indoor pool – they all provide great training options, but they shouldn’t be used exclusively.

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If you spend the winter bolted to a turbo, not only will your sanity and backside undoubtedly suffer, but so too will your bike-handling skills. You might develop a superb engine but throw in a few corners or tricky descents and those gains could easily turn into losses.

Running on a treadmill is quite simply a soul-sapping experience; the belt will always do some of the work for you, the never changing footstrike is a recipe for overuse injuries and air-conditioned gyms are a haven for colds and flus. Meanwhile, only a hardcore few would take on open-water swimming through the winter. Saying that, there are some heated outdoor pools that can give you a real mental boost. 

So with a little forethought and preparation – choosing your clothing, kit, workouts, etc. – there’s no need to hibernate indoors this winter. Just heading outside, breathing in some crisp air and, most importantly, receiving some mood-enhancing daylight, will help see you through ’til spring. So, get up, get out and follow the tips overleaf, and your enhanced mood, fitness and race results next season will be your reward. 

Winter-proof your bike

Mudguards are the number one priority for enjoyable winter riding. Not only will they make you far more popular with your ride-mates, they’ll also help keep your backside and feet dry. They protect your bike from corrosive salt spray too, prolonging the life of your components and reducing the time you have to spend cleaning post-ride. 

Mudguards on a road bike

Full-length guards are best but, if you haven’t got the drillings or the clearance, there are clip-on options too, which still do a decent job. Get some alloy training wheels and fit some puncture-resistant wider (25-28mm) tyres for a more comfortable winter ride.

Bike off-road

Hitting the trails, whether on a mountain bike or cross bike, is a great option, especially in snowy or icy conditions when the roads can be especially dangerous. For a good, even-paced winter workout, you’re not looking for technical trails, so converted railway lines (see www.sustrans.org.uk) are ideal.

Biking off-road

Trail centres are also a great option, with many having fast-draining all-weather surfaces. Blue and green-graded routes provide an excellent way to get solid winter bike miles in and many centres have a café to thaw out in afterwards (see www.forestry.gov.uk).

Don’t overdress

Aim to start your runs and rides feeling slightly cold to avoid sweating as you warm up, which will only chill you later on.

Adopt simple layering to stay comfortable. Start with a wicking base layer next to your skin; next is an insulating mid-layer such as a fleece; and finally is your wind- or waterproof shell. Add or remove layers to adapt to changing temperatures and as you warm up or cool down.

Look after your extremities 

On the bike especially, pay particular attention to your hands, feet and head. Buy high-quality cycling-specific gloves and make sure they’re not too tight. Silk or merino liner gloves really up their warmth. Remember: to help stop the cold and wet getting in, jacket cuffs go over your gloves.

Triathlete wrapping up warm

Waterproof overshoes are a must for winter riding, but also consider taping up drainage and ventilation holes in your shoes. Knee-length warm socks prevent cold calves and ankles, but not so thick as to make your shoes tight. Prevent water getting in by zipping your tights over the top of your overshoes. As for headgear, you’d be hard-pressed to beat a traditional Belgian-style winter cap for keeping your head and ears toasty. 

Get spikey

For icy pavements or trails, metal-dobbed orienteering shoes, such as Inov-8 Oroc 280’s (www.inov-8.com), are superb.

Trail run shoes

If you’re heading onto upland trails, running crampons, such as Kahtoola microspikes (www.betaclimbingdesigns.com), allow you to tackle steep and icy terrain, but also carrying and knowing how to use an ice axe is recommended.

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We continue our guide to 20 of the best ways to keep up triathlon training through winter…

Swim outdoors 

There’s a real thrill to swimming outdoors in winter and it’s a realistic option with modern wetsuits, booties, gloves and caps (and will certainly put chilly spring conditions in perspective). The Outdoor Swimming Society (www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com) has a guide to cold-water swimming and a map of UK locations, such as:

– Hathersage Lido: In the heart of the Peak District with spectacular views, unheated but open throughout the winter (www.hathersageswimmingpool.co.uk). 

– Portishead Open Air Pool: Near Bristol, this is 220’s winter swimming choice, offering unheated wetsuit swims but warm showers, every Saturday am (www.portisheadopenairpool.org.uk). 

– Oasis Sports Centre: London’s only year-round heated outdoor pool, if you don’t fancy a cold-water hit (www.better.org.uk).

Keep it constant

The best sessions for the winter are those that stick to a reasonably constant intensity or build progressively, as it’s easier to avoid the overheating than chilling effect that high-intensity intervals can cause. This doesn’t just limit you to slow single-pace workouts though…

Triathlete in winter bike training

Out and back run: Run 30mins out, sticking to Zones 1/2 and then turn around and retrace your route, picking up the pace to Tempo, Zone 3. How much quicker are you? Jog for 5-10mins to cool down. 

Step-up pyramid run: Using a GPS to record distances, run 2.5km in Zones 1/2, 1.5km in Zone 3, 1km Zone 4, 2km Zone 3, 3km Zone 2, easing into Zone 1 for the final km.

Chain-gang ride: A winter club-cycling staple, where a chain of riders travel at a constant speed, taking turns as the front rider before dropping to the end of the chain. Great for fitness and group riding skills. Find your local club at www.britishcycling.org.uk/clubfinder 

Sweet-spot intervals: The best bang-for-your-buck winter workout. Warm-up: 10mins through Zones 1 and 2. Ride: 2 x 15-20mins in upper Zone 3-mid Zone 4, with 5mins recovery in Zone 2. Spin home for 10mins to cool down. 

Light up your life 

It’s essential to ensure you can see and be seen when exercising in the winter months.

Bike lights

Reflective clothing and lights are a must, but:

Don’t be seduced by lumens: Beam pattern and quality is more important.

Look for a remote battery pack: It’ll take weight off your head and, by keeping the pack by your body, increase burn time in the cold.

Beware of cheap imports: They tend to fail frustratingly quickly. Spend a bit more on a reputable brand.

Don’t dazzle: If you’re running high-powered lights on the road, be considerate of oncoming traffic.

Be seen from the side: Many high-powered bike lights aren’t visible from the side, which is probably one of the most important requirements for rider safety. Fit some extra LEDs to remedy this.

Head for the sun

Going on a warm-weather training camp is a guaranteed way to get in some outdoors training, and a bit of winter sun can provide a real motivational boost. It’ll give you something to train towards, plus it’s great for purging those festive excesses out of your system. 

Tri-Camp in Mallorca

Fitness trail

Rather than going to an indoor circuit class for some winter strength training, kill two birds with one stone and include a fitness trail in your running loop. Many have stations for dips, pull-ups, etc. and benches for step-ups and other lower-body exercises. 

Fitness trail

To give it a triathlon twist, hit the fitness trail halfway through your run and end with back-to-back leg sets – try squats, lunges and step-ups. When you run off, the jelly legs are just like doing a bike-to-run brick.

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We continue our guide to 20 of the best ways to keep up triathlon training through winter…

Run with your dog

If you’ve got to go out and walk the dog anyway, why not make it a run? Some breeds are more suited than others but, as long as you build them up gradually, most will keep up with you.

Off-road is easier on paws than tarmac, and a hands-free lead and running harness is better for you and your pooch. There are even races you can enter with your hound (www.cani-cross.co.uk).

Triathlete running with his dog

Reclaim the fixie

Fixed-gear bikes have been hijacked by trendy Hoxton hipster types, but it’s time we took them back as the serious winter training tools they are! Kitted out with full mudguards, a fixie is the ultimate winter workhorse.

Fixie road bike

Almost maintenance-free, on the flats you’ll develop leg speed and a silky-smooth pedal stroke; on hills you’ll build strength and power. With no option to freewheel, every kilometre is genuinely earned and there’s an almost Zen-like meditative quality to riding one.

Slow cook

There’s nothing better than getting home from a freezing cold run or ride and finding the house full of the smell of a hearty stew. A slow cooker is one of the most useful bits of kit you can own for a successful winter training campaign. Chuck everything in before you head out, battle the elements for a few hours and come home to a warming hug in a bowl.

Do a dirty duathlon

Dusting off your mountain bike and trail shoes to take on an off-road duathlon is a surefire way to add some fun and freshness to the off-season. For details of an event near you, head to our race listings

Duathletes

Battle bugs

Getting out of the gym will definitely help you to avoid nasty bugs, but what else can you do? And, if you do succumb, should you still train?

Hygiene: Wash your hands and, although it sounds over the top, carry some anti-bacterial hand rub.

Fruit and veg: If it’s bright and colourful, eat it as it’s likely to be rich in immune-boosting antioxidants. 

Flu jab: Heavy endurance training can dent your immune system, so it’s worth stumping up for a jab if you’re not in one of the groups which qualify for a free one.

Below the neck: As a rule of thumb, any symptoms below the neck, such as aches, are a red light for easing off the training. 

Number 2 rule: Allow an additional two days after you feel okay before you train, and limit the intensity to Zone 2 for at least another two after that. 

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We conclude our guide to 20 of the best ways to keep up triathlon training through winter…

Getting out is the hardest bit

Snore to door or bed to shed are the biggest obstacles to overcome for getting out in the winter. Make sure that when the alarm goes off, that you’ve already removed all excuses for not training. 

Triathlete sleeping

Get all kit and equipment ready and laid out the night before. This starts at the end of your previous workout, with cleaning your bike and ensuring you won’t be confronted with a seized drivetrain or flat tyre. 

No matter how bad the weather or your motivation, make a deal that you’ll go out for 10 minutes, that way if you still feel rubbish you can then ditch the session guilt-free. Nine times out of 10, you’ll have broken the hump and will complete the workout. 

Join a triathlon, cycling or running club

Riding and running is always more fun with some mates, so don’t grind out your winter miles alone. Visit www.britishtriathlon.org, www.britishcycling.org.uk or www.britishathletics.org.uk to find clubs near you and check out our guide on what to expect

UK triathlon club training session

Don’t be worried about getting dropped, as most clubs run activities for all levels and will allow you to try a few sessions before committing to join. If you’re planning on joining a cycling club’s sessions, don’t forget to remove your tri-bars and that some insist on mudguards for winter rides.

Get cross

If you’re after a regular competitive fix to see you through until the spring, turn to cyclocross for your biking and cross-country for your running.

Off-road running shoe

Both sports take place every weekend in parks throughout the country and are inclusive, friendly and often allow you to enter on the day. You’ll definitely get muddy doing both, but you’ll have a lot of fun and get a great workout out of it. 

Have your own sunrise

Morning workouts mean a pre-dawn alarm, which can leave you feeling groggy, demotivated and likely to opt for an extra hour of duvet time instead.

A daylight-simulating alarm clock (such as those at www.lumie.com) can make a real difference in the winter. It slowly lights up over half an hour so, although you can set a back-up buzzer, you’ll find yourself waking gently to the light and feeling ready to go before it even sounds.

Lumie alarm clock

Run off-road

Escape the traffic and dark, slippery roads. Sapping surfaces build strength, challenge stabiliser muscles more than pounding away on tarmac, give your joints some respite… plus there’s a childish joy to getting covered in mud.

Running off-road

Fartlek: Undulating forest trails are ideal for these unstructured intervals. Cruise on the flats, attack hills or run with some friends and take turns setting the pace.

LSD (long slow distance): Hit the trails for your long winter runs. Look at hiking guides for route inspirations, sling on a rucksack and turn your winter miles into adventures.

Tempo: Zone 3 tempo runs are ideally suited to undulating trails. Warm-up: 10mins, then hold Zone 3 for 20-40mins and finish off with 10mins jogging to cool down.

(Images: Ben Winston / Jonny Gawler)

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How do you keep up training through winter? Let us know in the comments below!