How to use the winter to make maximum performance gains
The bitter cold, fewer daylight hours, increased chances of illness. the winter is a taxing time for triathletes. Thankfully, you’ll learn to love winter with our 18 steps to the perfect off-season
1. Take vitamin D
“Most of the UK are deficient in vitamin D in the winter because our body creates most of its vitamin D from direct sunlight (and the UVB rays) onto the skin,” explains leading sports doctor Dr Will Mangar. “Vitamin D absorbs calcium from the diet so is essential for bone health. A deficiency in vitamin D has also been linked to upper respiratory tract infection.” That’s why we should all take a 10-microgramme vitamin-D supplement from October through to March.
2. Squirt for strength
There’s a reason hand sanitiser is omnipresent throughout UK hospitals – it’s been shown to more than halve the number of MRSA infections. This was off the back of the Department of Health’s Clean Your Hands campaign of the mid-2000’s. It’s why many triathletes slip a small bottle of hand gel into their pockets. And you should, too, in an effort to prevent infection and train consistently this winter. Choose a sanitiser of at least 60% alcohol to kill germs.
3. Know your rhythm
Your chronotype, or biological clock, naturally dictates when you perform at your optimum and is guided by your circadian rhythms, explaining why some of us are morning people and some are evening. By knowing your chronotype, you can plan your triathlon day so you can be at your best when it matters most. If you awake full of the joys, early morning swims are best; if your eyelids still resemble shutters an hour later, an early evening run might be optimum.
Poppycock? The Seattle Seahawks American football team were so convinced they made changes to training times and flight times off the back of determining their players’ chronotypes. As games reached the end, they knew which players would likely have the most energy to push on for victory. You can determine whether you’re a lark or an owl via an online questionnaire at tinyurl.com/yc7xt2pw.
4. Prevent overtraining
Triathletes are motivated. That’s good. But that can lead to insufficient recovery. That’s bad. Monitoring the fine line between overreaching (good) and overtraining (bad) is tricky. Unless you use the LSCT Test, designed by professor Robert Lamberts of Cape Town University.
The test is a 17min sub-maximal effort on an indoor trainer that requires either a heart rate (HR) monitor or power meter. Broadly speaking, you cycle for 6mins at 60% of your maximum heart rate (HRmax), 6mins at 80% HRmax and 3mins at 90% HRmax (or 50%, 72% and 96% of functional threshold power if you train by watts). There’s a 30sec buffer between stages, leaving you to finish with 90secs where you stop cycling and sit up, so you can monitor your HR recovery (HRR).
And it’s this final minute that’s the most telling indication of whether you’re fit to train as, if your HR struggles to drop, it’s a sign you’re on the verge of overtraining. Over time, you’ll notice what your average HR is over the first three active stages, becoming your own affordable tri coach. The results are proven to transfer to swim and run, too.
5. Find the right perch
Are you sitting comfortably? Arguably not if you’re a female triathlete, according to bike-fitting expert Lotte Kraus. “We know that there are different loading types on the saddle. Some riders are more front focused; some are more toward the back. Much of our data suggests that women’s pressure points are upfront.”
Many women’s saddles are wider due to women’s wider hips. But, says Kraus, also look for a saddle that’s padded upfront, potentially making a TT saddle appropriate for road, too.
6. Compete against others
Zwift is a virtual training platform for running and cycling where you run or ride with other online competitors. And that’s why we’d recommend it for triathletes as competition is a huge motivator. Researchers from Kansas State University found that subjects who exercised with someone they thought was stronger than them increased their workout time and intensity by a huge 200%. Just make sure that the competition isn’t too strong as trailing miles behind can lead to demotivation!
- Indoor virtual cycling training platforms: pros and cons
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7. Clean your valve
A surefire way to cut infection this off-season? Clean your valve. “In the winter, farmers nourish their soil with liquidised cowpat,” says performance biochemist Dr Rob Child.
“The off-season and its greater rainfall sees this and other detritus leach onto UK roads, which is then flicked up by wheels and onto your water bottle. It’s crude advice but attempt to wipe your bottle valve each time you suck to stay fit and strong.”
8. Daydream more
Much is made of physical recovery, less of psychological recovery. Until now. “We’re working on a paper called the ‘recovery paradox’,” explains psychologist Yannick Balk. “The more tired you are, the harder you find it to detach both physically and emotionally. This physical fatigue keeps reminding you that you’re fatigued, which heightens stress until you’re ill.” So what can you do? “Daydreaming helps,” adds Balk. “It’s why mindfulness is so popular. So unless you really need it, start leaving your phone at home when you’re out.”
9. Rate your swim
Maximising swim speed comes from hitting the sweetspot between stroke rate and stroke length. Too low a stroke rate signifies slow arm movement, creating time-consuming deadspots. Too high a stroke rate and your stroke technique is inefficiently short and needs lengthening.
There are various ways to improve your stroke rate, including: fins to boost leg propulsion and make your arms work harder and faster; the water polo drill where head-up swimming helps you to check hand entry, slightly reducing swim glide; and the Finis Tempo Trainer Pro, a device for sticking to a pre-programmed stroke rate.
10. Supplement your performance
“I recommend probiotics and fish oils to athletes,” says Mike Naylor, head of performance at the English Institute of Sport. “Fish oils are great for reducing inflammation, which can reach high levels in athletes, and probiotics boost your immune system.” Oily fish at least twice a week is recommended. Probiotics come in supplement form, too, and also from fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut and pickles.
11. Raise your aerodynamics
It’s counterintuitive but go high to reduce drag this winter. “When your aerobars are too low, the athlete often compensates by sitting higher,” says sports scientist Koen Pelgrim. “In contrast, by tilting the bar extensions up a little, the athlete’s head and back drops. This is more aerodynamic, especially as the helmet tail flows more smoothly into the back. It’s a more sustainable and streamlined position.”
Pelgrim reveals that a slightly higher position required his riders to generate 407 watts to average 50km/hr compared to 437 watts in the lower position. That’s a 48:11min 40km ride versus 49:23mins, or a 1:12min saving.
12. Cycle in the deep end
Compression socks, protein, massage – it’s time to add deep-water poolwork to your recovery programme. “Standing tall in the pool’s deep end and cycling your legs increases bloodflow to your lower limbs but without the weight-bearing nature,” says fatigue expert Robin Thorpe. “You also benefit from the compressive nature of water.” Light sculling and swim cycling is perfect the day after a hard run and before a swim set. Aqua-jogging belts can help you stay afloat.
13. Breathe deep, train hard
Like your skeletal muscle, breathing muscles grow weaker through age. That’s where the Powerbreathe inspiratory tool comes in. This handheld device clamps to your lips, before you breathe deeply in and out against a set resistance. Just 2mins a day improves performance, supported by the Medic version, which is available on the NHS. You can also strengthen your diaphragm by pursing your lips while training. It creates a small resistance and potentially has a training effect on inspiratory muscles.
14. Stir up speed
“Many people don’t realise that some foods are more nutritious cooked compared to raw,” explains Dr Child. “That’s why you shouldn’t be afraid of stir-frying your vegetables.”
The causes of this extra nutrient hit are twofold: heat and fat. “Take a carrot. Crank up the heat and it breaks down the carrot’s structure. If that heat’s applied from oil, it acts as a solvent meaning you’ll absorb more of the beta-carotene you’ve digested than raw.” The oil acts as a carrier from the intestine into the bloodstream, meaning less is lost through urine. And that’s important because beta-carotene’s an antioxidant that the body converts to vitamin-A, which gives your immune system a welcome boost.
15. Go ceramic for maximum durability
You can buy a bottom bracket from as little as £20. That’s fine. But if you’re seeking maximum efficiency and durability, it’s time to go ceramic.
The bearings housed in traditional bottom brackets are made from stainless steel, whereas CeramicSpeed’s bearings – mooted as the fastest in the business and used by Lucy Charles-Barclay, Anne Haug and Patrick Lange, among many more elite athletes – are made from grade-3 ceramic silicon nitride, resulting in a surface finish and roundness that’s reportedly 400% smoother than their steel counterparts.
This results in a mooted saving of nine watts over steel bearings. And all for the princely sum of £200.
16. Future-proof your body
“Strength and conditioning work is vital,” says Tom Goom, head physio at Brighton’s Physio Rooms. “There’s evidence that it reduces overuse injuries by as much as 50%.” Winter is the perfect time to implement one or two S&C workouts a week. Neither need to be over 30mins and should contain exercises that engage triathlon muscles; in other words, a total-body workout. One of the core exercises should be squats.
17. Repair and rebuild
“I encourage my athletes to consume 20-25g of protein after training to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and potentially lower the rate of muscle breakdown,” says top tri coach Tom Bennett. “The type of protein’s important, too. Go for high-quality food that provides BCAAs (branched chain amino acids), like lentils or organic chicken. Chicken also provides the amino acid leucine, which helps with muscle building.”
18. Squat to boost testosterone
Testosterone is a key driver of both muscle growth and fat loss. And it’s why you should include squats. While it’s generally accepted that testosterone response is linked with the intensity of the weights session, there’s also evidence that the size of the muscle impacts the level of testosterone release. And as a squat engages the largest skeletal muscle in the body – the glutes (buttocks) – your entire body will benefit from a higher performance-boosting testosterone surge.