How to Beat the Winter Triathlon Training Blues

New England Snowy Woods

It’s that time of year. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, we are in winter. In particular, those of us in New England have already seen a few snow storms. I don’t know if you are like me, but this time of year I often have two major issues I need to overcome. The first is having my body adjust to the new training plan I started on New Year’s day. The second is overcoming the training blues and poor motivation. You know. These are the days where you don’t feel like working out, stuff your face with food you don’t need, and generally are totally unmotivated to swim, bike, or run. I struggle with this every single year. This post is a collection of thoughts on how to beat the winter triathlon training blues.

Start By Not Ending

Let’s start by stating the obvious here. Part of the reason it is so hard to get back into the swing of things is that many of us take too much time off between the end of last year’s season and the start of this year. My season usually ends in September. So for me, the period of October – December is one with minimal training. Also during this period is Thanksgiving and Christmas. Typically during this period much food, sweets, and otherwise unhealthy habits commence. This often results in a decent weight gain.

Limit that red in the training plan
Limit that red in the training plan

So, to recap, you can start your new season by not ending the last one. Sure, take some time off, do new things, but don’t take off several months like I do. I had intended to get out on my Mountain Bike this fall, but didn’t for one reason or another. This is something I’m looking to work on next year.

Strategies to Stay In Shape In Off Season

While I can’t speak to the weather in your neighborhood, in New England, we often get winter weather (SNOW) starting in November. For me, this means much training gets forced indoors. Many have found success switching to sports other than your traditional swim, bike, or run are helpful to overcome the indoor blues. Doing physical activity other than triathlon may continue to give you the cardio benefits you need to maintain some fitness while also allowing you to “clear your head”. Some options might include:

  • Nordic/Cross Country Skiing
  • Snow shoe running/walking
  • Fat Mountain Biking
  • Downhill ski or snowboarding
  • Hiking
  • Group fitness classes such as TRX
  • House work (painting a large room uses muscles you may not normally use)
  • Shoveling snow vs. using a snowblower
Snowy Driveway
A Snowy Driveway

Change Up Your Training Software

For those who don’t know, I’ve been using the TrainerRoad triathlon training plans for a few years now. I like these plans because they are high intensity, structured, and are productive workouts. Their application runs on Windows, Mac, Apple iOS, and Android. I can get in a great workout in 60-90 minutes on the bike. Sometimes, though, I’ll decide to change up the prescribed runs to something more engaging or fitting with what my body feels like doing. While TrainerRoad presently only supports cycling workouts with power, the swims and runs must be done outside the software.

In-ride view
TrainerRoad Interface

As most of our training is indoors, another popular option is using computer programs like Zwift. Zwift seems to have come a long way in a short period of time and is part video game and part training software. There are new routes, scenery, and ability to perform structured workouts from their training library. Further, Zwift now supports indoor running on treadmills. So if you have your bike and treadmill next to each other, on Tuesday you can see your little avatar riding and on Wednesday, he or she will be running. I think it’s only a matter of time before you see even more structured training plans from Zwift. The only downside is it needs a relatively powerful and modern computer to run…something my pain cave doesn’t have.

Zwift works best with smart trainers like the Wahoo Kickr. You can use a “dumb trainer” but in my experience, it isn’t as fun. See, smart trainers in Zwift automatically apply more resistance to simulate going uphill which is pretty cool. Dumb trainers don’t do that. In that case in software, your little avatar just moves slower. So if you want to go faster up the hill, you need to pedal harder. It just doesn’t feel the same.

Outside of specific interval training mode, you are measured against other people riding the Zwift course. There are a few checkpoints which include sprints, climbs, and lap time. Others have enjoyed the competition of racing others virtually. Still, Zwift also offers the ability to virtually perform group rides. Get a bunch of your friends together on a Saturday morning and ride until there’s only one person left standing.

Zwift
Zwift

Change Your Training Scenery

Where do you perform most of your training? Mine is indoors for a variety of reasons which include safety, family commitments, and work schedule. Unfortunately, the pain cave (basement) isn’t nearly as pretty as riding over the top of a 3,000 foot mountain pass. So what’s a person to do? I’d first recommend finding a space (or place) that motivates you. I decided cleaning up my training space by putting down some new floors, painting the walls, and adding better lighting was a good project. You have to feel motivated to train in whatever space that is. If it’s indoor it could be a room with previous medals, photos, bibs, etc. Surround yourself with items that remind you about why you are doing what you are doing. For me that’s a clean training space with adequate lighting and easy access to entertainment. For others that might be a dingy and dark space.

When I workout, I like to put a movie or TV show on. It’s what works for me. Others like something that reminds them of riding outdoors. You might also consider The Sufferfest. The Sufferfest is a training app similar to TrainerRoad or Zwift but has videos that go along with the workout. There are some odd ball videos, but others are quite beautiful.

The Sufferfest

Alternatively, you can put on a YouTube playlist of The Col Collective. The Col Collective is a group of people who video riding up the summits of some of the world’s greatest mountains. During the ascents, they narrate what they are experiencing. The videos are stunning.

Other items that work well are to see if you can find copies of old NBC broadcasts of the Ironman World Championships. These are usually my go-to for entertainment during workouts when motivation is low. You can find several on Amazon, YouTube, or even NBC apps on demand.

Workout Together

Another strategy is to workout with others. There are several ways you can do this. Besides using virtual programs like Zwift, many fitness clubs (including the YMCA) have group training sessions. These can be group swims, fitness classes (such as TRX), or even just grab a bunch of friends and use an indoor track. Of course while my focus is all indoor, there’s nothing that prevents you from getting a bunch of men or women together and heading out for an icy cold outdoor run. I don’t want to say misery loves company, but working out with others is a great way to pass the time. Here’s something to consider. How many times have you had a tough workout on the calendar (say 30-40 minute run at threshold) and you know your body won’t do that. So you do the workout, don’t hit your targets and are frustrated with yourself. Then consider those runs you have with your teammates or friends. The same 30-40 minute run is then done FASTER than your threshold. Friends and teammates can motivate each other during the tough winter months.

Some locations might also have CompuTrainer setups. They might offer a weekly series where you and a few others get together and complete a virtual ride.

Race View
CompuTrainer Session

 

Buy New Stuff

I hesitate to put in a section called “buy new stuff” but occasionally you need or want an upgrade. Sometimes new stuff forces your brain to think different and overcome whatever hurdle you’ve had in the past. New training tools can be motivation enough as they can change up your training routine. Here are some places to look if you are looking for an upgrade.

Multisport GPS watch

I usually replace my watch every two years or so. I also usually get refurbished models to save on cost. Sometimes new multisport GPS watches bring new features to help you dive into your training a bit more than you could before. They might have new metrics, new software, or new hardware choices (like optical heart rate). At the time of this writing, the most popular model is the Garmin 935.

Bike Power Meter

If you don’t have a power meter for your bike, I’d highly recommend one. For me, this was one of the best purchases to help my training. It’s helped with the day to day structured training as well as pacing during races. I have a pedal based model, but popular options are Stages, Garmin Vector 3, and PowerTap P1.

Cycling Head Unit

While I often use my GPS watch during a race to log the entire event, when on the bike having a dedicated bike head unit can be helpful. During training, some units can be loaded with maps to allow you to navigate new routes. Popular options are the Garmin Edge 520, Garmin Edge 820, and Garmin Edge 1030.

Pimp my Ride

You spend most of your time on your bike so you might consider giving it some TLC. There are a variety of things you can do to your bike to change it up which include:

  • Get your local bike shop to perform a tune up on it
    • Shifting adjustment
    • New cables and housing
    • Overhaul bearings
  • New tires (I’m a fan of Continental Grand Prix 4000s II)
  • Race wheels
  • Replace bar tape with a new color
  • Upgrade your saddle if yours is not comfortable

New Clothing/Race Kit

So maybe you are on a team or club. Every year they usually put in a new team kit order and you think to yourself “My old kit works just fine.” If you have the cash, maybe consider ordering a new team kit. Sometimes racing in the latest and greatest kit gives you motivation to push during your workouts as you want to look and feel your best on race day. The same goes for normal training gear. If you are anything like me, I haven’t purchased new running shorts or bike shorts in quite some time. You might be due for an upgrade.

Also included in this section would be new bike shoes, running shoes, helmet, and sun glasses. Anything that you can wear, consider upgrading. Especially helmets, they do have a definitive life span.

Find Your “Why”

There’s a great TED talk on YouTube by Simon Sinek entitled “Start with Why”. It’s about how companies who are successful (like Apple) know WHY they do what they do. This is very relevant to triathlon. You need to determine your own why.

Your why might be very different. Here are a few examples why you might want to participate in triathlon:

  • Improve on your prior year athletic performance
  • Prove to yourself you can finish a given event/distance
  • Show your family and loved ones they can accomplish anything with hard work
  • Lose weight and get healthier
  • Win a given event
  • Place in your age group
  • Qualify for Kona (Ironman World Championships)

I’d recommend writing down your why as you head into the next section. Your why should be the motivator and reason you start setting your goals.

Goal Setting

You might argue that this last section should be the first. Setting a series of goals should help motivate you as you know there is a target you are attempting to achieve. I’m a firm believer that NOTHING will get better unless you set some goals. Goals should be S.M.A.R.T. goals. Many of us have to go through a goal setting process with our employers, but for those who don’t know, SMART goals must be:

  • Specific – Are they targeted?
  • Measurable – Can I measure what I’m setting as my goal?
  • Achievable – Is what I want to do actually achievable?
  • Relevant – Is this related to my end-goal?
  • Time bound – Can my goal be accomplished within a specific amount of time?

Goals can and should be very different from person to person, but using the SMART framework, you can achieve them. Let’s work through one of my goals and how I think about setting them.

Step 1: Set your event schedule

Last year, I had what I believed to be an outstanding Ironman Maine 70.3 race. I had a brief setback with a flat tire and some cramping, but I’ve set this as my A race. I want to improve on the result at this race. Knowing that this year’s Maine 70.3 will be the race I’m striving to peak for, I can now structure my training and goals around it.

Step 2: Set a specific goal

I set a time goal of 5:10 – 5:20 for this race. Last year, I crossed the line in 5:32 which included an 11 minute flat tire change. If fitness was the same, I’d expect to cross the line around 5:20. But I want to improve on last year’s fitness, thus the 5:10. So there I have a specific time goal. But, one cannot just throw out a time and say “there’s my goal” and think I can go out and just do it.

Step 3: Begin measuring progress against goal

I have a variety of tools at my disposal for measuring progress against my goal. First, I have tools like TrainingPeaks and Golden Cheetah. Golden Cheetah is the app I use to measure progress on a daily basis. I’m using metrics to track overall training load, FTP improvement, a triathlon run split predictor based on improvements in run fitness.

Trends. Triathlon specific performance management chart. Shows stress in each discipline contributing to total.
Trends. Triathlon run split predictor using VDOT formulas.
Trends. Weight, body fat, and watt per kilogram.

As I think about my goal, I know I need to have a FTP of at least 260 watts, capable of a 8:23/mile half marathon split, and swim 1:40/100 yards. Using these specific targets, I can monitor my progress easily and adjust my training as necessary.

Step 4: Make sure goal is achievable

As I set my goal, I made sure that it was achievable based on past performance. I know what my body is capable and set my goal so that through hard work and improvement I should be able to achieve my goal. But the goal will require me to not just show up on race day. I’ll need to put in the hard work, execute on race day, and ensure that I can adapt my plan as necessary should conditions warrant.

Sometimes your season gives you setbacks such as injuries, life changes, etc. There’s nothing wrong with going back to your goal and adjusting.

Step 5: Ensure the goal is relevant

Sometimes we have steps along the way that contradict or actual end goal. Let me explain. My end goal is a very specific performance at a very specific race. In my case it is an Ironman 70.3 race. I see too many people set goals for events like 5Ks, mountain bike, or even full marathons during the course of their season. I want to be clear, there is nothing wrong with doing these events, but just understand that they may not be relevant to your end goal. For me, a 5K, mountain bike race, or full marathon will not help my end goal and can be a distraction or opportunity to take away from my goal. My suggestion is if you do events like this, enjoy them for what they are or turn them into training opportunities to supplement your goal. As an example, maybe run 5 miles before the 5K and then a 2-3 mile cool down. That might be more relevant to the goal.

Step 6: Make sure you are time bound

My goal is a specific race on a specific day in 2018. Therefore, everything that I’m doing between now and then is in support of my goal. I know that I’ll need to have a variety of checkpoints along the way. For example, at the end of January, I have an indoor time trial. The goal of this is to confirm my training FTP with adjustments as necessary. I also have an event in the spring to confirm swim, bike, and/or running fitness. Adjustments will be made if needed. Lastly, I have a 70.3 race in June as the first major checkpoint on fitness in support of my A race goal. I will use performance from this race to tweak the training between the June race and my A race.

Conclusion

So there you have it. There are some tips on how to beat the winter triathlon training blues. Once a year I usually get myself into the rut and have to find a way to get out of it. Some of the above items usually work for me and I hope they do for you too.