What I Did Last Winter

It’s cold and dark and there are no races on the calendar. What’s a triathlete to do? Something fun.

If you’re looking to boost your performance in triathlon races next summer, you might try following the off-season example of the sport’s top athletes. They don’t hibernate in the winter months. Instead, these accomplished competitors use their race-free season to get what they need: For some, it’s time to focus on their weakest skills; for others, a time to recover and heal; and a whole other group just goes out and has fun.

Pro triathlete couple Tim and Nicole DeBoom stay active, but it’s nothing like their highly scheduled competitive season. “Tim and I do tons of hiking,” says Nicole. “We also get on our mountain bikes, which is very different for us. We hit the weight room a little harder. We occasionally snowshoe.”

If that’s beginning to sound like serious training, Nicole thinks otherwise. “Off-season doesn’t mean ‘do nothing’ – it means maintain some fitness but with no real schedule,” says Nicole. “It’s just not the time for strict discipline.”

The DeBooms have fun, but they also stay fit. When the preseason starts in March, they glide right into it. Physically and mentally, they’re ready for real training in their primary run, bike and swim sports.

Want to make the most of your off-season? Here’s how.

Strengthen Your Weakness

Most multisport athletes have one sport they face like a nemesis. The off-season is the perfect time to get the upper hand. By focusing on only one sport, you can concentrate on the details – technique, form, mechanics.

“Winter can be a great time to work on your swimming,” says Boulder-based multisport coach Eric Schwartz. “You tend to have more energy to do it because you’re not spending as much time biking and running.”

That strategy worked well for Minneapolis triathlete Dan Arlandson. Last winter he almost doubled the distance he covered in his four weekly swim workouts. “I focused on intervals and pyramids rather than just ‘going for a swim,'” he says. He also incorporated paddles and a kickboard into his workouts to improve stroke and kick technique. “The results have been dramatic,” says Arlandson. “In my first race of the season (a half-Ironman), I was third out of the water with a pace of 1:24 per 100 meters. My best pace the year before was probably 1:40. The off-season rules!”

Be Good to Your Body

Lifting weights and staying flexible is important all year, but with a packed training and racing schedule, those disciplines are often dropped off the schedule. If braving winter’s chill isn’t your thing, stay inside and build strength for the coming season and focus on flexibility to prevent injury.

You might think the reigning masters Ultraman World Champion, Lauren Fithian, would do nothing but swim, bike and run to earn that title, but her training regimen also includes fitness classes, from water aerobics to weight workouts to cardio-kickboxing. “These classes are a great way to stay in good off-season condition and to improve triathlon skills without getting sick of specific-sport training,” she says. “I especially recommend kickboxing because it strengthens the hip flexors for both cycling and running.”

Inclement weather brought Bristol, Tenn., triathlete Susi Chandler into a Pilates class one winter and now she does a Pilates tape at least three times a week. “As an over-50 athlete, I realize my flexibility and my sense of balance are diminishing, and I believe Pilates definitely improves both of those,” Chandler says. “A strong core goes a long way in helping one maintain efficient positioning for all sports. I certainly don’t want to fall off my bike or trip on a trail while running.”

There’s an added bonus: Maintaining or increasing flexibility leads to greater range of motion for muscle groups, which increases efficiency and prevents injury.

Indulge in Alternative Sports

If your next big race is months away, now is the perfect time for new and different challenges that will stimulate your body and your brain. “When I coach somebody, there’s a two-month window after their last race where I encourage less structure and doing other activities,” says coach Schwartz. “Participating in different sports may not have a huge performance crossover, but it keeps you mentally fresh.”

If you live where winter puts on a big show, Schwartz recommends snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, both of which build strength and endurance. If you live in a temperate climate, where swimming, biking and running might still be feasible, he says that inline skating offers tremendous physical benefits. “Not many endurance athletes do it, but it provides great crossover to cycling,” he says.

Another sport Schwartz encourages is cyclocross, which he believes is good for working on transitions. Cyclocross was created in Europe in the 1940s specifically to provide a training outlet for cyclists through the late fall and early winter. This type of cycling is done on a mix of dirt roads, grass and asphalt, with natural obstacles that require dismounting and brief sections of running.

“I take part in our cycling club’s winter cyclocross meet every Sunday morning with my husband, who also races at Ironman distance,” says triathlete Julie Wright, who lives in the Netherlands where cyclocross is a popular sport. “It is such good fun and keeps the competitive edge sharp, but it’s very hard work.”

The Benefits of Fun

St. Paul triathlon coach Matt Haugen takes full advantage of the off-season to have fun with his clients. From November through February, he meets with a training group four times a week for outdoor workouts – whether it’s 20 above zero or 20 below. Last winter they visited 25 different venues and mixed walking, running, stair climbing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, off-road biking and other activities as he saw fit.

“It’s all an aerobic mix that also provides strength for the muscles and strength for the mind, by virtue of it being cold and dark,” says Haugen. “We accomplished some epic workouts.”

A former USA Triathlon Olympic team coach, Haugen says the goals of this type of workout are to stay fit while discovering new activities. “We use a variety of methods that are novel in stimulation and allow us to gain an appreciation of the outdoors,” Haugen says. “There’s no split taking, no races to think about. It’s freedom. It’s just play and movement.”

But the members of his Performance Power triathlon team saw results nonetheless. “People were profoundly fit coming into the triathlon season,” he says. “They were leaps ahead of last year.” One client set three different course records, and a 63-year-old man won his division for the first time in a triathlon. Another team member went from running a 2:53 marathon in October to a 2:44 marathon in January, qualifying for the Olympic marathon trials.

By freshening their fitness in the off-season, these athletes returned to competition more than ready to race. Now, that’s a winter well spent.

Kara Douglass Thom is a health and fitness writer living in the Minneapolis area. She is the author of Becoming an Ironman: First Encounters With the Ultimate Endurance Event (Breakaway Books, 2001) and a children's book, See Mom Run (Breakaway Books, 2003).

Leave a Comment

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Newsletter Signup
Weekly Newsletter
Special Promotions