Building a Winter Triathlon Training Plan

It had seemed a perfect day for a club ride, clear skies, roads free of ice, but the bitterly cold winds soon burrowed through my layers of gloves. Twenty minutes down the road, as numb fingers fumbled brake levers, a collective decision was made to abandon. I took the fastest route home and once there spent half an hour with my hands stuck to the radiator, life painfully creeping back into them. I haven’t put my heavy weight gloves on in this season’s mild, occasionally damp weather. Where has the winter gone?

The apparent delay to the cold and ice is obviously an advantage for training, with the right clothing there is nothing to stop a determined athlete going outside. This time last year I focussed on what could be managed indoors, how training could be adapted and how to get the most out of limited facilities. This year the question of winter training can focus on how the period is most appropriately used. I wrote about my own winter plans last week – swimming and running are my limiters and cycling can quickly be rebuilt in spring – an easy choice, but not one that will work for everyone.

Before you decide on how to divide your time there’s the traditional base mileage to consider; winter months spent training long and often slow to build an aerobic base on which we then build speed. I have no issue with developing aerobic capacity, but the approach doesn’t seem to suit many of the athletes I coach whose training is limited by free time. Before I even consider the impact of weather conditions, work, family and socialising all make their demands. My ‘average’ age grouper can manage around 12 hours training each week, rarely more and sometimes less; if they’ve already filled that time with training, they can’t increase volume. Big mileage isn’t an option.

Winter needs simple goals. There are two factors to consider – what training can be done and what training needs to be done. Specifically are there areas of weakness that can be focussed on even if conditions limit options. The weather can restrict cycling, at least forcing training indoors, but swim and run are more flexible, conditions need to be severe to stop them. Obvious choices for winter training, yet I rarely make them the goal. Despite its convenience most of my Ironman athletes are more limited by bike fitness than run fitness – the former affects their marathon performance more than the latter. They can gain from building run fitness, but they benefit more by becoming stronger cyclists.

Cycling may be the training they need to do, it’s not always the training they can do. When Winter conditions prevent cycling outside the prospect of five hours on a turbo doesn’t bear thinking about. Fortunately there’s more to cycle training than endurance; rather than focus on riding long an athlete can work on developing threshold power. Short, hard sessions several times a week, training indoors, but only for an hour at a time. With dedication and focus the winter months can be very productive and they enter spring with a new FTP to build their endurance from. Less hours spent training on the bike means more time elsewhere, usually resulting in increased run volume. The main winter goal remains developing threshold power, but run endurance can be attacked simultaneously.

The winter training plan for many of my athletes takes this form. Swim sessions are spread throughout the week similarly to the rest of the season (it’s unfortunately rare that athletes will invest the time to improve their swimming); bike sessions are short and to the point, should conditions allow there might be an occasional longer ride, but the plan focusses on intensity; the remaining hours are dedicated to running, with less intensity and more volume to target endurance. As the year progresses the balance between the two can shift to keep the athlete developing regardless of the time available.

Winter is perfect for focussing on specific aspects of your training. I don’t see the need for the already aerobically fit and time limited to plan a period training long and slow. We certainly shouldn’t feel particularly tied to training traditions if they don’t work for the lifestyle we lead.

Ironman Training Library

From nutrition to pacing - a collection of CoachCox blog posts focused specifically on Ironman training and racing.