Training Plans

Winter training for cyclists and triathletes – striking the right balance

Winter’s are hard. And training in winter is even harder. Those heady days of training in shorts and just one top layer, open water swimming, running in a vest or zooming down some alpine col are long gone.

We are past Halloween, the nights are well ‘drawn in’ and pre / post work sessions are either done in the dark or often indoors.

Yet we are excited!  Excited by the prospect of what next season can bring. We’ve analysed the season, what went well, what didn’t and how to fix them. We may have vowed to go back and settle old scores with races that didn’t quite go to plan, or have exciting new goals on the horizon. Whoever you are, and wherever you are on the above spectrum, the base to all your ambitions begin now. In the depths of winter.

How to train for triathlons in winter

Old school wisdom would see many endurance athletes often taking a complete break until Christmas. They’d saddle up in January with 8 weeks of ‘base endurance’ then head straight into a hectic racing calendar. However, the seasonal shape has now changed. The season goes on longer and with the opportunity to race all over the world this now outdated view has been consigned to the past.

Many Northern hemisphere athletes will have finished racing sometime in the last two months and will likely have had some planned downtime to mentally and physically recharge (see this previous post). With their plans and goals in place they will now be starting to think about training for the new season.

How do you approach the winter training period?

My biggest piece of advice here would be to identify your key goal race(s) or period to peak for and work out how far away it is from today.  Then take a step back and breathe.

It’s likely that period is anywhere from 26-40 weeks away. So the next piece of advice is DON’T RUSH!

You are likely only a few weeks away from your peak fitness gained this season, maybe 12-15 weeks maximum. How long will it take to regain (or better) that level of fitness, depending on your goal? The probable answer is no where near 26-40 weeks!

As such it’s important to then break down this rebuild to peak fitness into clearly identifiable, goal driven sections.

How to train in winter if you're a cyclist

In your post season analysis either done by yourself, with a coach or objective supporter, you will have identified key areas of training opportunity during the winter. For instance, triathletes may address their swim stroke, running economy or nutrition strategy. On the bike it may be that your endurance resistance is low. By this I mean that over time your ability to hold the pace or numbers you can when ‘fresh’ declines rapidly.

Whatever it may be, clearly addressing these issues early can ensure you will be one step closer to hitting your goals for next season.

With some of my triathlete clients we are currently working on their swim stroke, via 1-2-1 coaching and drills. There is no focus on speed, it is ALL about the stroke technique. First we fix this, then when we overlay speed work later we will be able to see true ‘forward progress’ in stroke economy and speed.

For myself, I have identified 2 key winter training areas:

  1. Mountain bike technical skills – WHY?
    1. On uphill, fast flat sections I can compete with the best. On technical single track or downhill I lose inordinate amounts of time therefore losing any chance of competing in an off road race is made doubly difficult.
  2. Endurance resistance on the road – WHY?
    1. My base endurance is without doubt pretty decent, but my top end and ability to replicate that top end way into an endurance session is poor.

The first portion of my winter training will be dedicated to fixing these.

Once I am happy I have made progress on these, I will then specifically incorporate key sessions into my longer term training plan to maintain the gains.

Right now I am overloading on MTB riding. I am definitely improving my technical skills, noted from improvements on STRAVA leader-boards. This is where STRAVA can be a great tool, I can ‘see’ the improvement as I inch up those leader boards.

Also within these rides I am starting work on my top end, both fresh and when tired. I have some well worn routes round here of which I have some key climbs 2-6mins in length. I ‘hit’ these hard at the start and end of sessions with a view to maintaining my ‘fresh’ numbers. There is no doubt this is hard. I am 2 weeks in and have a way to go. But I know this is the right way to go and the direction to travel.

Once I begin my season’s build, broadly around the 1st December, I will be incorporating one session a week of high intensity endurance MTB riding to practice and hone the above.

Practising your cycling skills in winter
Mountain bike training in the winter


The dangers of getting winter training wrong

This time of year many athletes are so keen to get back to training and regain that ‘summer form’ there is a real danger of rushing in and peaking too early. There are many dangers with coming back too fast and too hard:

  1. Injury from pushing too hard too soon.
  2. Peaking too early – what’s the point being race fit in February for a July key race? You can never hold that ‘form’!
  3. Burn out – I think this is the biggest danger. The training many do can be addictive and for many almost an end in itself. But it takes discipline, focus and hard work. Maintaining this isn’t easy. Come back too hard too soon and the likelihood is at some point in the season it will all become too much and you will either mentally or physically need a break. Right at peak racing time!

So how do we avoid these pitfalls?

My key recommendations are:

  1. Firstly, identify your goal race(s) / period of peak race fitness in next seasons calendar.
    1. Don’t identify too many key goal races and if trying to target two or more ‘peaks’ of fitness think carefully on how they are spaced and how you will build between them.
  2. Then identify your key limiters or opportunities to progress. Put a plan in place NOW to address these and maintain them as the season continues.
  3. What does your Peak fitness looks like? Is it hours trained, numbers hit, distances covered (*often best in conjunction with your coach), to be in peak shape at race day.
  4. Plan a slow steady, sustained build. Ideally tracked and measured.
  5. Look at specific back off / recovery weeks to absorb and adapt to the training.
  6. Incorporate key ‘tests’ of your hard won fitness
    1. do the same tests every time
    2. do them on the same day of the week
    3. use the the same course (e.g.: if its a run 5km or a bike hill climb)
  7. Be prepared to vary the plan depending on your measured/tested progression to your fitness goal.
  8. Remember its a LONG game. You will have down days, off days, ill days. These are all part of the process so roll with them.
    1. BUT don’t play ‘catch up’. If you miss a session, move on. DON’T try and cram it in later in the week!

Embrace the winter, its part of the training plan, but use it wisely.  Invest the time to correct and work on weaknesses. Spend time planning the season from all elements, not just fitness.  Never lose sight of your end game – next season goals.

Write them down.

Pin them in your gym / work out area or even on the mirror. Revisit them every day.  Ask yourself, “Have I taken one step closer to my goal today?”

Stay focused and enjoy the process!







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