January 1, the New Year, a new beginning. It is the annual catalyst whereby athletes plan to make significant life changes in anticipation of another season of racing and begin “focused” training. Athletic-focused new year’s resolutions are enacted and "A” races planned for the season. Taking a step back, differing by individual, the triathlon season “officially” ends at some point in the fall and from that last race to the end of the year becomes the “off-season”. Pizza and beer replace protein bars and energy drinks and our bodies and minds release and recover.
The problem is that after a leisurely December and those very happy holidays, the end of year shift in priorities creates a massive “to do list” that we are staring at on January 2nd leaving little time for health and fitness. From a professional perspective, email boxes are overloaded, calendars are swamped with meetings to get “caught up” and both the year-end and new year deliverables and projects are back in full swing. On the personal side, responsibilities at home pick up again as well, so January can be simply overwhelming and packed with “life” making it mid-February before health and fitness make it back to the top of the priority list. Then, the first race is on the calendar, and it is time to taper, leaving little time for the focused training needed to both prevent early season injury and to perform.
So, how should triathletes re-imagine December?
After the last race of the season and subsequent downtime, being slower and feeling sluggish can be frustrating. Athletes desperately grasp at the distant memory of personal bests and fluid motion, but forget to or are reluctant to embrace reality and update baseline threshold data in their fitness apps. However, what many neglect to realize is that the lower thresholds, for example, the 100-yard swim pace, Bike Functional Threshold Power (FTP), and Run Threshold pace are, often, at their lowest point for the season. However, those downward adjustments are key to early season workouts that subsequently prepare athletes for the more demanding workouts required for peak fitness later in the season.
How should athletes prepare for this? Ideally, the Monday after Thanksgiving is the perfect time to reset the baseline, start getting the muscles moving again, and, most importantly, putting a consistent workout routine in place.
Every year that goes by for a triathlete further increases the need to incorporate stretching and strength training into their workout routines, especially during this pre-season re-build. However, stretching and strength training are often the first to get cut from the routine for time crunched athletes. With that next big race months away, pre-season is the perfect time to cross train with activities other than swimming, biking, and running. Even for those without access to a fitness facility, thanks to many on-line streaming apps, yoga, core, strength training, cardio, spin classes and other workouts are available at the press of a button, and 15 minutes a day perform wonders.
For cycling, as I wrote in my previous article – “An Hour, a Power Meter, and a Smart Trainer” – doing focused intervals can massively improve biking capability. With your FTP at its lowest point of the year, the workouts have a very reasonable starting point, rewarding athletes with positive progression with each subsequent workout. Some may find it frustrating to start over and not where they left off last season, but there is a huge upside to build from that point forward as there is nowhere to go but up! Additionally, thanks to the various streaming apps serving up a plethora of addictive programming, save those for your workouts. Trust me - if you get hooked on a series and can only watch it when working out, you will amass the aerobic miles.
Swimming is an area of “opportunity” for many triathletes as many lack a swimming background and may not have refined their technique to be as efficient as possible. Improvements can be made, but for non-swimmers, the level of effort needed to acquire massive increases in overall swim speed can be overwhelming. But don’t give up. Even those triathletes that did not grow up in the pool can improve with swimming consistently and increasing volume. Swimming on a daily basis (or at least 5 days a week) or consistently going to a Master’s swim program a few days a week will increase swim fitness and capability. If you prefer swimming solo, you can set a monthly goal (for example, 30 miles for the month) then increase that goal the following month. In Master’s swim programs, there are multiple lanes to accommodate many different speeds, providing the opportunity to start at the back of a lane and then move up. Over time, this volume will pay dividends and allow you to come out of the water in an improved position to have a more successful race.
For running, cooler weather equates to faster times. So, increasing your running efforts in cooler temperatures and no humidity can be extremely rewarding, allowing you to find new personal bests and improve your run cadence and efficiency. Alternatively, consider trail running or some focused speed and leg turnover drills on the treadmill, again, while you watch your favorite streaming series.
Simply put, all too often we wait until January to kick-off our season. Consider using December as the ramp that allows you to slowly build back your capabilities so that you can hit January already relentlessly moving forward.