Become a triathlete this winter

Become a triathlete this winter

by Ian Craig

Winter is typically a time when most sporting activities SHIFT into reverse GEAR and PLAY SECOND FIDDLE TO the TV and X-box. BUT YOU DON’T HAVE TO ROLL OVER SO EASILY!

For serious athletes, winter is when the hard work is done: thousands of kilometres on the bike and lap upon lap of a heated pool, not to mention several pairs of running shoes worn out. If you are new to the multisport tribe and have decided to take part in a triathlon or two next Spring, take a leaf from the pros’ book and prep before the warm weather kicks in.

It may not sound appealing to slog away in the cold and damp of winter, but the benefits gained in the enjoyment of your sport, not to mention long-term performance, outweigh the work required in the short-term. You can start very slowly and still build a good fitness base even if you avoid the worst of the weather (see ‘Tips for Overcoming Winter Weather’). We will give you some guidance on how to begin your triathlon ambitions straight away.

Winter is the time to establish some good habits. Planned well, these training routines will boost your triathlon specific fitness and if combined with appropriate nutrition, can increase lean muscle mass while diminishing unwanted fat mass. This shift in body composition will push your power to weight ratio in the right direction, boosting performance without even doing any specific swim-bike-run training.

We will review the three triathlon disciplines and give you practical ideas for incorporating them into your life. For example, the acronym KISS means a lot on its own – training can be effective without being technical, so don’t worry about the latest gadgets. Most people, for instance, only use a fraction of their heart rate monitor’s functions. Many sports people actually prefer to listen to their bodies and the RPE chart is a great way of assessing the intensity of a session.

Your training is best based around some ‘key sessions’, which will be a mixture of intervals and stamina (or endurance) training. Additionally, some strength & conditioning training has been shown to improve economy of motion for endurance performers as well as reducing the risk of overuse injuries. For a sample week’s training, pick one Key session for each discipline listed in the box (page 30). If you have a bit more time, consider doing an additional leisurely walk/run, cycle or swim with friends. Depending on your motivations, this 3-4 session pattern can be built up to 5-6 over the course of your winter training.


Simply remind yourself how to swim by visiting your gym or public swimming pool from time to time. If you are not able to swim or feel the need for improvement to make it easily round a 750m loop (of a Sprint triathlon), this will be the time to try out some lessons.

Even if you are an accomplished swimmer, lessons are almost a necessity to maximally refine your freestyle stroke. On calm days, you might want to borrow a friend’s surf wetsuit to get used to swimming outdoors. The challenges are certainly different, in part because you don’t have a nice straight lane-line to follow!

You can swim in the sea, a lake, a dam or a river. For reasons of safety and pollution, chat to the locals before you go diving into an unknown pool of water. Also, always swim with at least one other person.


Winter isn’t cold and damp every day and you will find some beautiful sunny days that just plead with you to go outside. Make the most of the occasion and head out for a long ride of 1-2 hours or more.

For safety, ride with at least one other cyclist, and ask other cyclists about the routes that have low traffic-volume and/or a wide verge to hide from the traffic. Cycle at a steady pace of RPE 10-12, but spend perhaps 10 minutes per hour at a raised temp of RPE 14-16 (this might coincide with windy or hilly sections)!

For less appealing weather, any cycle session can be done indoors on a ‘turbo’ or a stationary bike.


If you don’t like getting out of bed early and it’s dark by the time you come home from work, running is a versatile discipline that can be done anytime, anywhere. Take your shoes to the office and head out at lunchtime – most people have the time flexibility nowadays to do this, but just need the appropriate time management skills to fit it in!

Try this session, which is only 30 minutes door-to-door:

5 minutes warm-up jog; 10 x 1min hard (run) alternated with 1min easy (walk/jog); 5min warm-down jog. It is a quality session for any level of participant – make it harder by pushing on the 1 minute reps.


One of the most under-used commodities is a gym membership. Blow the cobwebs off your card and head to your club. It is a very versatile environment where you can partake in some strength and conditioning exercises and even complete an indoor triathlon if you choose. You can do any of the swimming, cycling or running sessions already mentioned and it is very easy to try brick training.

A brick is a combined cycle-run session, which is arguably the hardest transition in the tri event.

Try this:

Stake your claim of a bike and treadmill close together (although in busy times, you might have some shoes thrown at you) – cycle for 5 minutes, then run for 5 minutes, cycle 5 minutes, run 5 minutes, cycle 5 minutes and finally run 5 minutes (30 minutes in total). Do this in a continuous manner. Over time you can increase the speed of each segment and potentially lengthen each stage a bit. It is a more worthwhile use of 30 minutes than plodding away on the cross-trainer.

By the time Spring rolls around again and your friends are regaining the outdoor bug, you can increase the intensity and maybe the volume of your training. By this time, you’ll have at least four months of base training and if you haven’t done so already, you might even consider becoming involved in an organised club or going out with a group of like-minded individuals.

Your first race

If you haven’t participated in a triathlon before, consider a Sprint distance, which is usually 750m swim, 20km cycle and 5km run. You will usually find a selection of pool, lake or sea swims. If you want more of a challenge, the Standard (or Olympic) distance is exactly double the Sprint.

Enjoy your winter training and your improved performances this spring!

You can say Winter Schminter if you:
1 Dress up warmly (there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing).
2 Warm-up for at least 10 minutes before hard training in the cold.
3 Do gym sessions which allow you to recreate summer temperatures indoors.
4 Do turbo sessions that let you watch TV, but be careful not to annoy the neighbours!
TIP: Keeping your head warm before and after sessions is an easy way to maintain a more regular perceived body temperature. A beanie or Go Multi BUFF will do this admirably.

Ian Craig

Originally published in Go Multi issue 13.2 (May/June 2009)


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About Ian Craig

Ian Craig MSc, CSCS, INLPTA is an exercise physiologist, nutritional therapist, NLP practitioner and an endurance coach. He was a competitive middle-distance runner for 20 years and is now a more leisurely runner and cyclist. Ian specialises in Functional Sports Nutrition, a fast evolving discipline that considers both health and performance of an athlete from an integrative health perspective. Ian is the editor of the UK magazines, Functional Sports Nutrition and Total Sports Nutrition, leads the Middlesex University Personalised Sports Nutrition postgraduate course and the new Functional Sports Nutrition Academy. In South Africa, he is a consultant for genetics company DNAlysis Biotechnology and runs a private exercise and nutrition practice in Johannesburg.
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