If you live in the northern hemisphere and are training for triathlons next spring or summer, then we share a few things in common about this period of training ahead:
Daylight hours are short
Weather is cold, sometimes below freezing
Conditions tend to be pretty discouraging for training throughout this period
Recommended hours of training also tend to be increasing throughout this period
Most of us are trying to establish a good, solid base of aerobic endurance
Longer and longer, steady, moderate hours of training are often called for
It can feel like you are being caught between two conflicting forces: you need to do more hours of training, but you have fewer hours in which you feel you can do that. For example, if you happen to be training for a half-iron or iron-distance race, then the bike rides can be particularly challenging. Scheduling a long ride can be very tricky when you want to ride for anything from 4 to 10 hours, especially if you only have 9-10 hours of total daylight (on average, throughout the months between October and March). Add to that the cold, wet, sometimes frozen conditions, and we have plenty of reasons why we struggle to fit in all the training we want to do.
So, here are a few things I have learned over the years, that help me at times like this...
Find the best times for you
This is an area where scientific research and personal experience can be at odds with each other. Scientific research seems to be telling us that our circadian rhythms, body clocks, core body temperature and measurable range of motion all suggest that we are better off doing physical exercise later in the day, perhaps around 4:00 or 5:00pm (see some of the links below for more information, it's actually quite fascinating stuff).
However, real life tells us that we might have kids to get to school, jobs to work at, friends and lovers to spend time with, meals to eat and drinks to drink beyond protein shakes and energy bars. And, so, we cannot usually train at times that are scientifically optimal, but we have to train when we can, in the way that works best for us.
The good news is that a lot of the scientific research out there also supports the idea that we can change our body clocks, adapt to new rhythms and, after about a month, we can train our bodies and brains to accept our own optimal times for training.
It is also worth noting that there have been some holes poked in a lot of the scientific research published in the last decade that show poorer athletic performance in the early morning than in the later afternoon. For example, there are many other factors that must be taken into account, and are often not included in these studies, such as nutritional state (people who train very early in the morning are much more likely to be training on an empty stomach and in a dehydrated state than those who are training later in the day), degree of stiffness or flexibility (people who train early in the morning are much less likely to warm up properly before their workouts than those who are training later in the day), and overall motivation for training (people in most of these sports studies are elite athletes who train with a team and are very different from us "normal folk").
The main message I take away is: if it works best for you to train early in the morning, or at lunch, or after work at the end of the day, then you do what works best for you, and keep on doing it with consistency. And, if you experience any kind of major schedule change in your life that impacts on your planned training times, give yourself about a month to get used to the new routine.
Get some support
Train with a friend or friends, join a club or get a coach. Committing to sessions you do with other people makes you (totally scientifically speaking) about 100 times more likely to do your planned sessions. Plus, you are probably going to get all kinds of useful support and advice for all your other training, too.
For example, if you train with a friend, you will probably share all kinds of tips and experiences on a wide range of subjects, effectively doubling your knowledge base about some common questions you might have about training. Of course, be careful, this is a huge grey area, full of subjective, anecdotal advice that can sometimes lead you in the wrong direction. Just because your friend got some professional advice about his or her knee problem, doesn't mean you should follow the same advice for your, probably unrelated, knee problem.
If you join a club, you will gain access to regular training sessions, a wide pool of friends with varying experiences and levels of knowledge, and probably some qualified coaching in many of the club sessions. I cannot emphasise enough how valuable and motivating it can be to get support from your local club. Of course, you want to make sure that your local club has sessions at times that work for you, and has other athletes with comparable training goals to yours.
If you get a triathlon coach, of course, the main up-side is that your training sessions and advice will be tailored to you and your specific needs. A qualified, experienced, professional coach should also be able to recommend a wide range of other qualified, experienced professionals to help you with any aspects of your training that you might need. While friends and fellow club members may give you tons and tons of free advice about, say, what you should eat, that free advice may not end up being good advice for you to follow. A professional coach should make sure that everything you do is exactly right for you - and if your coach doesn't have the specific skills and qualifications needed to answer your questions (say, about nutrition), then he or she should be able to recommend someone who does have the necessary skills and qualifications. And, the main down-side of getting a coach is the expense. You will certainly spend a lot more money on a professional coach than you will on joining a local tri club or training with a friend. If you do choose to work with a coach, just make sure their training philosophy is broadly compatible with your preferred modes of training.
Get sessions done early in the day
Full disclosure: this is just what works for me. Nothing scientific here, just purely a personal choice, but it does seem to work for a lot of other people, too. When I am training on my own, if I get up early and get my training in early, it has the following benefits for me:
There is something really beautiful about early mornings. This is just me, my thinking, my feelings, but maybe you have experienced it, too. Something amazing about watching the mist rise above the canal on an early morning run. Something so beautiful about cycling towards the rising sun (if you happen to be heading east at that time of the morning). Something wonderful about living in a big city and yet feeling like you have the road all to yourself for a little while, before everyone else is up and rushing about.
Fewer chances for procrastination. I don't know about you, but if you give me half a chance, I will put things off until later, and keep making excuses all day long, until the day is gone and I have run out of chances to do my planned sessions.
No matter how reluctant you are before the session, you are always glad you did it, when the session is over. I have experienced this time and time again, and I need to keep reminding myself of that, every time I look at my alarm going off at Crazy O'Clock and contemplate hitting the snooze button. Just remember how awesome you will feel later, after you have gotten up early and actually done the session.
That smugness of having done your sessions early in the day will last you the whole rest of the day. Yes, I have said it in other places and I will say it again here: smugness is not always such a bad thing. Just remember to (a) keep it quiet, (b) do not become a total schmuck about it, and (c) let the smugness motivate you to be consistent in your training, rather than just being a smug jerk.
Especially when it comes to longer sessions, like long rides and long runs that are planned for several hours, get those sessions in early to avoid "racing against the dying light."
These last two bits of advice seem to work very well together - getting some support and getting the training done early. If I have promised a friend that I will meet them at 7:30am for a long ride or a long run, I am more likely to show up on time and ready to go. And, I know from experience that we will all be really glad we did it, that we did it together and that we did it early.
To echo what I said above about some of the flaws pointed out in research showing poorer athletic performance earlier in the day, there are some simple things you can do to enhance your athletic performance if you train in the early mornings:
Make a little extra time for pre-workout nutrition. I know it is tough enough to get up at a very early hour and what I am asking you to do is get up even earlier, but it can help tremendously if you plan some extra time for good quality, pre-workout nutrition. Maybe make a smoothie for yourself the night before, with something like milk, yogurt, fruit and honey in it. Maybe leave some oats to soak in milk and yogurt over night so that they are soft and easy to digest in the morning. Or maybe just have a hard-boiled egg ready and waiting for you in the morning, a fresh fruit salad, or a piece of wholemeal bread with peanut butter.
Make sure to stay well-hydrated for your session. You are likely to be in a very dehydrated state when you wake up and head out for your early morning training sessions, so remember to bring some water or sports drink with you for your session.
Take some time to go to the toilet before your early morning training session. Chances are, your body will alert you to this need before you go out, anyway. But, it might be a good idea to plan an extra 5-15 minutes in your morning routine for a toilet break, and avoid some discomfort or embarrassment later, in the middle of your session.
Make sure to warm up well before your main session. When you wake up, you will probably be much stiffer and less flexible than you realize, after a whole night of lying motionless. Start your sessions with gentle, technical drills at a very slow pace, focusing your attention on good form, before you launch into the main part of the training session.
Mix it up
Winter training is a good time to try some parallel training methods, such as trail running and mountain biking. Yes, I know it can mean buying more equipment (lighter road shoes are probably not going to be optimal for wintertime trail running, and a road bike will almost certainly not be appropriate for mountain biking, but you can find some cheap-ish options in these areas), but it can also bring an exciting range of options to your winter training plans. It may not be for everyone, but the cold and wet, even frozen conditions, can actually make off-road training a lot more fun!
Plus, the extra skills and dexterity required to navigate trails in the winter time will definitely benefit your "normal" training when you take to the roads again in the spring. The bike handling skills you can acquire from mountain biking are totally awesome. Running and/or cycling up and down muddy, slushy, snowy hills all winter will make your legs much stronger, too. I personally find it is an excellent way to invigorate my training in the winter time. If you are lucky enough to live in a place where there is decent snowfall on the ground and some wide open spaces, then you might also be able to consider some cross-country skiing to supplement your winter training.
Other sources of information