As race season creeps around the corner, many of our usual approaches for building into the summer have changed. Training camps aren’t happening, gyms aren’t opening, swimming pools are still shut, and the open water is cold! How do you train for race season when your typical training methods are unavailable?
Make Training From Home as Easy as Possible
Irrespective of COVID, training during the build phase needs to be as easy and enjoyable as possible. I am a big fan of creating an environment that enables performance. This may be a turbo trainer that’s set up efficiently, finding a swim squad that allows you to train without navigating around recreational swimmers, or batch cooking to ensure you have plenty of quality meals. It’s about making your training life easier, less stressful, and more enjoyable.
This past year has allowed many people to critically review how they train and to set up an adequate training environment at home. Some athletes’ home gyms are impressive, and though it is easy to get overwhelmed by what others have, you just need to ensure you have the basics covered. Most importantly, you need a space to keep your kit and to set up your training zone. This could include a turbo trainer, a treadmill, and even an endless pool (for those lucky enough!), but it may simply be organized training equipment and a mat so you can warm up and get out the door quickly. The better you can put your training area together, the more motivated you will be. A few simple ways to reduce barriers to training consistently are:
- Keep strength and conditioning exercises as simple as possible by using bands and an exercise mat. Don’t underestimate the training benefits of the small, seemingly insignificant exercises.
- Invest in equipment that’s easy to set up, like a good turbo trainer or a compact treadmill.
- Cook in batches so you have a quality stash of food for the week.
Training to Swim at Home
With all that in mind, how can we prepare for a new triathlon season without getting to the gym or the pool? If you’ve been unable to get into the water, swimming will need to be developed very carefully in one form or another. This may mean using dryland cords or bands to mimic the swimming stroke, using a paddling pool and a bungee cord to create your own version of an endless pool, or using swim-specific equipment (like a Vasa SwimErg). However, if you can’t create your own “pool”, then you should at least ensure you are doing ample core work (planks, leg flutters, etc.) and shoulder stability work (press-ups, tricep dips, or rotator cuff work is good enough if you haven’t got any bands). Most age-group swimmers are not strong enough or flexible enough to perform good stroke mechanics, so any time spent working in these areas for your shoulders, core, and ankles will help you when you are eventually allowed in the water.
Getting Back in the Water
Because swimming is usually done in a chunk of time due to the time it takes to get to the pool and into the water, it might be easy to overload your swim training when you get back to the pool. For this reason, you need to ensure you have done a satisfactory level of strength training and shoulder work — otherwise, you are asking for an injury. In the beginning, don’t try and push a swimming pace, just refamiliarize yourself with the water and get used to swimming again. After a couple of weeks, think about more structured swimming sessions; and after about six weeks you can return to regular training. If you choose to avoid pools and instead spend time in the open water, then follow appropriate cold water protocols. As with your return to swimming, don’t smash out an hour swim just because you have an hour slot! Think about how you would return to running after some time off and take a similar approach to swimming. A few simple ways to make sure you’re well-prepared include:
- At the very least, make sure you’re doing core and shoulder stability exercises.
- Mimic swimming using dryland cords or bands. If you can invest in swim-specific equipment (like a Vasa SwimErg), doing so will only help.
- Don’t over swim when you get back to the pool. Doing so will only impede your training.
- Try out this Return to Swimming 4-Week Training Plan for expert guidance.
Training to Cycle and Run at Home
Cycling and running should be more or less business as usual for those who have been training indoors or able to get out for runs. Nevertheless, some people will be missing those longer rides and critical bike handling skills from too much time spent on indoor trainers. To all the athletes who have built an incredible engine through turbo training, take some time to work on your handling skills. This year, more than any other, bike handling will be the area to get faster in. Descending, cornering, and competence on a bike will save you from slowing down at a time when you could get free speed with this new-found engine of yours!
For those who aren’t allowed to run outdoors and don’t have an indoor trainer, then doing what you can will help. Plyometrics are exceptionally intensive and are proven to improve running efficiency and speed. Introducing some jumps, hops, and drop jumps along with running drills may help to improve your running form and can be done indoors, or anywhere, for that matter! I had one ultra-distance runner who had to quarantine for two weeks on each end of a trip — they familiarised themselves very well with a skipping rope. Just be mindful of a sudden increase in intensity.
Additionally, strength and conditioning work (single leg and bodyweight exercises) plus spending time doing the physio work you usually put off is always worth the time. The aim here is to ensure your connective tissue and movement patterns are stiff enough and strong enough to make an effortless return to running when you are eventually allowed outdoors again. To make sure you’re prepared, remember these simple tips:
- Start practicing your bike handling skills ASAP, especially if you’ve been indoors on a trainer for the past year.
- Weave plyometrics into your training for a compact, yet intensive way to improve running efficiency.
- Include mobility work to make your return to racing effortless.
Getting Ready to Race Again
If you have been addressing strength and conditioning exercises in addition to working on your swimming and physio exercises, this should be the best year to avoid niggles and injuries. You could be more robust and generally more conditioned than ever before, as lockdown life will have meant you have more time to do the work that you normally ignore. If you have weights or thick bands, you can use them to get stronger and generate more power at home. But if you can’t, then work on the small movements and injury-proof yourself. Most people skip training due to injuries, which slows you down more than big sessions make you faster. Don’t be that person! Sometimes, it is easiest to set mini-challenges for yourself and to track those improvements (e.g., how many single leg calf raises can you do?).
A lot will change in 2021 for a build into the summer race season. However, most of those changes are locational — you can’t train in groups, you can’t get to the pool, and you can’t get to the gym. Few of these changes will actually impact your build into the start of racing except for swimming. In this regard, everyone is in the same position, so the more dry land exercises you do, the further ahead you will be in your return to swimming. Perhaps, in 2021, you have the best possible chance to focus on your build into the race season and will learn more than any other “normal” year.