A lot of stock is put into heading overseas with organised winter training camps and tour companies.
It’s clear why the pros do it. They can take an entire off-season to work on their fitness, uninterrupted by the cold and wet winter which keeps the rest of us at home on the sofa.
But is a winter training camp really worth the time and cost for us mere mortals? Can a few days or a week overseas during the winter make any significant difference to our race season? Or is it just another excuse to get away from it all?
Whatever our goals for the coming year, whether it’s shaving time a PB at a triathlon or riding a long sportive, we’re not going to get there without putting the training in. Every session we get out on the bike is going to contribute to our strength and fitness. At this time of year however, it can be difficult if not impossible to find the motivation to do so.
The days are short, and the roads are wet. We’re only a couple weeks out from the clocks going back, and ducking out of the office to grab some lunch might be the only glimpse of natural daylight we’ll get during the working week. Many of us can fall foul of the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, a lack of sunlight during the day affecting our mood which begins to kick in for many people around this time of year. The symptoms can include sluggishness, reduced motivation and cravings for carbohydrate rich foods; all problems for those looking to be on good form cycling later in the year.
…A short trip away winter training with your bike in January could well end up being the most valuable training session of the year…
Ironically, these symptoms which discourage us from pulling on our winter clothing and taking the bike out of the garage can be largely reduced by exercising. The symptoms effectively discourage us from seeking out the cure.
The problem is made all the worse going into the Christmas holiday period. Most of us will do a lot less exercise than we expect, and it’s incredibly easy to let a week or two slip without any training at all.
In terms of physical fitness, it is quite possible to see an element of ‘detraining’ in just a couple weeks of inactivity. Some studies have shown a couple weeks off can result in a reduction in VO2 max levels of up to twenty percent, but the psychological impact could be far more significant.
Yesterday’s endorphins contribute towards today’s enthusiasm
Anyone who enjoys exercise -and let’s face it, we wouldn’t bother if we didn’t enjoy it- understands the mildly addictive quality of working hard. The more we train, the more we want to train.
If you ran to work in the morning, you’re far more likely to be in the mood to run home in the evening than if you’d come in on the train. Yesterday’s endorphins contribute towards today’s enthusiasm, and the fun you had once you’d got out and warmed up is still fresh in your memory.
After a week or so of inactivity, not only have we begun to lose a little of our fitness, but this mindset has began to fade too. We are attempting to force ourselves out into the cold and wet without that little voice in our head that encourages us to push ourselves.
The longer we put off taking the bike out over winter when we should be working on base fitness, the more we end up playing catch-up in the spring. This can lead to pushing ourselves too hard in April and May once the conditions start to become more pleasant, risking over training and having a knock on effect over our entire season.
On the surface, a winter cycling trip is a nice way to spend the weekend with some friends and get away from the British weather. But potentially, it can be far more important than that. A short trip away with your bike in November, December or January could well end up being the most valuable training session of the year.
Once you are away from the cold and rain with your bike, there is no excuse not to make the most of it. The heavy reluctance that’s kept you from training through the autumn and winter is replaced with an enthusiasm to be back in the saddle. Three days of winter sunshine can reset the hormones which have been making you feel so sorry for yourself all month, and you return to the UK with 300 kilometres in your legs and a reminder of why you took this hobby up in the first place.
There are plenty of tour companies specialising in winter training courses for cyclists and triathletes around the Mediterranean, but there’s no reason why you can’t organise something yourself on a shoestring budget. Flights are cheap, as are out of season hotels. A quick Google can give you a list of popular routes to download straight to your Garmin and you’re good to go.
While the pros have the opportunity to spend their entire winter out riding where the climate is better, we can still receive similar benefits from just a short trip. As little as three days can be enough to give you the motivation to get out on your bike despite the cold and the wet. A long January club ride doesn’t seem nearly as daunting after a weekend abroad, and the lift in motivation the holiday leaves you with can be enough to reinvigorate your enthusiasm for base training sessions over winter.