Q & A: Winter Training Mix and Scary Swim Starts

A good warm-up will help calm the nerves before the chaotic swim start of a tri.

Q: I am a 48-year-old female who did four sprint triathlons last summer, improving my times with each event. I am strongest in biking and running, but I need to greatly improve my swimming. I love endurance workouts, doing multiple sports in one day. I enjoy 100 mile-bike rides as well, completing four century rides last summer. I really want to keep my fitness level up, so I have started training for 10K's this winter to keep my body conditioned to longer work outs.

Because I know that too much pavement pounding from running only can potentially increase injury rates, I also appreciate the benefits of multisport training. My question is: What is a good mix for the winter months? I plan on joining the master's swim group in January, I can do Spin? classes on really cold days (below 50 degrees) and I want to continue running 18 to 24 miles a week.

Thanks for the advice.

-D. G., Two-time breast cancer survivor

A: First, congratulations on being a two-time breast cancer survivor—you are an inspiration to many people. I believe you are asking how to maintain winter fitness that compliments your goals for next summer, yes? Assuming you plan to do events next year that are similar to your mix this year, you already have some good ideas. One important thing you are addressing is swimming—an item that limits your fitness goals. Joining a masters group with a good coach is a great way to improve swimming technique and get faster in the water.

In the winter months you might want to add an extra day of swimming and reduce a day of cycling. For example, if you were cycling four days last summer and only swimming two days, consider swimming three or four days this winter and cycling only two or three days.

Many athletes can benefit from a strength training program, so I suggest adding it to your routine if you are not already doing so. This will help balance all of the major muscle groups and core strength.

What every athlete does as a specific routine depends on the individual and his or her goals, but here is a general mix of activities that I like in the winter for an experienced athlete:

Strength training: Two or three days per week (One strength training day can replace a cycling day.)

Swimming: Two to four days per week, at least two days with a good coach on deck if your sport limiter is swimming

Cycling: Two to four days per week, with one "long" ride in the 1:30 to 3:00 range—depending on your goal events for next season and the weather where you live

Running: Two to four days per week, with one "long" run in the 1:00 to 1:30 range—depending on your goal events for next season

Any athlete reading these recommendations needs to make personal adjustments based on his or her current training routine, athletic goals, work responsibilities and other life activities. Don't forget to plan a recovery week every three to four weeks where training volume is reduced by about 50 percent.

Q: I am training for my first sprint triathlon and am a little nervous about the swim start.  I train with a masters swim group and feel pretty confident about the swim race distance.  On the other hand, I have heard many stories about chaotic mass starts in the swim and am feeling anxious about this.  Do you have any suggestions for how I can avoid getting beat up or feeling frantic at the beginning of the race?

A: The swim start in your first open water triathlon can be nerve-wracking, but there are a few tips to help you feel more comfortable. The first thing you can do to calm the nerves and reduce that frantic feeling is to get in the water for a warm-up.

The warm-up doesn't have to be long, just enough to get your face into the water, swim a few strokes, check out markers (on land and in the water) to keep yourself on course, and try to relax your breathing. With your breathing relaxed you can focus on good stroke technique to set up a good race.

When it is time to line up for the start, try to place yourself close to where you think your swim time is relative to others in your heat or in your age group. You can use last year's race results to get a rough idea of where you belong. Also note where you are relative to others in your masters swim group.

Does your swim pace place you in the top 20, 50 or 80 percent of the group? If you do not have much swim experience and your swim time is currently slow, put yourself at the back of your heat and to the outside of the turn radius. Generally, the side away from the buoys—the outside—gives you plenty of room to swim at your own pace and minimize the chances of getting whacked.

Gale Bernhardt was the 2003 USA Triathlon Pan American Games and 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic coach for both the men's and women's teams. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow training plans. For more information, click here. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

Spinning? is an indoor cycling program created by Mad Dogg Athletics, Inc.

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