Off season training camps were always a big highlight of the winter for me. I’d aim to get in one or two trips away between January and April to help break up the monotony of winter training. I found camps were a great way to put some focus into my pre-season build up and increase my training volume.
Often I’d head to Lanzarote for some serious mileage in the sunshine (and to ride in those headwinds!), but I also experimented pretty successfully with different types of cross training too. I did quite a few cross-country skiing camps in Switzerland once I’d grasped the art of standing up on a pair of incredibly thin and slippery skis…
As a coach and sports scientist, I’ve also been lucky enough to travel as part of the support staff on camps in a range of locations and with athletes across many sports (including triathlon, cycling, rowing and even looking after motor racing drivers). I’ve seen first hand just how beneficial they can be for getting athletes fitter and more focussed in a short space of time.
I’m a huge advocate of trying to fit a camp into your winter programme. It’s a proven way to step up your game in the coming season.
Whilst the likely benefits of a week or two of time dedicated solely to training are reasonably obvious, there are a number of pitfalls that can definitely derail your training camp experience…
1. Going all out on the first couple of days
Training camps can turbo-charge your motivation. Unfortunately, this does mean it’s incredibly easy to burn yourself out in the first 48 hours, which can really compromise your enjoyment and the benefits you get from the rest of your time. I lost count of the number of times I did this as a junior athlete.
The best way to avoid this trap is by sticking to a sensible, pre-determined plan that eases you into the first couple of days. It’s also important to just be aware that you’re likely to be a bit keen and keep that in mind to temper your enthusiasm a bit.
This is especially important if you’re training somewhere that involves long haul travel and/or a big change in climate/conditions. These factors are huge stressors on the body on their own without you layering hours of brutally hard training on top as soon as you arrive!
Treat a training camp like a it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
2. Not resting up properly between sessions.
It’s crucial to follow excellent recovery practices when you’re on a training camp because of the extra training load that you’ll be exposed to.
You’ll no doubt be wanting to train more than once a day and, whilst there can be a strong temptation to fill the time between sessions with all sorts of fun holiday activities, if you really want to get the best fitness returns you’ll need to be napping, eating and chilling out when you’re not putting the miles in. If you’re not prioritising some proper downtime every day then you’re unlikely to maximise the performance benefit you get from the trip.
Get yourself a couple of good books and make it an aim to finish them before you leave the camp. This gives you something cerebral to aim for when you’re giving your body a rest and stops boredom tempting you into doing things you really shouldn’t be doing.
It’s also critical to be disciplined about getting to bed early. I’ve been known to sleep 9-10 hours a night on a training camp quite easily, apparently with my snoring getting progressively louder the more tired I get through the week…
3. Not eating and drinking appropriately
You need to make sure you’re taking in enough fluid and calories to keep up with the significant increase in training volume. Eating as healthily as you possibly can is also important in order to support growth and recovery. Failure to support the training you’re doing with a lack of quality calories and fluids is as bad as not getting enough sleep. It undermines your recovery and stunts the adaptation you can achieve from your sessions.
Heading abroad for your training camp can result in a big change in dietary intake and you’ll probably be eating in restaurants a lot. It’s easy to fall into “holiday eating” mode but doing so can seriously undermine your success. Choosing a camp where you know you’ll have professional nutritional support can really help avoid that trap. Our friends at Next Level Camp in Majorca offer nutritional consultations with Kaisa Jacobson on their week long packages. They also have a great espresso machine (I always make sure to check my camp accommodation has a decent coffee machine…) and they offer our Advanced Sweat Test too. They have some limited availability left for their camps in March, so worth checking out.
It’s advisable to give potential sources of food poisoning a wide berth. (Think dodgy looking hotel salad bars, street food and suspect seafood). I always found this tough as I’m a pretty adventurous eater. I learnt the hard way though when I made the mistake of going for the hot version of an excellent local curry on the eve of the race during a training/racing trip in Thailand!
It can also be a good idea to take some of the snacks and other sports nutrition products you tend to use with you when you travel as there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to pick them up locally.
4. Falling out with your training partners!
Training camps can be a fantastic bonding experience. But getting along with everyone, every single day can sometimes be challenging, especially as fatigue and tiredness levels rise. In my experience, some of the things that can cause friction on training camps are…
- Racing during training sessions, meaning the pace gets pushed too aggressively.
- People turning up late for training sessions so others are kept waiting.
- Living with people who have poor “life skills”. For example, not keeping communal living areas clean and tidy, losing kit/equipment and having to borrow stuff all of the time!
Tiredness and low blood sugar levels definitely make these sort of situations worse, so training camps are a great opportunity for falling out with people if you’re not careful. The best way I’ve seen this managed has been by putting firm and friendly ‘rules’ in place to set some key expectations. (i.e. train as a group and only race when it’s a prescribed part of the plan, wash and tidy up after yourself in the accommodation and turn up on time or the group will leave without you).
If expectations are made clear, politely enforced and adhered to by the majority, it’s amazing how much of a positive effect this can have on group morale.
One group who really seem to have a great atmosphere amongst their athletes are Team Dillon. Run by Olympians (and PH ambassadors) Michelle Dillon and Stu Hayes along with double World Duathlon Champ Emma Pallant, they’ve just announced their next Team Dillon Camp in Mojacar from February 5th-12th. If you’re quick you might be able to get a spot.
5. Getting too much sun (on warm weather trips)
Getting too much sun has ruined many a good training camp, especially for the pasty Brits and Northern Europeans amongst us who aren’t well equipped to deal with UV rays! Whilst a level of exposure is healthy, inevitable and a big part of why you’d want to go somewhere warm in the first place, taking all of the sensible precautions is key. Use sunscreen, wear hats/clothing that covers exposed skin and try to time training to avoid the very hottest parts of the day.
Once you get sunburnt (or sunstroke) it’s not only likely to ruin the rest of your trip but could be very bad for your long term health too. Sadly, this also means that sunbathing in between training sessions is not a great idea either. And falling asleep in the sun is a no-no too, especially given that your ‘mates’ will likely write offensive words on your skin in sunblock if you do crash out on a lounger for too long…
6. Mis-timing the camp
How long before an event should you plan a training camp?
Ask a range coaches and athletes this question and you’ll get a range of answers.
For me, there are essentially 2 types of camp and they have 2 very different objectives that determine when they should be planned.
The first type of camp is an early/mid Winter volume boosting camp that's mainly aimed at kick starting the building of a deep base of fitness well before racing starts. These camps are all about teasing out a big, consistent and largely aerobic workload and doing overall volumes of training that are over and above what is normally feasible at home.
The key with these camps is to keep a lid on the intensity but to plan in plenty of hours (and possibly some technical work if your looking to improve certain key skills too). The most common way they seem to go wrong is when the intensity of sessions becomes too high and you wear yourself out, get ill, injured or just over tired.
One way to avoid this is to inject a significant amount of cross training into them (as I tried a few times with XC skiing). It’s harder to burn yourself out with a sport you’re not as familiar with. It's also easier to leave your ego aside when it comes to going quite steady with the intensity. In other words, the specificity of the training is less important on these camps than having good management of the overall mix of volume and intensity that goes on.
The second type of camp is one in the immediate build up to a key race. The specific aim here is preparation for the event itself and allowing time for a final piece of overload before the taper starts.
Depending on how long the event is (and how much of a taper you need), these kind of camps are often about 4-6 weeks out from the race. The sessions need to be very specific in terms of the type of exercise, duration and intensity.
For instance, if you were doing a camp just a few weeks out from a big Ironman race, you’d want it to be in a place where you can swim, bike and run in similar environments (weather and terrain) to the race and to do lots of simulation sessions with extended time spent at or around race intensity, using race equipment and nutrition to make sure you have everything dialled in.
Failing to think about the outcome you want when planning when the camp is is surprisingly common and is definitely something to be aware of.
7. Heading out for a ‘couple of beers’ on the last night…
After a week or two of hard training, clean living and early nights, you may feel you deserve a celebratory night at the local bar to round off your training camp. I’ve travelled back from the odd training camp with a somewhat sore head myself as well as witnessing other athletes suffering the hell of a cramped Ryanair economy cabin with a severe hangover. It’s probably best to keep your last night under control...
Wherever you head for your training camp next year, I hope it helps you achieve your goals.