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 focused 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. I've shared my thoughts on what those are with some advice on how to avoid them, then I've asked some of the coaches in our network to share their invaluable advice...
8 ways you can screw up a training camp
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 it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Filip Rigole of Endurance Peak Coaching told me "It’s very tempting to train way too much on a training camp. Most of the athletes that come on our camps are coming from North/Central Europe and are getting their first serious sunshine of the year.
It’s a perfect motivator, but most of them are going out too hard on the first days. The third or fourth day in our camp is an “easy day” to recover from the first days to cope with this.
Also, look after yourself and don’t hesitate to go out on your own if you feel that the going is too hard for you (even if the guys are friendly and funny)."
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.
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.
Peter Russo of Russo Racing told me that "making every workout at camp a competition is a common mistake I see with first-timers. I try to gear my camps so that the athletes are of comparable abilities. That's more fun and it's great to have a push here and there, but just burying yourself in every workout, especially on the first day or two can just kill the rest of your time out there!"
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 among us who aren’t well equipped to deal with UV rays! Richard Hobson of triliving seconded this one, citing it amongst the most common mistakes he sees athletes making.
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 variety of answers (as you'll see below in my chat with a couple of our coaching friends).
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 you're 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, You'll also want 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...
8. Showing up completely out of shape!
This one came in conversations with both Peter and Hobbo. They both told me that this is a common mistake they see first timers making at their camps. "Yes, you want to use the camp to get into shape but if you have zero fitness you'll not be able to fully take advantage of the time and miles", Peter said.
Sage advice from 3 coaches who run training camps:
So, guys, what should first timers look for when researching / finding a camp that’s right for them?
Richard Hobson, TriLiving
For me the main things that make a great training camp are:
- A good location with good facilities to train. This is why most of my camps are at Club La Santa Lanzarote. They have great facilities that make the training easy with no time wasted with travelling, any spare time can be spent relaxing!
- Quiet, safe and good roads to bike on
- Good weather is vital
- Experienced coaches who can help with every aspect of triathlon and who never take things for granted
Filip Rigole, Endurance Peak Coaching (and Swim Smooth Belgium)
Nowadays, you can find an overwhelming amount of training camps all over the world. As a first timer, it can be intimidating to find the camp that's right for you.
Make sure that the level of the camp fits with your capabilities. We all want to train with elite athletes, but bear in mind that this is may be too intensive for you.
Peter Russo, Russo Racing (and Swim Smooth Rhode Island)
Here are some good things to find out when choosing a camp...
- What's the coach-to-athlete ratio? Some people like to blend in a little more, some people want more individual attention.
- What's the swim venue? Indoor pool? Outdoor Pool? Open water? What do you really want?
- It seems like a no brainer but, what'll the temperature be like at the location? Super hot? Maybe right in the sweet spot 70s °F (20s °C)? Is there a reasonable possibility of bad weather?
- What's the ability level of other campers you'll be there with? Will you be pushing yourself or will there be others there about same ability level as you, so you can push each other?
- What's the head coach like? Are you looking for a drill sergeant type or are you looking for a little more fun?
- Is it super catered and luxury or more down home and gritty? Is it all about the training or are there other things going on?
And what's the ideal time to plan in a camp relative to key races and the wider training plan?
There are different ways to look at this. You can use the camp to get a jump on fitness and work on your base.
Or you can use the camp as a carrot to look forward to during a big training block at home. Just knowing you're going to the camp can help you get some miles in at home knowing you don’t want to get to camp completely out of shape!
I have some athletes coming to my camp in March who are going to do Ironman Texas about 4 to 5 weeks after the camp, that's a really good window to be in if you are using the camp to gear up towards an event.
As a first step, prepare your race plan. By doing this, you can define (along with your personal commitments) what time of the year suits best for the camp.
For example, the European triathlon season starts in May with the most popular long distance races clustered in June/July. So, if you have these races in mind and you're aiming to building your base and improve your technical skills (say, in swimming), the best time to go on a camp is likely March/April.
If you're based in the Northern Hemisphere then for me the best time to plan to do a training camp is January-April, but particularly Feb/March, as this is when the weather is generally at it's worst, but it's also the time when training for the coming season is very important.
The earlier the camp the more the emphasis can be placed on making technical changes for the coming season.
What should athletes do post-camp to make the most of the gains made?
Athletes will always leave the camp very tired, so it's important that they go home and take a good week to two weeks of easy training to recover.
Their immune systems will be low, so it's very important to make sure they try to eat (and stay hydrated), sleep and recover.
As Andy said above, it's best not to party on the last night of the camp as traveling very tired will significantly increase your chances of getting sick and then all the training from the camp will be wasted...
Yes, I agree with Richard - when planned well, most athletes will have an active recovery week scheduled in after the training camp. These recovery days will help your body to regenerate and create a super-compensation. One week after the camp, you’ll feel stronger than ever!
Yes, you need to have a plan for what's next. I know that sounds simple but for the self-coached athlete it can be a bit of a let down getting back from camp where you had fun and no responsibilities other than training.
Back in the real world you need to have a plan to take that base, that boost in fitness, and keep that rolling (after recovering as the other guys said). The athletes that are coming to my camps that are “my” athletes will have all this integrated into their training plan so as to maximize this post-camp training time.
That's all really helpful, thanks gents. Ok, I'm sure your words of wisdom will have readers interested in finding out more about your camps - so, tell us, what’s great about your camps?
I would like to think my camps cater for everyone for every distance of triathlon. We have a very knowledgable coaching team with many years of experience and place a great emphasis on having fun and keeping a healthy balance between sport / family / work / social etc.
You can find out more at triliving.co.uk
My camps are in Tucson, which has perfect weather in March! Tucson has beautiful trails for running (and mountain biking) and great road rides. Riding up Mt. Lemmon is a challenge and beautiful. The pool is a beautiful outdoor facility.
My camps are small - 3-4 people at a time - and I interview all the people who want to come so I match them up so that people are going to be challenged, but not overwhelmed.
I have one camp that's for relative beginners, so people will all be comfortable together. I carved out one week just for the pros, so they will all be of similar abilities and able to push/challenge one another.
Campers are right in the house with me, so it's a total immersion in the lifestyle for the week. Just a lot of working out and fun.
Our Swim Smooth camps in Club La Santa, Lanzarote are focusing on improving your swim. Every athlete gets our bespoke video analysis and during the camp the athlete’s swim technique, pace awareness and open water skills are further developed.
While we're primarily focusing on the swim, we also provide daily bike workouts that would fit with everyone’s capabilities. Within a week you’ll have been to the most beautiful places on Lanzarote.
This year, we will also have a PH Sweat Testing machine in Club La Santa. If you want to know how much sodium you're losing in your sweat to personalise your hydration strategy and you’re planning to be in Lanzarote, drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can schedule an Advanced Sweat Test while you’re on a camp.