Triathlon Off Season Cross Training
By Coach John Taipale
The most evil thing in endurance sports is getting stuck in a rut. Despite being divided amongst three sports, Triathlon can become monotonous. After working in a gym, it is apparent how many people are stuck in a rut. My prediction is 80% of the guests make no changes to their workout, have no change to their performance, and hope for better results. It’s insanity. The true definition of insanity is doing the same thing, yet seeking different results. That being said, we’re all probably guilty of this. We’re creatures of habit. We make systems and routines. It can be a good thing and a bad thing.
Considering I work with other, “creatures of habit,” I have built some non typical off season blocks of training for the last two years for a select few, willing clients (and myself). These training plans encompass very little Triathlon training and more Cross Country Skiing (Not limited to snowy areas via roller skiing), just as an experiment to break up the monotony. I am more than happy – even shocked – at the results, and it has left these athletes, mentally fresh through the Triathlon season. This is a new habit that’s not insane, it’s really good.
Let’s talk Exercise Physiology. Muscles adapt specifically to the movements they’re doing. This is not my opinion – This is a law. It is why some people may be stuck in a rut, why some don’t want to cross train, but it is only part of the equation. In doing cardiovascular training there are two adaptations, peripheral and central. Peripheral adaptations are things like mitochondria and capillaries within or around the working muscle. Central adaptations are things like heart rate and stroke volume (cardiac output). Peripheral adaptations (especially capillaries) take a long time to build. They also take a long time to go away. Central adaptations are very quick to adapt and very quick to go away. If you become a couch potato for one week, you’ll lose some mitochondria, a lot of cardiac output, but probably no capillary density will be lost. XC skiing will Increase central adaptations and maintain peripheral.
There is not a better sport for building cardiovascular fitness: XC skiers have the highest V02 max, they burn more Kcals/minute, and when they cross the finish line and collapse out of breath – it’s not for show. It’s a humbling sport, built on efficiency, and it maintains fitness like no other. With skiing, your cardiac output will go through the roof, (central adaptation) due to arms and legs both working. Despite a difference in specificity, you will retain some peripheral adaptations to bike, run, and swim muscles, but remember these adaptations last the longest without stimulus. For my guinea pig clients, results have shown that during power tests on the bike – during ski season – have not maintained, not a slight loss, but…wait for it… an increase in power. Power on the bike increased, while doing very little Triathlon training (I have not tested the other two sports). That’s pretty cool. I will say, however, this is after putting in some serious, well planned effort on the ski trails, as well as minimal, but smart Triathlon training. That’s not even the best part though; imagine yourself looking forward to more snow. The mental break is priceless.
Mental burnout is another evil thing that goes hand in hand with being stuck in a rut. Picture yourself waking up to a snowy morning; no chance of getting outside to bike or run. You’ve experienced snow for two months and snow for the next month is the likely forecast. You check the weather channel for the seventh time, just to make sure there was no sunshine. Nope. You must get on the trainer and then the treadmill – again. They stare at you like the bully who’s come to collect his lunch money. You think, “I can do this, one more month of winter,” but in reality, you know that’s not happening. You set up a nice YouTube video to watch while on the trainer. “The Ironman World Championship,” the perfect motivation for your upcoming Ironman. You have to get in a three hour bike ride – all the other Type A Triathletes are doing it. All of a sudden, the internet connection is lost… You curse the computer, then curse the internet, throw your bike shoes, storm out of the room. Your significant other is sound asleep – it’s 5am on a Saturday, “Wake up! What’s wrong with the internet!”
If this is you, you may need a cross training sport. I am representing XC skiing, as one of the best from a physiology standpoint. However, others would certainly do the job: Hockey, Basketball, Weight lifting, Yoga, Winter Mountain Biking could all give you a mental break. Even if they’re not physiologically perfect, they’re better than nothing. In some studies I’ve read, a 10 week training benefit was lost in 1 week. Ouch. Those who enjoy indoor training, hats off to you. But if you’re loosing interest in your sport, becoming irritable, not looking forward to the upcoming season, or even becoming burnt out in the middle of the summer, that’s not good. You may need a re-charge. Remember, this is supposed to be fun.
John Taipale is an amateur elite triathlete and coach based out of Hudson, Wisconsin. He is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Clinical Exercise Physiology at University of Wisconsin at River Falls with a research focus on running economy.