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Making the Most of a Triathlon Training Camp

There’s no better way to boost fitness, learn stuff and meet like-minded people than by going to a training camp.

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There’s no better way to boost fitness, learn stuff and meet like-minded people than by going to a training camp. Here’s how to make the most of the experience.

Remember summer camp as a kid?

The excitement of forging new friendships and learning new skills; having eye-opening experiences that challenged, enlightened and, in the end, helped you grow as a person? All these rewards (and more) still await you—this time at camps for grown-up triathletes.

“Camps provide a fantastic opportunity to meet new athletes, get exposed to a different training stimulus and coaching styles, new training environments and, of course, pack in some killer miles,” says Simon Marshall of San Diego-based Braveheart Health and Fitness, a coaching business he co-founded with his pro triathlete wife Lesley Paterson. “Your brain loves training camps. And by ‘love,’ I mean that special combo of scared and excited.” Just like when you were 11. Marshall, who has a Ph.D. in sport and exercise psychology, should know—he organizes the annual Braveheart Highland Games triathlon camp and has experienced many pro cycling camps through his role of performance psychologist for the BMC Pro Racing Team.

For those enduring a seemingly endless winter, an early-season training camp can help muster some serious training mojo. “I always found that a quick hit of the sunshine and warmer temperatures can really provide that motivation and boost in training,” says Vancouver, Canada-based elite triathlete Travis McKenzie, who recently created NTSQ Velo Premium Cycling Retreats.

Any time of year is a good time to head to camp, especially if it helps you maximize your limited training time. “Time constraints don’t allow for three hours in the saddle day after day, and an effective replacement can be shorter harder sessions at home and then a week-long training camp,” says Shaun Radley of The Cycling House, a training camps company based in Missoula, Mont.

But the goal isn’t to go smash yourself at camp. “I’ve done camps where I returned home completely fatigued and had to take weeks of recovery, completely negating the work that was done while away,” says McKenzie.

Set yourself up for training camp success by following these three rules:

Know what to expect

“It’s all about expectations,” says Radley. “Ask a lot of questions. Figure out if you want to be pushed hard, hang mid-pack, or be leading the group. Then ask the appropriate questions about pace and ability.” In addition to effort level, inquire about camp structure. “Some camps are simply semi-structured group training sessions, while others are run with military precision,” says Marshall. Request to see the daily workout/activity schedule so you can decide if the camp style and flow will fit your needs and expectations.

Do your research

By “research” we don’t mean simply look at testimonials the camp posted on its own website. “Unless the camp offers Yelp-type reviews, do some due diligence,” advises Marshall. Use your social media network to solicit honest feedback from people who have gone through the same experience. Was it worth the price? Are the camp counselors fun?

Don’t psych yourself out

Camps are expensive. And time consuming. And hard. You might be overwhelmed. “Once you’ve thought through the dates and the cost, don’t become a scaredy cat,” says Marshall. “You might be worried about being the slowest, oldest, youngest, most clueless, or just sucking. If you let your fears and concerns linger long enough, you can become paralyzed by them.” Plop down your deposit, then plow ahead. You’ll be glad you did.

Packing for Camp

We asked numerous camp organizers for packing tips, and their advice ranged from “over-pack” to “just bring your toothbrush.” The required gear will vary by camp. If you will be expected to be fairly self-sufficient, the over-packing advice is sage. Check the weather forecast, but be prepared to train in all weather conditions. Inquire if there are laundry facilities at camp, and plan accordingly.

If you’re staying in a house with other campers and planning on eating in for most meals, you can leave the “going out” clothes at home. And if you opt for an upscale retreat experience like NTSQ Velo, you just need to bring some casual clothes and a toothbrush. Everything else—kit, bike, daily laundry—is provided.

Any well-organized camp will have a detailed packing list so you are well-prepared and comfortable.

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Three camp experiences at the top of our wish list

The Cycling House Solvang Camp
Thecyclinghouse.comWhen: Three March camps
Cost: $2,295
Ability level: Beginner to advanced

The gist: This six-day, five-night camp includes all the best rides in the heart of California Central Coast wine country, including the 10-mile climb up Mount Figueroa. Daily rides are 45–80 miles, and there is also an emphasis on swim and run sessions. Campers sleep, wine and dine at The Ballard Inn, an upscale B&B nestled among vineyards.

Unexpected perk: “The mental stoke after a camp is a natural high,” says Shaun Radley, The Cycling House’s chief operating officer. “It’s like the feeling of finishing a super hard ride times three.”

Braveheart Highland Games
When: January
Cost: $200 (free to Braveheart Coaching athletes)
Ability level: Beginner to advanced

The gist: More than 70 people participated in the 2017 edition of this ridiculously affordable four-day camp in San Diego run by Scottish pro Lesley Paterson and her sports psychologist husband Simon Marshall. The camp, which occurs every January, includes a ton of swim, bike and run technique analysis and training in sunny San Diego. Athletes self-assign to A, B and C groups based on how much they want to suffer. Downtime hours are filled with lots of good food and guest speakers, which this year included Mike “The Voice of Ironman” Reilly.

Unexpected perk: As a nod to Patterson’s heritage, the pair organizes “team-based ye-olde Scottish activities.” We’re talking caber toss, tug-o-war and sandbag carry. Kilts optional.

NTSQ Velo Kennebunkport Retreat
When: May 7–11, Oct. 15–19
Cost: $6,250
Ability level: Beginner to advanced

The gist: NTSQ Velo founder Travis McKenzie previously worked for the BMC Pro Cycling Team and knows that “the pro treatment” means all that the rider should worry about is pedaling. Every detail is arranged, from riding apparel to SAG support to daily gourmet meals and massage. This is the pinnacle in luxury training camps, and the Maine retreat features a stunning New England seaside backdrop and accommodations at the exclusive, top-rated Hidden Pond cottages.

Unexpected perk: You’ll recharge your mind, too. “We also want our guests to feel present and mindful within the experience, and we offer massage, NormaTec recovery, daily yoga and meditation,” says McKenzie.