Rather than spending countless hours on the trainer, many triathletes use the winter as an opportunity to step away from triathlon and engage in a new sport. A temporary change of mindset doesn’t have to mean a loss of triathlon fitness. Experts share five popular winter activities to help triathletes maintain—or even gain—fitness in the off-season.
Snowshoeing is the arctic version of power running. Many of the same muscles are engaged, but with exaggerated form: legs are lifted higher, arms are pumped more and the terrain requires more use of stabilizing muscles.
“Triathletes will benefit from the increase in running thigh and glute power,” says Brad “BadAssador” Canham, an Ironman finisher, avid snowshoe racer and owner of Endurancetribe.com. “During the transition from winter to spring training and racing, snowshoers tend to have a leg up—literally—on the biked-only-on-my-trainer-all-winter crowd.”
This is especially evident in the increased conditioning of the legs’ ability to bring power immediately off the bike. Triathletes who cross-train using snowshoes raise their anaerobic threshold, overall conditioning and sprint capacity on hilly courses and at critical moments.
In general, running on snow tends to be a very forgiving experience, and injuries are uncommon. However, uneven footing due to hardened snow and hidden objects (such as logs, rocks or cracks in the snow pack) can result in a twisted ankle or knee. Canham suggests those new to the sport find a local snowshoe enthusiast or training group (group training runs are quite common in snowshoe circles) to learn about gear, racing snowshoes and training areas.
Also known as cross-country skiing, this snow-required activity uses light skis and poles to ski uphill as well as downhill on groomed trails, set tracks and/or backcountry.
“Nordic skiers have been measured as having the highest VO2 max of all athletes,” says Alana Levin, a USAT coach and PSIA Nordic Ski Instructor. “The sport uses the entire body all at once and requires balance, power and endurance. During the off-season, the athlete can not only maintain their fitness but actually improve it.”
The motion of the arms in Nordic skiing requires a very similar muscle pattern as the pull in the swim stroke. Additionally, cyclists and runners benefit from leg and core work. The sport also demands oxygen uptake and production during every phase of the exercise.
Compared to downhill skiing and snowboarding, Nordic skiing is relatively safe as a cross-training activity. The most common injury is Skier’s Thumb, which happens when a thumb gets caught in a pole strap as a hand moves to break a fall. However, as with any sport, poor technique can lead to injury.
“Learning the basics is crucial to having fun and benefiting from it as a cross-training sport,” says Levin. “This is a super technical sport that involves balance, power and core strength. Like swimming (and biking and running), good technique will help you go farther, faster and with less effort.”
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Downhill Slide Sports
Alpine (downhill) skiing, telemark and snowboarding are lift- or backcountry-access sports where skiing downhill is the main objective.
“The sport offers a great opportunity to strengthen the legs and core,” says Levin. “The thrill of charging through the snow, especially deep powder, is pure joy.”
The pure fun of downhill skiing offers a respite from a serious training focus, making it a great way for off-season triathletes to hit the reset button. However, the body can benefit as much as the brain. Compared to its Nordic cousin, downhill sports offer more strength and power benefits rather than a cardio workout, especially since the legs and core need to be constantly engaged to stay upright and steer.
In fact, to remain safe while downhill skiing, Levin suggests athletes prepare for the sport with a solid strength, flexibility and balance training program. By strengthening the core and leg muscles, skiers can reduce the risk of falls and their associated injuries.
“ACL and other knee ligament tears are common in downhill skiing, and happens mostly when a ski twists and the knee does not, or when a skier falls back on the skis,” Levin explains. “Tibia and fibula fractures are also common, as a fall can create a fracture line where your boot hits the lower leg at a breaking point.”
And, of course, Levin suggests all athletes wear a helmet to prevent head injury. “You’d be foolish not to wear one out there. Even if you are a great skier, you may be surrounded by out-of-control skiers.”
The off-season is a perfect time for triathletes to hit the weight room, says Ben Greenfield, author of “Weight Training for Triathlon: The Ultimate Guide.”
Through the use of a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, cable, gravity or one’s own body weight, formal weight training can improve a triathlete’s ability to recruit more muscle fibers for any activity.
“Whether that be pulling your arm through the water, pushing off the ground or turning a pedal, when you can recruit more muscle fibers, you’re able to go faster,” says Greenfield. “In addition, weight training provides strength, stability and support to tendons and ligaments that surround your joints, which can reduce your risk of injury.”
Proper technique is key in weight training, as the most common injuries are shoulder, lower back and knee strains from moving a weight improperly. To avoid injury, hire a personal trainer for a single session to learn the proper movements, gradually increase the amount of resistance (Greenfield suggests no more than 5 to 10 percent per week for upper body, and 10 to 15 percent per week for lower body). Also, never lift weights after another activity, such as running, when you are fatigued and more likely to let your form get sloppy.
Also, progress with caution. “You should consider making a graduated progression from weight training machines to cables or elastic bands, and finally to free weights such as dumbbells or barbells,” says Greenfield. “Free weights give you greater range of motion and versatility of exercises, but also allow you to do more damage from an injury/risk standpoint if you aren’t ready for them.”
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“There’s a perception that CrossFit is more dangerous than a sport like triathlon or even just running, but there’s no data to back this up,” asserts T.J. Murphy, author of “Inside The Box,” a book on how injuries suffered from running and triathlon drove him into the world of CrossFit. “What we do know is that three out of every four runners in America suffer an injury every year.”
CrossFit is a comprehensive strength and conditioning program offered at more than 5000 different gyms across the country. With an emphasis on proper movement, mechanics and core strength, some oft-injured triathletes take to the sport as a way to correct and prevent imbalances leading to discomfort and pain. CrossFit also aims to aggressively build mobility and increase power flow from the core muscle groups (hips, shoulders, hamstrings) to the extremities (arms and legs).
“Triathletes with poor posture and poor mobility and power generation from the hips and shoulders ultimately are exposed to injury problems and power drain in all three of the triathlon disciplines,” says Murphy, “If you can’t hold a proper aero position on the bike for a long period of time, for example, you’ll lose out on channeling power from the larger muscle groups as well as be forced to sit up and catch more wind drag.”
The most common injury in CrossFit gyms are abrasions and tears on the skin of the hands, a result of the amount of pull-ups and barbell work performed. As the hands build up calluses, this risk generally decreases with proper hand care (using chalk during the exercises, for example).
As with weight training, CrossFit brings a risk of injury when done improperly. Murphy strongly recommends all new CrossFit athletes learn proper techniques in “On Ramp” classes, where movements are taught with a PVC pipe.
“Even after the initial training, triathletes can reduce risks of movement injuries by scaling down the workouts and using small, lighter loads. By keeping the weights light, injury risk is diminished even if mechanics haven’t been mastered. When the mechanics have been mastered, the exercises are very safe to do.”