Going Camping – The value of training camps and what to look for

Going Camping – The value of training camps and what to look for
By Chris Hauth
3/11/2008

This is the time of year many of us consider a training camp to break up the monotony of training. After many sweaty winter hours on the trainer due to weather or work, spending some time riding outdoors in great locations sounds appealing. But training camps are not limited to training in warmer, more desirable climates in the winter or spring – there are good training camps all year. Some great locations include Boulder, San Diego, Tucson, Lake Tahoe, North Carolina etc.: the only thing you need is some beautiful cycling terrain with good roads, some running trails and a lake or pool. But what makes training camps so beneficial besides the change of scenery or warmer climates? And what should we look for when choosing a training camp?

Why go Camping?

(I will not include cycling trips and athletic travel in this discussion. In my opinion these are vacations and while they can help maintain fitness, you want the flexibility and freedom during these trips to venture beyond our triathlon obsession).

One of my athletes asked me the other day why she can’t just replicate the training camp volume and miles at home vs. going off to some exotic location. It prompted me to clarify a few ingredients that make a training camp successful and extremely beneficial to your training. These include the proper training load given the time of year, the ability to rest & sleep, the value of massage & stretching, good nutrition and limited distractions.

A training camp should not ‘shell’ you. It should be a small, manageable spike in volume that you can absorb injury free and maintaining your health. Especially at this time of year a sudden jump in volume to summer fitness levels might spell trouble: injuries might flare up (hamstring, calves, hip flexors) or sickness due to the tax on the immune system from the increased training load – just consider that return home to colder climates from a warm one! All the volume at a camp is thrown out the window if you are sick for days after. A well-coached camp will ask you for your current training loads and modify/apply the training at this camp for you. Also, that slight increase in volume can be a slingshot to a new fitness level, or be a new plateau from which you begin your next phase of training. I look for my training camps to spike about 15-20% from the athletes’ biggest week so far this season: this also requires a balanced swim, bike and run approach.

Taking this healthy volume into account, add daily massage and rest for optimal recovery, combine it with good nutrition during & post training, and you are setting yourself up for maximum preparation for the next training day, and the next, and the next. The key to a good camp is the ability to absorb the daily training load effectively and feel good the next day. Being too tired to train effectively during a camp is not what you should feel. Of course there will be some fatigue in getting the day started, but overall you should ‘warm up’ into another solid day of training.

Lastly, subtract the daily stress of work and other distractions add in some down time to focus on training, racing and other triathlon improvements (seminars or talks?), we now start to notice our ability to withstand the load of a training camp much better. Remember, this training camp might only be a 15% increase in volume, but across all three disciplines this might be a significant jump in your weekly average.

After one of my recent camps, some of the feedback included asking for more volume as well as the satisfaction that the training ‘felt’ really good despite thinking the fitness was not there yet. This is exactly the outcome I look for from a camp: clearly the athlete had absorbed the volume spike well and by feeling good, the benefits of massage, sleep, nutrition and a stress-free environment all had the desired result. Imagine the feedback had we attempted more volume and taking less care of ourselves during that 7-day camp? As I mentioned, we don’t want to return home ‘shelled’.

What to look for when going Camping:

There are plenty of training camps out there, and the offering seems to be growing every year. I think it is great that as an athlete we can choose from fun domestic locations as well as some pretty sweet international ones. But how to distinguish between them? What is the athlete supposed to look for when choosing from the vastly different offering of training camps? I have my athletes look at the following:

1) Volume – most think a training camp requires huge volume. There are tales of crazy miles and shoulder busting sets in the pool. Well, besides Epic Camps, that is not the ideal camp volume for most: see above for the ‘shelled’ reasoning. But also, what time of year is it? When is your A race? No reason to go big miles in February for a July race. That fitness will not carry over. When choosing a camp, look for the volume that is slightly above your biggest current week and matches where you are in your season.

2) Coaching – This sounds simple, but coaching can make or break a camp experience for you. Does the coaching staff have experience with training camps? What is the ability of the coaches? You don’t want to go riding with coaches that are not familiar with your athletic ability and therefore can’t provide input or tips for improvement. How well can they ‘coach’ swimming technique? Do they have the ability to help you in all three disciplines? I have gotten feedback at past camps that I train too much during the camp – not giving the athletes enough of my time. These days I no longer train; I ride along and spend more time with the athletes. Look for a coaching staff with an 8~10 to 1 coach ratio, a coaching staff that not only has camp experience but is able to provide serious coaching value to you during your time with them – in all three disciplines.

3) Location – Sure a warmer climate sounds great, but is it all hills? Is it just one or two roads? Many athletes have mentioned some great locations for camps to me but I have often turned them down due to impossible training camp logistics: Kona – boring riding and running the same Queen K for days, and its dangerous! Jackson Hole – do you want to do a big training week at 7000 ft? You can quickly see what can happen in some great locations. Once again, look for what your A race is and maybe mimic that terrain? Or, what is it that you want to work on? Hilly or flat runs? Open water swims or pool time? The main thing is to understand where you are going and why. I had many of my athletes do Tucson with me because its great preseason terrain – flat, open, steady spinning miles. Come August, we will go to Lake Tahoe for some big miles at my summer training camp – hilly, hard, hot, difficult miles since we are at a different fitness level then.

4) Ability – Epic Camp does it well; they take resumes and really try to keep the ability level close. MultiSport on the other hand takes anybody and makes it work. Know who is attending the training camp and feel comfortable knowing you’ll have plenty of people to ride and run and swim with. It is no fun being off the back at an elite camp with only top-notch age groupers and pros. Sure it is fun to ‘train with the Pros’ at times, but that is interesting until they drop you on the first climb.

5) Desired outcome – Here is the big closer: are you looking to have fun or train very seriously? Is it a social week or an opportunity to train to the best of your ability? Are you looking for a slingshot to the next level of fitness or just to get away from a few feet of snow? Are you previewing a race location or doing race simulation? Are you pulling a Jan Ullrich and training yourself into shape (fat camp) or are you looking to train against some faster athletes and test yourself? All these are just some of the outcomes people attend camp for. Whichever it is, know where you want to be (or what you want to look like) when you return home. It makes those new few weeks feel much better knowing that it had the desired effect (and feel less guilty for the $ spent!).

Training Camps are one of the perks in our sport. It allows us to combine training with travel. It’s a change of scenery with an added benefit of feeling great about how we spend our vacation days. And, if done right, it can help you reach a new level of fitness that sets up a great racing season. On the other hand you can make new friends, learn about nutrition & race strategy or just get massaged twice a day for 7 days! You’ll still return home feeling great!

Original article can be found on xtri.com

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