Winter training (part 1)

While I’m still deciding on a look to go with here, a reasonably informal post seems appropriate, so let’s talk winter training!

Many don’t like training much through the winter because, fair enough, it’s cold, and it’s busy with the holiday season, new year plans, etc…. Things can be hectic, why not take a break? Of course taking a week or two off completely is perfectly fine, and even a good idea for your body if you are coming to the end of a hard training/racing season, but I have not, and fitness can disappear quickly if you stop altogether for too long, so I’m going to keep going as I feel great finally getting back into all three sports. But how does this work with snow, ice and all the fun winter obstacles in the way?

Well for the swim nothing really changes. The pool felt a little bit cooler this morning, but after a few hundred meters all was fine. Winter is a great time to drop back on distance and put an emphasis on form, doing loads of drills, to make your stroke more efficient and hence swim easier. I have enough room to improve so this is my focus until I’ve brought my stroke per length down (while keeping stroke rate reasonably high).

For the run and the bike you can be outdoors, but you need to dress appropriately! My rough rule of thumb is: for the run, dress for walking around in about 10 degrees warmer than it is, and for the bike closer to 15 because of the added wind chill. For example, when it’s hovering around 0 I can wear normal running pants (or shorts, though below 0 and I try to keep my skin from being exposed) and a light base layer along with a thin windbreaker. That’s usually enough. Light wool gloves keep the hands warm if the air is crisp, and good to go. If it goes below 0 I tend to wear a light toque as I am not a fan of cold ears.

Below -5 and I’m definitely wearing a running toque, even for a short run. Below -5 is also when I usually shift from usual running pants to thermal tights. Nothing too heavy, but adding a bit of insulation is nice. Similarly, for the upper body a thin thermal layer may be nice over the base layer, with the thin windbreaker if it’s windy out. It isn’t until it gets below -10 that I want a thermal windbreaker and a pair of (usually windbreaking) gloves over the thin wool gloves. (Over them, so wearing two pairs. The thin wool is the best insulation you can get since wool can still insulate when you sweat, whereas most thermal gloves lose a lot of their ability to insulate if you sweat in them, so can be risky unless the temperature is perfect. I have tried many different thermal gloves that all claim to be the best for subzero, and I have not found a pair that works on its own.) I have run in -30 with a wind chill feeling like -40 and haven’t needed more than this, though a light pair of pants over the tights is nice for the pockets to hold keys.

One important thing is to leave space between the tights and pants since the air between the layers is warm from your body heat and leaving some air to warm up from the body instead of just letting the heat escape through each layer helps insulate. (If you have two tight layers one on another you can lose this free insulation!) I run in the same running shoes all year round, though you can add traction clips (e.g., Yaktrax) if it’s very icy. So far just slowing down a bit – though not that much – on sketchy roads has worked for me.

On the bike, shift by 5 degrees, e.g., before it goes below 0 and I put a toque under the helmet and tights over my shorts (over! Keep the chamois against the skin, and tights over shorts makes it a lot easier to remove them if it warms up mid-ride.) The only other difference is some windbreaking gloves over the wool gloves might be nice for running, but can be a life saver on the bike as your hands are basically the only thing completely not protected from the wind, and I have had veeery cold hands during and after rides. Can not recommend trying this… My feet also get cold below -10, so a nice pair of windbreaker booties is great, or a nice pair of wool socks.

TL;DR: Find a nice balance with a body fitting base layer, a lose thermal layer over top and a windbreaking outer layer as necessary.

It’s better to be cold at the start so the exercise warms you up to a nice temperate, otherwise starting at a nice temperature means you will warm up to a sweating temperature and that can spell disaster for insulation in the cold.

Also, wash your bike after if you take it out in the snow! The salt on the roads can be devastating for your frame, so best be safe. Because of how much effort can go into cleaning the bike well I tend to limit my outdoor winter rides to once a week and all other rides indoors. I have never used a treadmill instead of braving the elements on the run. Snowy runs can be fun! I definitely shift focus from longer rides/runs though, but more on that in a future post.

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In the beginning…

I got interested in triathlon back around 2009, signed up for Ironman Canada, trained a bit and raced in August 2010. Went skiing in March 2011, and woke up a week later in hospital. Apparently a ski had popped off while I was going 80km/h and I fell instantly, getting knocked out with a concussion. That wouldn’t have been so bad on its own, but this happened right before the run steepened significantly…

I am told you could see me flying from the chairlift, and I landed about 100 feet down the run. Sliding another 100 feet and stopping right next to a paramedic that does ski patrol on their days off, my luck was not all bad that day!

A helicopter took me to the hospital, and an onslaught of tests/scans/surgery followed. There was a bleed in my brain, I had a Glasgow coma scale of 3 for some time, a simple fracture and a spiral fracture in my left femur with the piece in between being broken in two. The upper part of my femur broke through the acetabulum (hip socket) and continued through the SI joint. That wasn’t enough though, and it continued all the way to fracturing two of my vertebrae (the L2 and the L4).

So all in all it was no nice day in the park.

My family was given the troubling news that it may take up to two years to physically recover fully, but given the head trauma it was possible I may never wake up. Now of course luck played a huge part in my recovery, but having spent the previous year learning about exercise, nutrition, and health in general must have helped as well. I was conscious in less than a week and moved out of the ICU, then spent the next week in the orthopedic ward. After these two weeks I was discharged in a wheelchair.

Ten weeks later I was on crutches, and two weeks after that I moved to a cane. I then stayed with the cane longer that it felt necessary, just to play it safe, but I was already back on my bike and having a blast at the hospital physio once a week. Before the end of summer I was running on a treadmill, and while my concussion had not yet released its reigns on me, I was off to school in September.

Moving across the country, alone and broken, my PhD began. I couldn’t memorize a complete sentence but had two give 2 hour seminars. (I felt terrible for the audience that had to sit through these!) While I was doing well physically, the mental side was much slower to recover. School was hard. Very hard. But slowly things were coming back, and I couldn’t help but feel my Ironman training helped my physical recovery immensely. I had to learn how to use my brain again, but my body had re-learned how to function after almost any new physical activity I tried. I started to look at everything with a new approach: health was more important than we tend to think.

That’s where this comes in. I have learned so much from so many great people, and now that school is done (successfully! Dr. Broken Triathlete…) I may have some time to try to help others by getting the word out. My plan here is, well, I have no plan, but I can share the things I learn and do as I try to get back to doing triathlons.