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‘Weather’ to train outside or not?

This post is written by Owain Matthews. Hailing from Wales but now living in NSW, Owain is an amateur triathlete who has the long term goal of transitioning to 70.3/Ironman racing, and the hope of competing at a professional level. Read more of his blog posts at http://owainmatthews.wordpress.com

When I think about training in bad weather conditions it brings back memories of when I started Triathlon in the UK. I have visions of leaving 10 minutes early to defrost the car before getting to the lake for an open water swim in 13 degree water that takes your breath away as you submerge and then surface with yellow hands and feet. The mornings spent installing mud guards to prevent the cold, wet muddy water from ruining your ride. So when I moved to Sydney, one of the most ideal places to train for Triathlon, I was surprised to feel so lonely training outside on bad weather days. It got me wondering whether I was the crazy one for training outside, and why so many choose alternative training methods during bad weather?

Australia has a warmer and drier climate than northern European countries, but when the weather does take a turn for the ‘worse’ I continually hear the disappointment in the voices of athletes who bemoan the effect the colder, wetter weather has on their training schedule. Perhaps their complaints are valid? The question arose for me of whether a triathlete should go out and train in bad weather, or take the alternative. Primarily for triathlon we face this dilemma when we have a cycle or open water swim on the program. Most of us don’t mind a run in the wet, so why do we not swim in the ocean during bad weather or go out on the bike? Is it just a safety thing, are we anxious about getting sick or are we just being a bit precious?

From my experience in Australia, I would say that a fair amount of triathletes seem to take the wind trainer option in bad weather – but is it always necessary, and would they benefit more from training outside, battling the elements? Perhaps, having spent decades training in the UK, I am more conditioned to the rain and cold weather (not that I haven’t had my share of falls when cycling in the wet and cold). I do feel it has prepared me well for varied racing conditions and unexpected occurrences in triathlon. I feel super comfortable on the bike now, and when in choppy water on the swim, leading to confidence in most conditions.

Many accomplished athletes opt to stay inside or rearrange their schedule during bad weather, so it clearly works, and lots of athletes actually use the wind trainer in good weather as a regular training method. But do the benefits of training outside outweigh the alternative methods? The fact is, a lot of things during a race can put you off track and mentally affect your performance, so why don’t we take advantage of the opportunities presented by poor weather to challenge ourselves with a tough and unpredictable training session? I was lucky enough to witness Alistair Brownlee destroy the field at the Beijing World Championship Final in 2011, his aggressiveness and willingness to work hard in poor weather conditions was inspiring. True, he is a great athlete, but lots of other top performers seemed unable to race as well in the poor weather conditions. Increasing the ITU (International Triathlon Union) season in 2011 meant that many other races also featured rain. So, maybe it’s time to start getting specific and get outside in the bad weather.

The other consideration is, can you achieve as much on a wind trainer/ in the pool as you can out on the road/ ocean? I feel that a good session in poor weather conditions on the bike improves my bike skills, allows me to mentally focus more on the session due to safety considerations and, to be honest, toughens me up. A good swim in choppy conditions can make some people anxious, but prepares you well for the hustle and bustle of a competitive age group race. This allows you to feel prepared for most situations that may be placed in front of you in a competition.

Physiologically I believe indoor training is still effective, but it is localised, lacks specificity and, to be blunt, lacks the mental stimulation of training outside. I believe you miss out on all the other little benefits of training outside. When the bike is such a vital part of long distance triathlon racing, why choose to sit indoors on a wind trainer with limited mental stimulation: isn’t this a wasted opportunity to improve mental perseverance?

So, should triathletes train outside or not? I’m sure there are pro’s and con’s for both, under differing circumstances and the experience of the athlete can count for a lot. Personally, I’ll definitely keep reaching for the rain jacket and wetsuit to try to train as specifically as possible and enjoy the graft of taking on the bad weather, and taking the tumbles as I go.
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