Besides weather, there's a good reason that you've been seeing the pros migrate to warmer climates during this time of year to train intensively with their peers. Training camps allow athletes to train and recover in an optimal environment with few distractions, a high level of competition, and under the watchful eye of a coach.
There are now plenty of coach-coordinated training camps for age groupers that mimic this model, and they can be very educational and well worth your time. But there's also the alternative of taking a DIY approach and planning your own training camp.
Planning a good training camp is definitely more than simply rounding up a group of friends and getting away to train in a scenic destination. But with a basic framework and guidelines in mind, you can put together a DIY training camp that is both effective and enjoyable.
To sketch out our training camp "blueprints", I asked for help from Lance Watson of LifeSport Coaching and Lindsay Hyman, Pro Coach with Carmichael Training Systems. Both graciously shared their expertise. Watson has been coaching camps for pros and age groupers since the early 90s. Hyman is one of the original minds behind the CTS Tri School program in Tucson, which runs on a unique, open booking format where athletes can come and go for any length of time.
In planning your training camp, answer five questions: when, where, who, why, and what.
When to Go
From Watson's perspective there are two key times that an athlete benefits most from a dedicated training camp. One is in the phase immediately prior to your first races of the season (not necessarily your "A" race), when most athletes are transitioning from their early season preparation work to more race-specific training. Athletes who are already fit can use the competitive nature of a camp to dial up the intensity in this transition period. Besides climate considerations, this is another reason there are so many training camps on offer in March.
The other key period is in the peaking phase—approximately three weeks out from your most important race. We'll talk more about the goals for this type of camp later on.
As for duration, try to get away for at least three days. Longer is better if you can. Watson says, "A three day training camp with five to six sessions tailored to ability and fitness is enough time to create a progressive improvement and is also perfect for me to observe an athlete over the three disciplines, see how they are technically, and where changes can me made moving forward into their next block of training." CTS also requires a minimum 3-day stay at Tri School.
Where to Go
One of the most important aspects of training camp is that it allows athletes to get away from the distractions of work, family, and other obligations in order to focus solely training and recovery. Even driving just a couple of hours away from home can achieve this goal.
Some things to consider:
● Is there the proximity of a good pool and/or open water?
● Is there good riding and running? Is it easy to get to from your accommodation?
● What do you want to work on in preparation for your A race (climbing, heat acclimation, open water swimming, experience training at altitude, etc.)?
● Is it feasible to travel to your A race location to train on course?
● Is there other relevant infrastructure available, i.e., track, gym, etc.?
Who Should Go
Another key component of training camp is the competition. Hyman observes of her pro athletes, "When they know they're going into a training camp with a focus and a team environment, everyone tends to buckle down and do a better job in training and recovery, even if their actual schedule may not change." Try to plan your training camp with at least one other training partner or a group of friends who are at a similar level of fitness and will push you competitively.
That being said, also consider accepting that your group may split up during some sessions to achieve their own objectives. At Tri School, Hyman says that while they do segregate their groups according to speed, for some interval sessions the group will ride out together only to a determined location. At that point, riders are encouraged to split up and do efforts at their own pace.
A key benefit of coach-coordinated camps is the availability of professional instruction. Watson and his coaches present nutrition seminars, provide stroke analysis in the pool, discuss open water swim technique and provide other educational sessions at camp. While you won't have a coach on hand at your own camp, this is another reason to go with good training partners who may be able to provide tips or make observations on your form or technique that you might otherwise be unaware of.
Why You're Going
Set your goals for the week or weekend. For an early season camp, Hyman advises you to aim for achieving volume during this focused time and working on your limiters. If you were at Tri School in your early season, Hyman would recommend key sessions where you could improve your weaknesses under the guidance of a coach. At your own camp, schedule some shorter sessions to work on proper technique in your limiting discipline, or work drills into your longer workouts.
If you choose to plan a camp closer to your A race, race practice and strategy will be the primary goals. For his race preparation camps, Watson schedules swim, bike and run workouts at goal race pace, interval sessions where athletes will aim to produce peak performances, and sessions to work on race day mental game plans.
What You'll Need
Here's what you'll need to prepare ahead of time for your DIY training camp.
1) Your training plan
According to Watson's guidance, plan five or six key training sessions in a 3-day camp that achieve your stated goals. LifeSport's 3-5 day camps typically include:
● Endurance, interval and tempo sessions on bike and run;
● A brick session;
● An open water swim with instruction; and
● A pool swim with video analysis of swim technique.
For examples of how you might structure a day or week, see LifeSport's 3-day itineraries.
2) Your recovery sessions.
In between training sessions, plan to recover and do little else physically. Hyman observes that "the 10 percent rule of thumb [to avoid increasing your training load by more than 10 percent per week] kind of flies out the window at training camp", so recovery is crucial to success.
Enjoy your recovery time with your friends—this is the part that should feel like vacation. If you have a large group, consider renting a nice house. It's fun and more economical, you'll have a kitchen, and you'll enjoy simply resting at home. CTS Tri School has an athlete house for this very reason. Relax by the pool. Go to a nice dinner. Watch a movie. If it's in the budget, schedule a recovery massage nearby. Go to sleep early!
If you're getting away for a week or longer, Hyman reminds you to plan some lighter volume, active recovery days.
3) A simple nutrition and meal plan.
Nutrition is going to be important, so while you don't need to plan out the details of every meal, do have some idea of how, what, and where you'll eat. Don't spend your mental bandwidth and physical energy trying to find this kind of information while you're at camp.
Know ahead of time where the nearest grocery stores are, and scope out a few good restaurants. Doing some research ahead of time makes food a fun part of the trip, rather than an unnecessary stressor.
4) Routes and directions.
On planning your own camp, Hyman says, "I would just encourage athletes to do their homework. Sometimes people will head to Tucson because they know it's a good training destination, and they get here and they don't know where to go. Make sure if you're going to the pool, it's a good pool. Know the times that you can go, and things like whether it's a 25-meter or 25-yard pool. Look at routes so that you get an idea of safe places to ride. Use resources like Strava or TrainingPeaks. Look for popular routes, because that means there are a lot of cyclists and the drivers are used to cyclists. The same thing goes for running. Know ahead of time where to go so you're not lost, where there are places on the way to refill your water bottles, details like that."
For DIY campers, each planned workout should be accompanied by a route, directions and cue sheets. Or, take my friend's approach: she arranges training camps for herself by visiting triathlon friends who live in attractive training destinations. Besides having somewhere to stay and someone to train with, her hosts already know the local routes.
5) Race day strategy, equipment, and nutrition.
As mentioned above, for a peak period camp, your key sessions will include race practice workouts. Know what your goal race pace will be before you go, and bring your race day equipment and nutrition.
DIY vs. Coach-Coordinated Training Camps
This brief guide isn't meant to discourage athletes from attending a coach-coordinated camp if they have the wherewithal. As we've discussed, a professional camp offers some key value propositions that a DIY camp can't. In addition to fitness gains, your biggest takeaways from a formal camp are going to be the knowledge and objective feedback you'll get about training, nutrition, technique, and race strategy. This type of information makes you a better athlete and continues to generate returns for years. If you can go, a formal training camp by a good coach is a valuable and worthwhile experience.
But when you can't go to a formal camp, planning your own is a solid option. Just keep in mind that with a self-planned camp, your aim will be primarily fitness gains and recovery as opposed to learning. You'll also have logistics to deal with for sure, but in return, you'll create a personal experience and make some great memories.
Whichever route you go, a training camp is well worth doing, and hopefully the advice given here helps you to plan a productive DIY training camp that is a highlight of your season.
[The top two large format images are of CTS camps and were provided by Carmichael Training Systems. The bottom two images courtesy of LifeSport Coaching.]