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Offseason Triathlon Camps...The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As this triathlon season winds down (with only Ironman Arizona and a handful of other races remaining on the northern hemisphere calendar), attention now turns to 2012.  One of the first priorities for many athletes and coaches is planning 2012 offseason training camps.  Every winter and spring, athletes descend upon warm locales such as San Diego, Tucson, Phoenix, Palm Springs, and Las Vegas for days or weeks dedicated to nothing but training.  Camps are big business these days, and in some respects remind me of destination golf schools.  Both have positives and negatives, depending on the camp/school offerings and whether the service is appropriate for that athlete’s needs.  Much like golf schools in which students practice their brains out for a few days, this firehose approach can be good, bad, or ugly. 

The Good

1.  Gets people active in the offseason.  Nothing destroys fitness like inactivity.  Many triathletes in cold climates have trouble staying motivated for treadmill runs and bike trainer workouts in the dead of winter.  Fortunately, the idea of purposely sitting around and getting out of shape in the offseason has lost favor in our modern era.  With this evolution in thinking, camps have exploited the opportunity to encourage offseason training.  A trip in February or March can break the monotony of winter training, which is good both for the mind and body. (However, that begs the question…is a camp better than travelling independently and doing training appropriate for your own needs rather than the needs of the group?)

2.  Money to tourism economy of warm places.  The Tucson local economy welcomes your money!  We need it. 

3.  Camaraderie.  Camp is an opportunity to make new friends and rekindle old friendships from previous years.  These relationships can be valuable particularly in the doldrums of winter and for those without a local support group of people who “get” their odd triathlon obsession.

4.  Economy of scale for in-person coaching.  The in-person hourly rate for coaching under normal circumstances is likely much higher than what a camp works out to.  For those in isolated areas, camps may be one of the few chances for live coaching interaction. 

5.  Bike handling skills.  Bike handling can atrophy through lack of use.  Triathletes are notoriously bad bike handlers.  Those living in winter climates can maintain skills by getting to actually ride on the road, which might not be possible if all the roads are covered in snow and ice at home.

6.  Preparation for early season events.  In most cases, I’d recommend that people in cold places avoid key races in the early season.  However, for events like Kona and 70.3 Worlds, many athletes must be near top form early in the year just to qualify, especially if they don’t want to race a qualifying event close in time to the championship. 

7.  Planning.  Don’t have to worry about logistics such as lane space, bike routes, meals, and hotels.  Part of your camp fee covers the planning service. 

Bad

1.  One size fits none.  Training is rarely individualized.  Everyone has different exercise needs, yet we’re supposed to believe that everyone in an entire week of massed group workouts is getting what they need?    

2.  An incubator of ego.  Pent up ego comes flowing out when everyone gets together.  Easy rides turn into hammer-fests.  Nothing wrong with having a little fun and pushing the pace a bit, but when you put a group of Type-A competitive triathletes together who insist on “getting their money’s worth”, you can rest assured that few will utilize restraint when someone else tries to drop the hammer.  Further, even when the intensity stays under control, going from less than ten hours of weekly training to more than twenty in a single week can forge cracks in the foundation that show up later in the year.

3.  Trying to “bank training”…Reminds me in college Health class…Professor said one alcoholic drink per day was OK for health.  Student asked, “does that mean I can have seven at once on the weekend?” (Nice try!!)  A similar mentality pervades the camper’s ethos.  Since they know that higher volume training is nearly impossible in their hometowns, they often try to “bank” training by cramming as much as they can during their week in the sun (and coaches are the prime enablers of this mentality).  Unfortunately, “banking” training can have the same effect as trying to dump excess water on a plant in preparation of a drought.  Great idea in theory until the plant drowns because it can’t drink too much water in one pouring.  If someone is maintaining a modest and consistent volume of training in the offseason, slight bump for a week should not cause harm.  However, making an extreme jump is problematic. 

4.  Coaches trying to outdo each other…Who can do the most mileage?  Who can climb the most?  In general, the consumer doesn’t know enough how to differentiate services other than by people reveling in how sore and tired they got (“If it hurts, it must be good for me, right?”).  Great for entertainment, but risky for long term development. 

Ugly

1.  Starting down path toward valley of fatigue and injury.  We only have so many arrows in the quiver, both within a season and over a career.  Better to spend these arrows on a race or during a period in which the body is better able to absorb a higher training volume.  Like any team setting (which is essentially what camp is…team for a week), the naturally strongest can survive, but the middle and back of the pack may struggle to keep up.  These campers are often praised for their efforts in burying themselves in early season training, which only perpetuates the type sadistic attitude that gets them in trouble with injury and illness later in the year.  Sometimes, the person near the front of the pack needs to put that extra “oomph” to assert his/her position as the alpha-dog for the week and burns up physical resources that take time for replenishment.

2.  Wasting money?  You can argue that money spent on a camp-for-a-week is better spent on smaller, more consistent investments (more frequent bike fits, swim lessons, therapeutic support, and strength if there is a competent individual in the local area).  The spending habits are no different than destination golf school…people spend all this money to go to golf school and practice their brains out for three days, yet often come home sore and fatigued, then later revert to their old habits that encouraged them to drop a few grand on a golf school to begin with.   Some athletes can spend with impunity, but most should seriously consider the return on investment when they drop money on a camp in the dead of winter, if this is money that would have otherwise been spent on individualized goods and services throughout the year.

3.  Random soup…(Coach Boyle has another word to describe the soup, an it begins with an "S")  Camps are often about just throwing as much together as possible with little rhyme or reason other than trying to cram the most mileage into the week.  As an analogy, take a bunch of the freshest ingredients and throw them together into a mish-mash of a creation, and you’ll probably end up with a sloppy unedible mess.  You can’t honestly say that a weeklong blowout camp offers any intelligent design for each individual camper in terms of manipulating the relevant variables to stimulate meaningful adaptations.

Choose Wisely 

Clearly there are positives and negatives in deciding on whether to spend one’s money on a camp.  The decision is not a simple one and should be the product of detailed thought.  While many benefits can also be obtained by traveling someplace warm by yourself or with a smaller group of friends for your own informal camp, it is also true that the potential for “bad” and “ugly” can be mitigated through careful planning and avoiding the temptation to simply tag along with the hammerfest crowd.  However, no matter how many good things a camp has going for it, falling prey to only one "bad" or "ugly" element can eliminate everything that was "good."  Start the 2012 season on a positive note with a decision based on careful consideration of the costs and benefits to align with your personal goals,

Comments

Training camps

Great post, lots to consider when thinking about going on a triathlon training camp!

We have a directory of training camps on our site so if people do decide to go on a camp they can see some options here: http://www.intelligent-triathlon-training.com/triathlon-training-camp.html

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