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Page last updated at 11:34 GMT, Thursday, 3 March 2011

How do athletes train in winter?


The Open University discuss the benefits of warm weather training camps

By Caroline Heaney and Ben Oakley
The Open University

It's been a long, cold winter and if you struggle to get out of bed when it is frosty outside, imagine waking up to do a 90-minute run, followed by an hour swimming, another hour in the gym and then two hours on the bike.

For British triathlete Alistair Brownlee, that is a typical Monday. The rest of the week sees a similarly gruelling schedule, with Alistair training for an average of over 30 hours across the seven days.

It is a physically demanding schedule but the mental cost of facing freezing conditions for repetitious training sessions, day in day out, can be just as exhausting.

For that reason, many athletes jet off to warmer climes for winter training camps.

This winter World Olympic Dreams athletes Alistair Brownlee and the Borlée siblings flew out to a resort on Lanzarote that caters especially for elite sportsmen and women.

Such camps don't come cheap and the holiday location may give the impression that they are luxury optional extras but warm weather trainining may be a crucial factor in a top athlete's performance during a season.

Body matters

One of the greatest fears for any athlete is the risk of injury. Warm weather makes muscular injuries like strains and tears less likely since warm muscles are much more pliable than cold muscles. Cold muscles tend to tighten and constrict.

Researchers have found that this increased pliability, particularly in sprinting events, means that athletes are normally able to run faster and take longer strides on, for example, a track in 24C Lanzarote than on a track in 4C London.

Alistair Brownlee
Alistair Brownlee trains for an average of over 30 hours a week

Also, consider this. You are leading up to a competition in very hot place. The body's systems take time to adapt to such 'heat-stress' - this adaptation is known as heat acclimatisation. What better way to do this than to go to a warm weather training camp in advance of the event.

For the 2008 Beijing Games, the British Olympic Association (BOA) chose a small island near Hong Kong in the same time zone to help athletes prepare to compete in these conditions.

There is one further physiological point to consider but it also links to psychology: the sunshine. Elite athletes are wary of taking additional vitamin supplements unless they are 100% confident that the contents are safe and legal for them to use.

Vitamin D is produced in response to exposure to sunshine and it is proven that vitamin D deficiency can have a negative impact on sports performance and injury risk. So rather than taking pills, obtaining Vitamin D naturally, with warm weather training, plus the added feel-good factor of having the sun on your back is very attractive.

Quite simply sunshine makes us feel better and this has been scientifically proven through the acceptance of the condition Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) - the form of depression experienced in the winter months.

The psychological boost

Plus, at the simplest level, the act of moving to a different location to train has important psychological benefits.

According to triathlete Alistair Brownlee, the rewards include "training with different people as well and just being in a different environment for a bit of a change. And at this time of year as well it's nice to get away.

"In some ways it's not a holiday, bit in other ways it is a holiday. It feels like you're doing something different and you can enjoy some different things."

Generally, top athletes train six hours a day, six days a week, twelve months a year and on average they usually took up their sport at the age of 14. So anything that helps break up the routine and maintains an athlete's interest is a good thing, especially when some 10 years of training is involved to get to the top.

Olivia, Kevin and Jonathan Borlée
Olivia, Kevin and Jonathan Borlée chose Lanzarote for one of their winter training camps

Warm weather training camps can act as a huge motivator giving athletes a renewed focus and the opportunity to experience different types of training and the chance to train with different people.

It also provides athletes with an opportunity to focus entirely on their sport without the other distractions that may be present at home - family, friends, work, or public appearances.

In rowing, coaches use the psychological value of winter training camps (often in cold climates) by using cycling and cross-country skiing to motivate their squad. Olympic gold medallist James Cracknell explains how he and other squad members took to cycling:

"My rowing coach realised that the national squad could train harder and longer by being encouraged to ride each other into the ground.

"The novelty and excitement of being allowed out of a boat, not to mention our stupidity in failing to spot his cunning plan, meant we turned up day after day like lambs to the slaughter."

Other rowers have reported team building effects of training camps, especially in integrating new members into their squad.

Practical rewards

Olympic sports that interact with the environment - road cycling, mountain biking, triathlon, canoeing, sailing, windsurfing, equestrianism, open water swimming - are clearly more accessible in warmer climates and in particular, far longer hours of training can be put in.

Caroline Heaney from the Open University
Caroline Heaney: Warm weather winter training camps can give elite athletes a big motivational boost

We should not underestimate the importance of the time spent doing 'purposeful practice' in all sports. As an aside, Alistair Brownlee also mentions the joy of being able to train without wearing so many layers of clothing.

There is one final benefit - enhanced facilities. Warm weather training camps are often located in sumptuous facilities in venues such as Spain, Portugal or Cyprus which provide athletes with training facilities that they may not normally have access to at home.

At the Club La Santa resort in Lanzarote, Alistair Brownlee and the GB Triathlon squad had access to an outdoor pool - this is more akin to the open water swimming that is part of triathlon competition.

To sum up, it is clear when you speak to athletes and coaches that the main benefits of warm weather training are psychological in terms of the motivational boost, team building and quality of practice that becomes possible.

Caroline Heaney is a lecturer in sport and fitness at the Open University. She is a BASES Accredited and HPC Registered Sport Psychologist and has been providing sport psychology support to performers from a wide range of sports for over 10 years. She is also co-academic consultant on the BBC World Olympic Dreams series.

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see also
Do horses get jet lag?
23 Sep 10 |  World Olympic Dreams
What makes African runners excel?
06 Aug 10 |  World Olympic Dreams
Borlées aim to make 2012 a family outing
26 Jul 10 |  World Olympic Dreams
No place like home for triathlete Brownlee
26 Jul 10 |  World Olympic Dreams

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