Do I need a training camp to get fitter?

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In my experience, there are pros and cons to going on a training camp. I thought it would be useful to spend some time thinking about these and doing some research to help evaluate the best way forward.

So, do I need a training camp to get fitter? No, you do not need a training camp to get fitter for cycling or running and in some cases, going on a training camp can be worse than staying at home. Training camps provide an opportunity to focus on your sport, train hard and with increased volume, which can provide a boost in fitness if managed correctly. However, staying at home allows you to retain a consistent routine, which can be more effective. It is also very common to experience a period of fatigue after a training camp that can actually set your training back rather than boost your fitness.

There is a lot to be gained from going on a training camp, but there are also risks that you will end up in worse shape than if you had stayed at home. It is important to understand what you want from a camp and choose the location and style of camp carefully: know what you want out of it and plan accordingly.

What you can get from training camps

A training camp provides a block of time during which you can focus on your chosen sport without distractions from external sources. Camps are usually run in areas where the facilities and weather are likely to be good for training as well as being situated in accommodation that facilitates appropriate rest and recovery without the necessities of performing the usual day to day chores.

Due to this, it is possible to train harder than usual and create what is known as an overload, whereby at the end of the camp you will be in a state of fatigue. If managed correctly, with the right amount of recovery, this overload results in a boost in fitness as your body adapts to the training you have done on camp. The difficulties arise if you become overly tired on the camp, don’t recover properly or end up with a drop in commitment if you return to poor weather or excessive demands on your time. I have seen many athletes return home from a training camp, apparently much fitter and stronger than before they arrived but give up completely for months upon their return. Thus being much worse off in terms of fitness than if they had stayed at home.

Another effective but often overlooked reason for going on a training camp is to focus on rehabilitation and/or personal development that ultimately benefits your sport as you return home injury free and with a more robust mindset. It may seem silly to go away if you have a niggling injury and can’t spend the time training but time away and avoiding the day to day physical and mental stresses can provide a superb healing environment that makes the investment well worth it.

The timing and planning of any training camp are therefore fundamental to success and it is important to consider whether it is better to spend the time and money in a different way, retaining consistency in routine and training that may ultimately result in more success in the long term.

Types of training camp

Nowadays, training camps come in many styles that cater for many requirements, some are guided and some leave you free to set your own programme. Many leave your options open, with the option of led activities. There are also many reasons for going on a camp, which may include:

Supported camps in warm weather locations

These camps provide various levels of support from fully supported rides with a following car and mechanic, to groups going out with ride leaders where you are responsible for your own food and bike maintenance/repair. These camps are a great way of getting some miles in, getting away from poor weather and the day to day demands of life.

However, if you are looking to this style of camp to provide a boost to your fitness and performance in your goal event you need to think carefully about how they fit into your plan. Necessarily, the pace of rides is dictated by the slower members of the group, which can often be combined with a competitive element as faster athletes want to compete for top perceived climbing honours and town signs sprint victories. This can often result in rides of varying and unpredictable intensity. These rides can fit into your training quite nicely as long as you plan how to use them. If you are looking for base miles then keep out of the competitive element and go with a slower group, so that you aren’t on your limit. If you want to do more focused rides, just skip the group ride for a day and do your own thing. You may also want to add in extra rest days because it is very easy to get overly tired on this type of camp.

These camps are great for getting some time on the bike in, allowing you to do a lot more volume than at home and if you are sensible and recover properly afterwards, can provide a boost to your training and a kick start to your spring/summer riding fitness.

DIY camps

Organising a camp for yourself is becoming increasingly easy and going away with a group of friends with similar interests and goals can be a very effective and cheaper way of getting the benefits of a focused block of training. Many clubs go to the same location each year, which means that more experienced club members know the best routes and can guide less experienced members. However, even for somewhere completely new, it is easy to pick up routes from tools like Strava, or plan your route using Strava Heat Maps to make sure you are using the most popular routes, which are likely to be safer as well. Once you have a route, your GPS device will navigate it for you, so you don’t really need local knowledge if you are prepared to have a minor adventure. It is worth having a look at suitable routes and checking out whether more formal camps use the area before choosing your location.

With a DIY camp, you have much more control of the programme and can focus activities according to the needs of the group, increasing the likelihood of getting what you are aiming for. Having said that, there is still the temptation to ride hard early in the trip and race against your friends, resulting in excessive fatigue too soon but there you go - be aware and try to be sensible.

Reasons to go on a training camp

There are many reasons to go on a training camp and these are not all directly related to training for your sport.

Escaping the weather to enjoy your sport is a great reason to go on a camp no matter what your ability level or goals. Getting away from work and home life for a while, spending time with friends or making new ones can be extremely valuable. However, these reasons are more akin to an activity holiday than what constitutes a training camp that forms part of a structured training year that is aimed at specific sporting goals.

A period of focused training that forms part of a structured plan, aiming at one or a number of events requires more careful planning and although it may include all, or some elements of the escape type camp, the emphasis and timing should be more carefully considered. With this goal in mind, it is also worth considering whether it is better to go on a camp with potentially unpredictable outcomes than stay at home and maintain consistent and progressive training.

If you have an event goal where environmental factors such as high altitude, heat, cold or specific terrain such as long sustained climbs and/descents are fundamental components, a block of time developing your specific fitness can be worthwhile. If you are looking to make specific physiological adaptations to environmental factors like altitude, heat and cold then the timing of your camp becomes important since any gains you make could be lost if you leave too much time between the camp and your event.

When to go

If you choose to go on a training camp it is worth giving some thought to when is the best time, or if it is with a group of friends or a club it is worth considering how the timing fits with your overall goals and how you will use your time away to most benefit.

The table gives an outline annual plan for someone aiming for events in the summer in the northern hemisphere. The table considers several scenarios, which you can either adopt directly if the timing works for you, or adapt accordingly. If you aren’t sure how it may work for you then get in touch and we will do our best to help.

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Reasons to stay at home

Going on a training camp can seem like a good way of committing and developing fitness for your goal. However, unless it is carefully planned and executed, it may be just taking the easy option that makes you think you are working towards a goal when you could have been more effective by taking the less exciting option of staying at home.

There are many reasons to stay at home.

  • Time: you can save time off work to use for other preparation and focused blocks of training that might be more effectively executed with the odd day off rather than a week or two away.

  • Money: you can save, what is sometimes a very significant amount of money, which may be more effectively spent on equipment or professional support towards your goal.

  • Avoidance of over training: staying in a controlled environment where you are not tempted to hammer out big miles in a potentially unhelpfully competitive environment has a lot to be said for it. If you go about it the wrong way, a week away on a training camp could result in the need for months of recovery that potentially ruin your season.

  • Continuity: once you are in a training routine that works for you, incorporates appropriate periods of recovery and hard work and progressively developing your fitness, it is often best to stick with it. This homeostatic environment is easy to disrupt and hard to reestablish, so disrupting it with an unfamiliar environment, nutrition, routine, etc. can sometimes be a bad thing.

Related questions

Is an altitude training camp worthwhile?

Based on my reading and speaking to physiologists that are associated with elite sport, my understanding is that the physiological gains that are likely from spending time at altitude are not significant unless you are taking part in events that are themselves at altitude. However, it is my experience that spending time in mountain locations provides a lot more than just the gains associated with altitude, particularly for people who love the outdoors. In this respect, I have found that camps in high altitude locations have proved very effective when planned carefully and objectives clearly understood.

What things have equivalent cost and might be more effective?

Assuming a training camp costs between £500 and upwards of £2000, there are a number of things that you could consider as alternatives. Think about event specific items, for example, if cycling time trials or triathlon are your things, you could get new wheels, or even a new frame; if mountain biking, a dropper seat post or upgrading your drivetrain may be a meaningful outlay. More generally, you could invest in a power meter for running or cycling, or some professional support such as coaching or regular consultations to help you stay on track with your training.

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JHCoaching has been helping athletes at all ability levels for many years. During that time we have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, as well as helping many athletes achieve things they never thought possible.

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