When approached appropriately, a camp can give you some awesome physical and mental benefits.
In March 2011, as an unknown first-year pro with big hair and goofy glasses, I went to my first purplepatch training camp in Tuscon. It’s funny how, as a married 31-year-old with three college and graduate degrees, I felt no different than I did during the basketball camps of my pre-pubescent teens. I was excited, nervous and a little intimidated. I wore my favorite T-shirt on the first day and walked around pretending to be cool and confident while secretly freaking out about how I’d stack up.
Instead of predicting how good someone was by how nice their Air Jordans were, I now used their bike as the barometer. Clearly he’s got to be fast, he has a really nice bike.
And just like I did 20 years ago, I let that nervous energy fuel me. The first few sessions I tried my hardest to prove myself to my new coach and my new colleagues. I had, by far, the best string of workouts I’d ever had … in 36 hours. And then the next five days of camp happened.
Not surprisingly, I exploded. The adrenaline wore off, I got sore and overtrained. The guy with the nice bike dropped me on the third ride. The low point hit when, on the last long run, I ran behind a giant mound on the side of the road because I knew people at the hotel wouldn’t be able to see me stop and walk. Once I passed the mound, I jogged back home in crusty, dehydrated shame.
Camps are good for you
Things have come a long way since that week in Tuscon, but the lessons I’ve learned endure. When approached appropriately, a camp can give you some awesome physical and mental benefits by breaking up your routine and challenging you in new ways. The biggest benefits to camp:
I put other normal priorities aside and focus on training and planning.
I’m challenged with new environments and a focused training load.
I meet new people, get different training company and competition that I don’t get regularly at home in Bend—no offense, Matt Lieto.
I can familiarize myself with a specific terrain, conditions and/or course.
I can dive into skills or training needed for a specific sport.
I get face time with my coach.
I can try all my summer outfits in January so I know I’m ready to go in June.
For all these reasons and more, I’ll do three to six training camps a year, depending on my goals, schedule for the season, and family and business obligations. Camps last five to 10 days and typically involve a significant increase in training load and focus, and are usually followed by three to five days of mostly rest.
There are lots of camps
Depending on the time of year, your goals and the phase of training you’re in, the purpose or theme of a camp can vary greatly.
Preseason camp: Get a jumpstart on your season by giving yourself time to lay out goals for the year, plan your schedule, get new equipment set up, and create your training plan.
Warm-weather winter camp: A lot of us colder-climate folk use camps as a way to briefly escape the snow, rain and cold during the winter to get in some miles not on the trainer.
Sport-specific camp: Focus on your swim, bike or run. I’ve done camps focused on all three and used them to do a deep dive into specific skill building.
Race prep camp: This year, I’ll do a camp at Mt. Tremblant to spend extra time on the course before the 70.3 Worlds there in September.
Buddy camp: You go with your buddies and have a good time. Usually not much triathlon happens, but it’s good to do these too.
Everyone has different restrictions—money, family, work, etc—to how many, how long, or how elaborate a camp they can undertake. But camp doesn’t have to be two weeks in Hawaii; it can be three days close to home. As long as your camp forces you out of your normal environment, gives you a mental and physical break from your routine, and permits greater focus on triathlon, you’ll see a real benefit to your training and season.
So pick a camp or create one yourself! But before you go crazy, here are some of the most important things I’ve learned to get the most out of camp.
Tips for a successful camp
Cry a little bit when you leave. If you want to be a pro like me, you’ll cry a little bit when you get dropped off at the airport. Yeah, it might have something to do with leaving your 8-month-old little dude behind for a while, or it might be that you know you’re about to be in the pain cave almost nonstop for the next 10 days. Either way, it’s OK, and I think important to cry it out a little bit.
Turn on a vacation email responder. Email is a constant reminder of all the stuff you feel like you have to do back home or at the office. Even if you do have access to email and have time to check it, allow yourself a break and give others a heads-up by setting up a responder. Since the training load is increased, real rest—physical and mental—between sessions is key.
Go out easy. Like my story here, the thing almost all campers do, whether they’re amateurs or pros, is go out way too hard. I can’t tell you how many other times I’ve been absolutely wrecked two and half days into camp and had to pull way back because I was buried. There’s no point in doing any camp longer than two days if you’re a zombie by day three.
Eat a lot. Camp is not a time to try and lose a bunch of weight. In fact, trying to do so will almost surely cut your camp short by fatigue, dehydration or injury, and could negatively affect your season. Remember that you’re purposely overloading your system by adding volume and intensity. If you also try to deplete it of proper fueling and nutrition, you’re headed for a dead end. Sure, eat healthy, but let yourself eat enough. If you’re doing some really big days, it might be impossible to eat to keep up calorically, so get in as much as you can and make sure to eat enough in the days after.
Take naps. This is what I love most about camp. My life at home is usually too busy for napping, but because I am purposefully “away” from as many of my other obligations—Picky Bars, family, mail—I can let myself take the time to get a nap in. Be lazy. You’re working hard so now is the time to nap.
Don’t forget about your family. Depending on who you are, this may either be impossible, or the goal of your camp. Being a new dad myself, I definitely miss my son—as referenced by the airport-crying. But under a heavy and focused training load, I am still surprised by how quickly a day or two or three goes by and how hard it is to connect. If you don’t make time to Facetime, it probably won’t happen. Remember, you’re going to be very tired when you get home and recovering properly in the doghouse is not easy.
That’s it, Triathlifers! Good luck and let me know how it goes!
Pro triathlete Jesse Thomas is a three-time Wildflower champion and the CEO of Picky Bars.