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No man’s an island during Canadian winter

Alex VanderLinden is a pro triathlete who lives and races primarily in Ontario. Each month, he’ll write a column for TMC with insight into the world of pro racing, with opinions and observations.unnamed

It’s taken some time for winter to hit us here in Waterloo Region, Ontario. Christmas was mild and green. You could’ve worn a t-shirt right up to the middle of January.

It made for an extended fall training period but deep down you knew it was just a matter of time before we jumped back in the freezer.

By now, winter has truly arrived and we’re all looking out at the usual grey skies, snowy rooftops and sidewalks sprayed with ice. It’s tough times for the outdoor triathlete!

I’m not one of those modern pro athletes who freely choose to do the majority of their work inside. I’m no Andy Potts or Lionel Sanders. Those guys thrive on the control that the indoor setting provides.

Me? I like to ride my bike under a high-pitched sun. I get joy from running the trails. Call it the ‘wind-in-the-hair’ effect, but I gain energy from moving my body through fresh air.

Still. It’s winter. It’s Canada. And I now have no choice but to move inside for my longer sessions.

It’s not all doom and gloom because there are benefits to embracing the indoors. It hardens you mentally. It actually hones your attitude for races that are still months away.

So these days you’ll find me on my treadmill, down in my basement, focusing on my turnover, staring at a shelf filled with old bike helmets for two hours or more. It’s not exactly stimulating but it is brain training. I switch my thoughts off and target only what I’m doing.

If I’m not on the treadmill, I’ll be on my trainer, pedalling for a few hours. All I’ll have for company is my output information on a computer screen, the heave of my lungs as I pass through my training zones and a pool of sweat beneath my bike. I’ll try to break the time up by playing little mental games like staying aero for eight minutes and coming out of that position for two, but the monotony is key here, it’s something I actually welcome.

How does this help come race time? When I need to clear my head during a crucial point of a race, when I need to focus only on grinding my bike and holding my power, I can call to mind those hours on end during the dark winter months when I’ve done it all before. There’s comfort and confidence in knowing that this is nothing new. “I’ve done it on the trainer”, I’ll tell myself, “so I sure as hell can do it now.”

It’s a strange thing, but focusing in on one item for a few hours isn’t an easy task. Our society is a unique one. We crave stimulus. We need a smart phone in our hands at all times, we need to check our social media every ten minutes. We tune out a lot.

Having all these external distractions in everyday life makes maintaining concentration for a five or 15 hour race a difficult task. So if this is something you can practice and improve on, then you have an advantage over your competition. And for me, there’s no better time to sharpen that tool than right now.

But no man is an island. Especially during a bleak Canadian winter.

When I moved to Waterloo Region a few months back I started-up a long Sunday morning spin class. A tight gang of local athletes have come on board – other members of our so-called pain community. There’s great motivation to be gained from that group setting because it breaks the training week up and keeps you honest. Everybody’s program is less specific at this time of year, so it’s wise to jump into some group work right now – even if it’s just a Zwift ride for an hour.

For sure winter limits our options, though. From a pro perspective the Canadian athlete who doesn’t fly south at this time of year will typically choose their first race a little later in the season, maybe in April or May. For the age-grouper and pro alike, the challenge can simply be retaining motivation. That’s why I like to spice things up and circle some spring run races, or an indoor triathlon. It’s a little carrot in the distance that means I won’t skip out on any sessions.

This terrible old weather can debilitate us as triathletes but it can also expand our horizons. As with much of our sport, it boils down to attitude and how we handle ourselves in different circumstances. But I know that if I can navigate my way through the next couple of months, I’ll arrive out the other end a stronger, more steeled athlete.

It’s why I’ve chosen to embrace this late winter of 2016.