Endless dark nights and a biting cold snap are enough to make you want to book a warm-weather training break. Is it a good idea to head away? Dr Josephine Perry investigates
Training and competing in the summer in the UK can be glorious. We have a strong competition scene with clubs offering numerous chances to test out your speed and strength in open meetings and league competition. But maintaining motivation when it is cold and dark in the mornings before you head off for school or work, and dark again when you arrive home in the depths of winter is a different story. When your evening training requires layers and head torches, it may be time to head off abroad for a warm-weather training camp.
From Lanzarote and the Algarve to Costa Blanca and Tenerife, training venues in warmer climates are a draw for athletes of all levels and age groups. And the trend for heading overseas has seen previously unfashionable venues become new sporting favourites.
Majorca is a hotspot for many pro cycling teams, Jenny Meadows spends time training in the mountains in South Africa and many other GB athletes go to train in Iten, Kenya. Some of the physiological benefits are obvious – warmer weather means a reduced risk of injury and longer daylight hours in which to fit in your training.
Simply being out in the sunshine during winter months increases your exposure to vitamin D, crucial for performance. Dr Graeme Close, a researcher in sports nutrition and exercise metabolism at Liverpool John Moores University, says many of our winter and summer training habits compound the lack of vitamin D available to our bodies.
“A lot of people train indoors,” he says. “Even those who go outside often run or cycle early in the morning or late in the evening on a commute. Or they wear tight-fitting compression-type clothing and an SPF that prevents exposure to the sun.”
Combined, these factors mean that “even using conservative guidelines” up to 70 per cent of the athletes tested by Dr Close are found to have worryingly low vitamin D levels.
Dr Charlie Pedlar of St Mary’s University, Twickenham, gives a handy rule of thumb that if your shadow is longer than your height (as it is for most of us in the UK in winter) then you are not getting enough vitamin D exposure.
“It is helpful being in sunlight in the winter, especially for athletes from northern climates,” Dr Pedlar says. “While you must still be careful to cover up in strong sunshine it is vital you get some sun exposure as having low vitamin D correlates to higher illnesses, poor bone health and lower strength-adaptation.”
Additionally, he highlights that the sunlight also effects UVA exposure, which triggers the nitric oxide pathway, reducing the oxygen cost of exercise and helping athletes become more energy efficient.
Recharge your mind
But what benefits does warm-weather training hold for the mind? Vicky Gill, a professional triathlete, says she welcomes it as a break from the harshness of a winter workload. “Getting away to the sun in January breaks up the winter grind and gives me something to look forward to during those tougher winter sessions,” she says.
It can also provide athletes with the space to re-focus, time to set goals for the upcoming season and the opportunity to reflect. And, consequently, many find that performance improves almost instantly.
The training camp effect can come simply from being away from regular life. When your schedule is cleared, when you are more relaxed and have sufficient time to recover properly, your performance rises more dramatically that it does at home.
Psychologically, a camp can be a great way to build relationships, with both your coach and your team-mates. “The coach being present during the camp gives the time and the opportunity to develop a stronger coach-athlete relationship,” says Dr Luke Felton, a sport psychologist at Roehampton University. “And being away from the pressures of everyday life will allow them to focus more on their athletes.”
Felton adds that warm-weather camps can boost team cohesion “as the athletes spend time together on a daily basis in a less competitive environment”.
But it’s not all about sunshine – things can go wrong on training camps. The biggest risks are over-training and illness. With lots of additional time on your hands it is easy to get sucked in to doing too much. That, coupled with the greater risk of infection that comes if you are at altitude and the fact everyone is in close proximity and, by the end of the week, fatigued, means that illnesses go around very quickly.
“My aim is to come back from a training camp having over-reached, but not to the point of being broken,” says Gill. “I’ve learned it’s better to do a little bit less than to come home from camp ill or injured and in need of several weeks off training. That is totally counter- productive.”
So if you have spent more time looking at artificial than real light lately, need a bit of motivation and can take a week off real life to focus on your sport, a warm-weather training camp may be exactly what you need.
FIVE TOP TIPS TO HELP PLAN YOUR PERFECT TRAINING CAMP
Check the climate
Ensure neither the temperature nor the terrain are too extreme.
Check the time zone
Stay as close to your home time zone as possible to reduce the effects of long-haul travel on your body and sleep.
Choose training partners carefully
Go with people who have a similar mindset so you push yourselves to the same level.
Expect to be bored
If you are doing it properly, it is not a holiday. Spending hours on a sunbed or clubbing in the evening will just leave you dehydrated.
The week before you go, rest up and eat and drink well so you don’t turn up dehydrated and fatigued.
» Dr Josephine Perry is a sport psychology consultant at Performance in Mind (performanceinmind.co.uk)