In Her Words: Melanie McQuaids Training Camp

This report filed October 9, 2005 on http://www.insidetri.com

(October is a big month in paradise. On Oct. 9 the ITU Age Group World Championships are in Waikiki, on Oct. 15 Ironman Hawaii comes to Kona, and on Oct. 23 the Nissan Xterra World Championships are held in Maui. Three weekends, three world championships. Let’s kick it all off with thoughts from Melanie McQuaid on the value of training camps as preparation for big races – and then watch Melanie contest for her second world title in Maui…….)

MY FIRST TRAINING CAMP was back in February of 1997 with the Canadian national mountain bike team. Chrissy Redden and I bunked together for the "Russian Death Camp" with head coach Yury Kashirin in Pinos Altos, N.M.. We rode the most mileage of our lives in mountains with climbs more than 10 miles long, were caught in spring snowstorms only a day after the temperature peaked at 80?, and discovered that three weeks in a cabin with anyone is a true test of friendship.

For three years I would do those crazy early season camps, and I would always head to the classic spring races feeling great. By leaving home to concentrate on training, I manage distraction better, get better quality training, and achieve my highest levels of motivation. There are pre-arranged training camps available for amateur and professional athletes, but I like to put my own camps together to suit my race season periodization.

Recently I traveled to Vail, Colo., to do a training camp at high altitude with my Saucony teammates, Josiah Middaugh and Conrad Stoltz, in order to prepare for the Xterra in Keystone, Colo.. This camp might be why I won my first big race at altitude, and I would like to share with you things to consider for your own camp that can help you find your best fitness of the season.

For me, the most obvious reason to do an August training camp in Vail was the extreme elevation of the venue in Keystone. The Keystone race started at 9,600 feet and topped out at about 11,700 feet, so coming straight to Colorado from sea level in Victoria, B.C., was not an option. I have started emphasizing the importance of detailed preparation in my training program, and this camp was part of my groundwork for elevation. Vail is slightly lower than Keystone, which makes training more forgiving, but it was high enough that there were no surprises on race day. I find racing anything above 5,500 feet requires 10-14 days of acclimation. Some people feel that arriving late (within 24 hours) works, because the body will not have time to start adapting. I have tried both, and feel that an altitude camp either immediately before or within a few weeks of an altitude race will likely improve your performance.

There are benefits to altitude camps that are realized at sea level. This was the rationale behind our spring trips to Pinos Altos. Some people find that training high before racing low helps them to get stronger, and science supports this approach. So whether your race is high or low, altitude is a good component to a training camp. One note, however: training high can limit the amount of speed work you can do. I think it is wise to plan your altitude camp far enough in advance of your sea level race so you will have some time to bring your speed back up. I find I need at least three weeks after altitude to start feeling fast.

The second objective for my training camp was to familiarize myself with the course I would be racing. I chose to stay close to the race venue so I could ride both the bike and run courses. Poor preparation for the Xterra in Milwaukee cost me dearly; I took a wrong turn on the run course and lost by seconds. Xterra races have twisty, technical run and bike courses, and it is always your responsibility to know where you are going.

I had the advantage of riding and running the Keystone course with some very talented male competitors who were also focused on that race. The first time Conrad, Josiah, and I rode the bike course I was riding like a girl. By my fifth time down the descent, during the race, I was riding like a very, very fast girl. Knowing the run course at Keystone not only helped in navigation, it also helped me pace myself and as a result I ran well. Doing my homework for that race resulted in a win.

All of us have distractions at home which make it difficult to be disciplined and focused. Work obviously gets in the way of training, but even athletes that train full-time struggle with friends, household chores, sponsors, and family making demands on their time. Most distractions are healthy, because they make you a balanced person; but when you really need to get down to business, there is nothing like a training camp to allow you to train harder and smarter than you ever could at home.

My trip to Vail was organized before I knew how important the race in Keystone was going to be. When I realized the series was on the line, it was easier to buckle down and "get it done" while I was away. Distractions will still happen during camp, but it might be easier to control them. My roommates all went on a fun trip on the gondola to the top of Vail mountain one night, and I chose not to join them knowing how exhausted from training I was. No one questioned my decision because everyone understood the importance of recovery, so I didn’t have to feel guilty for putting my feet up and watching my fourth episode of "Law and Order" that day. At home I would have felt compelled to be social, but when I am away it is easier to be a hermit and focus.

It is important to pair training with a lot of recovery. It makes no sense to overdo it during camp, and that may happen if you don’t recover enough from your workouts each day. Not having lots of commitments allows you to do the "nothing" that you need to be doing. Fitting in yoga, core work, e-stim with a Compex, and massage were high priorities in my training plan. When your focus becomes your training, there is no excuse for missing any elements of your training program. All of the training and recovery needs to be planned first, and the socializing only is included when there is time.

Being around two other athletes at the same level as me was good for my motivation. One goal of the camp was to shave off a few pounds before the race, so I let my buddies know that I was on the "chisel" for two weeks. Seeing other athletes everyday kept my enthusiasm for the race and kept me inspired to achieve my goal. Everyone was supportive, although encouragement included ice cream teasing since Conrad and Josiah were not "chiseling" – but that was so much more fun than silently suffering through salad alone.

Part of our "team" effort in the camp was to take turns making meals during the week. I made lemon chicken with a big salad with lots of spinach, greens, seeds, legumes and chopped veggies. Conrad made enormous hunks of halibut with dill with roasted potatoes and onions (roasted root vegetables is a staple for Conrad, along with whipping cream, brie cheese left out of the fridge, and sour cream). Josiah made tofu burritos with a veggie stir fry with fried tempeh (there is a bit of hippie in Josiah, who does not eat a lot of meat, but along with his vegetarian choices were large quantities of chocolate). One highlight of training camps is that, if you aren’t trying to lose weight, it is a great time to flex your culinary muscles because you are burning tons of calories (particularly at altitude).

Josiah’s wife, Ingrid, commented during the week that she had never heard so much talk about triathlon before we got there. This indicates how well-balanced Josiah is because he is focused but his life does not revolve around the sport. Conrad and I both have many interests outside the sport, which leads to interesting dinner conversation, but when it came back to triathlon it was good to talk with them about it. I get overwhelmed and unbalanced if I focus too much on the sport, but when I spend some time with other athletes it is helpful to share ideas with them. In discussions and experiments with equipment, Conrad and I both went through a few tires and ended up with the same setup on race day. Staying together gave us a chance to share ideas on training, equipment, travel and even sponsorship. It was valuable to get another perspective, and at the end of the camp we had fantastic results to show for it.

Training camps can be scheduled to incorporate training you just can’t do while at home. You may not have climate, facilities, or terrain that you need to prepare for certain races. I like training in Arizona or New Mexico in February and March, because the weather is bad in Victoria and I need to do larger volume at that time of year. Victoria also doesn’t have a lot of long climbs, so going away helps me to prepare for races with this element.

The most important aspect of training camps is that they are fun. If you aren’t a pro, being on a training camp can help you get a feel for what it is like to be one. At the very least, a training camp is a great way to spend your vacation time. You will go back to work feeling exhausted, sore, and skinny – that is, one hundred percent better than when you left.

Melanie is coached by Cliff English and Houshang Amiri. You can read more of her words, including a first-person account of her latest second place finish at US Nationals, at www.melaniemcquaid.com.

She is sponsored by Saucony, Compex muscle stimulators, Powerbar, Orbea, Sundog Eyewear, and others.

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