Training Camps: What They’re All About

As most of you are currently toiling away on the trainers, something that might be on your mind is a training camp. Maybe you are signed up for one already, are contemplating signing up or have been part of one in the past. There are many reasons to do camps, and they can be a great option for all types of athletes. In this article, we’ll talk about some of the different camp options and how to use them to your advantage.

What is a “camp”?

What we’re really talking about here are training blocks. A block can be any period of consecutive training days, usually three to five days, and somewhat longer than your typical rides. The training stimulus of each individual ride is amplified by the cumulative nature of the stress and fatigue that happens within the block.

This brief period of overload can be a useful way to jump-start your season by taking your fitness to a new level. Thinking in terms of training load for those familiar with that concept, acute training load (ATL) will increase rapidly in response to training and chronic training load (CTL) will respond more gradually. After the camp, both will be higher. It’s important to understand that the camp training load itself will not be sustainable, but the goal is to use this as a way to quickly boost that load, and then try to sustain a higher level than you were at prior to camp.

For example, let’s say your training has been on cruise control and you are seeing ATL and CTL roughly the same at 60 TSS/day. Now you go into training camp and have five days of 150 TSS/day, which is a big, but not unrealistic, increase for a camp of this nature. At the end of the trip, your ATL will be about 110-120 TSS/day and CTL will be approximately 70 TSS/day. After a period of recovery, perhaps you can target a slight increase in your individual workout TSS through more volume or more intensity and keep CTL at 65 TSS/day–higher than your previous level.

What will camp be like?

Camps can take many different forms. The VQ camps run the gamut from lavish trips in remote locales with great terrain and scenery to more budget-friendly local trips that are basically just time set aside to focus on training. From a fitness development standpoint, it doesn’t really matter where the camp is: location is just a means to an end. Sometimes because the weather is miserable locally, a southern camp will allow warmer weather. Remote camps can also allow access to more vertical terrain than many of our Midwestern VQers can’t access locally for training.

The main benefits of any camp come from the increased volume and the time set aside to focus on training. A common question I hear from athletes considering camp is something along the lines of: “How can I possibly prepare for so much volume? I’ve never ridden that many days and that many miles before.” But putting yourself in a camp environment gives you an opportunity to train like a pro. That means putting aside your normal work and family obligations, eating well, sleeping more and training effectively.

So how should I prepare?

Preparation depends a little bit on your history, fitness and goals. A key consideration is how extreme the camp will be relative to your current fitness and what type of ramp rate you’ll need to be prepared. As with any training, moderation is important. Ideally, you should start building fairly early, and add no more than 10% to your total training volume in any given week. Such linear increases may be difficult to manage if you’re targeting an early camp and limited to indoor volume.

That brings us to our next consideration: what are your expectations for the camp? If your training has brought you up to a peak of fitness, you’ll want to ride pretty hard each day, either with a fast group or pushing the pace up climbs. If you’ve been a little behind in your preparation, the best option will be to focus on endurance-paced volume. Aerobic miles will be much easier to absorb and recover from than harder riding.

The ideal balance heading into camp will be to train well to bring your fitness up to a relatively high level before camp. Accumulating a little fatigue will be a good sign that you’re on the right track. A week or so beforehand, reduce the training volume to allow the body to recover heading into the camp. This shouldn’t be a full taper, but just enough to shed some of the fatigue you developed through training and feel a little fresher as you head into camp.

What about after?

Following camp, you’ll likely be a little beaten down as well. Increased fitness is coming, but first you need to rest. A common feeling is that endurance riding feels OK post-camp, but higher intensity efforts are sluggish and recovery can be slow. A week or so of easier riding should be enough to start feeling recovered and ready for some harder efforts. Then it’s time to reap the benefits, which may feel like a wave of superhuman strength. As noted above, try to lift your baseline training level slightly higher than your pre-camp levels to maintain the camp stimulus.

If you’re thinking about a camp as part of the build-up to a specific event, be sure to allow enough time to recover and benefit from the camp effect. Usually this means fitting a camp into the last four to eight weeks of the build-up. This window is long enough for the body to shed the camp fatigue, but still allow you to feel that extra boost of power and endurance.

A camp is a great way to start your season and take your fitness to the next level, whether you’re a road racer, triathlete or just an avid cyclist. Preparing effectively can be done with some gradual increases in volume that will help to lessen the gap between your normal training and camp. The point of camp is to provide some overload, so expect it to be relatively extreme. Be patient after the camp and give yourself a chance to recover before you test yourself, but look forward to the opportunities provided by your newfound level of performance.