For us dwellers of the frozen north, the idea of putting together a warm-weather training camp sounds like a wonderful fantasy that only well-funded athletes or big schools can pull off. Well, not so fast! I’m a volunteer track and field coach with zero funding, and my training group had two warm-weather camps this season that totaled 24 days.
I know what you’re thinking: “I can’t take my athletes anywhere!” or “I don’t coach track!” With a little creativity, you can use these seven principles, no matter what sport you coach and whether you can travel or not, to benefit your group.
I’m no genius—these ideas are not all my own. I gained much inspiration from “The Jane Project,” an awesome video from the CharlieFrancis.com library. Charlie’s prescription is deceptively simple:
- Ruthlessly eliminate stress from the athlete’s life.
- Figure out what’s important for each athlete. Prioritize it.
- Be holistic in your approach. Set your athletes up for success!
Since I’m an elementary school physical education teacher by day, I hold my camps either during our two-week Christmas vacation or spring break. Over the past four seasons, we have held camps in three different locations.
While Austin, Texas is a vibrant and dynamic city, the weather there is simply too variable in the winter, and my spring break occurs during the South by Southwest music festival, so that’s a no-go. Nassau, Bahamas has much more reliable weather, but the high cost of transportation, lodging, and food is enough to offset the awesome training vibe at old Thomas Robinson Stadium. So island weather with mainland conveniences is the ideal training scenario. Does such a place exist? Why, in Florida of course!
My hands-down favorite place for a camp is the National Training Center in Clermont, Florida. The weather is consistently lovely, and Orlando Airport is just 40 minutes away. Cristy Snellgroves and Lance Brauman at PURE Athletics are experts at hosting visiting teams. They have everything you need (from sleds and plyo boxes to massage tables) so you can leave your bag of tricks at home.
Over the years, I’ve made loads of mistakes in my training camps. Slowly but surely by trial and (lots of) error, I have settled on seven guiding principles for hosting a kickass camp.
BE A CONTROL FREAK: Minimize athlete decision-making and schedule sleep, meals, and supplementation
When you have the chance to control an athlete’s life, just do it!
It’s amazing how little resistance I encountered in implementing a simple but structured daily schedule. Young athletes welcome the opportunity to power down their brains and allow me to do most of the thinking. Understanding “decision fatigue” is useful here. Every decision we make during the day drains us. From the moment we wake up, we have to decide what to wear, what to eat, whom to talk to—and the list goes on. Creating a clear daily structure with fewer options, yet ample free time can be very helpful.
At camp, athletes know they are waking up at 9AM, drinking filtered ice water, and eating a healthy homemade organic breakfast that usually consists of a green smoothie, grass-fed meat, eggs, beans, avocado, potatoes, and steel-cut oats. Light lunch is at 12:30, training at 3 PM, and dinner at 7 PM. They know that 11 PM means their screens (tablet, phone, etc.) are off and out of their rooms. If they want to continue reading, it’s an old-fashioned book with actual pages.
When you cut the number of daily decisions athletes must make so they largely know what to expect, it is amazing how much mentally fresher they become. This is why I stress workout quality, not quantity, during training camps. Mental focus in workouts is easier to achieve and can be maintained longer. A sensibly structured day reduces stimulation and allows for a more positive mental outlook.
STOP OUTSOURCING: Eliminate eating out and teach your captive audience how to shop for, plan, and cook simple, healthy meals
I have near-zero tolerance for eating out at camp. Not only is it super expensive, but it’s also ridiculously stressful. By the time you load the car, drive to a restaurant, wait for a table, and pick an entrée, you’re at least one hour in and twelve decisions deep, and you’re spending at least three times more than what it would cost to cook even the finest-quality meal at home. At our Christmas camp in Florida, we split our six people into teams of two. Each team was responsible for one meal per day, which we rotated between breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
A helpful assist is having a few good appliances. I brought my Vitamix 5200 (though the inexpensive Ninja also works well) to handle smoothie duties and simple soups. I also brought my Panasonic MS-183 rice cooker, which is amazing for cooking steel-cut oatmeal. You mix the ingredients the night before, set the timer, and have your oatmeal ready at your scheduled meal time. Oh, and it also cooks perfect rice—not bad for $99. Last but not least, the Lodge cast-iron skillet was the appliance MVP. It is cheap, ultra-sturdy, and can cook almost anything.
Creating a basic template is the key to low-stress meal preparation. Our meals had a similar daily structure, with lunch the lightest portion-wise. It featured lots of salad greens, as well as easily digestible foods such as chicken, locally grown fruit, and a mix of rice and legumes (rice with black beans, pigeon peas, or garbanzo beans). Dinner was the largest meal, with lighter proteins like quality fish or chicken, steamed greens, a starch such as sweet potato, and simple oven-roasted root vegetables.
Since I laid out a simple structure, the prep squad could focus on improving its cooking technique and timing the meals without having to worry about being creative. Pick a protein, a starch, and some vegetables and you’re ready to go. We always bought whole chickens and cooked them in cast iron. The athletes were all skilled at our chicken-cooking process (cut chicken into quarters, quickly sear on the stovetop to crisp the skin, and finish by baking in the oven) by the end of camp.
CUT THE CRAP and achieve your ideal diet: Focus on gluten-free, dairy-free, whole-food, low-sugar, local organic meals
A central assumption of Western culture is “technology makes life better.” This is ridiculous. Yes, technology profoundly impacts your life, but there is nothing inherently better about it, especially when it comes to food. I can’t count the number of athletes who have no problem spending money on exotic protein powders or BCAAs, yet ask them to spend an extra $2 on organic greens and they balk!
Eating real food is decidedly low-tech and a critical focus of every camp. Inspired by a chat with long jumper Christabel Nettey of WAC, who went gluten-free and saw her weight drop and her performances improve, my top athlete had been gradually weaning himself off gluten, dairy, and refined sugar. We banned them at our camp.
Truthfully, the first day there was some grumbling, especially when I snatched a box of granola bars from an athlete’s grip and told him “nope.” This low-level discontent continued for about 72 hours until cravings for simple carbohydrates subsided along with the talk of mutiny. At a training camp, your athletes are stuck with you. Use it as a huge teaching opportunity. You have a captive audience of people who want to improve. Force them slightly outside their comfort zone. They will adjust.
To eat truly healthy, shop as locally as possible. Athletes joined me at the Clermont Farmers Market to meet local growers and select the best options for the money. We met Don Huntington of Rent-A-Hen, whose eggs are raised on his small farm. We scooped up six dozen, and they were so wildly popular that we plowed through all 72 in three days. I had to pick up a couple dozen organic eggs at the grocery store to tide us over until the next market. Guess what? Organic or not, they couldn’t come close to matching the freshness and quality of Don’s eggs. They stayed in the fridge.
Grocery stores should be only a secondary option. Any product that makes it into a grocery store is by definition compromised. As a supplier, by opting to rent shelf space, you are committing yourself to provide stock 100% of the time. Your focus can no longer be on ultimate quality; instead it’s on keeping the shelf full. This is how you get “cage-free organic eggs” that come from a coop of 20,000 chickens, and “organic strawberries” that taste like styrofoam. Do not kid yourself; your chances of scoring nutritious food at a good farmers market are exponentially greater. You may not get exactly what you want, but you will get what you need—freshness and quality.
SMASH STRESS by reducing stimulation: Find a quiet living space and trim travel time by training nearby
Another major theme of my camps is the wholesale reduction of stimulation. Put simply, there are two branches of the nervous system: sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest). The average urban athlete is bombarded by instant messages and personal interactions from morning to night. Training camp should be a welcome break from family, lovers, traffic, and the generalized fight-or-flight-inducing stress of living in an urban environment. Putting athletes in a parasympathetic state of relaxation leads to some great training performances.
By far the easiest way to accomplish this is staying in a small town in a quiet property tucked away from noise. With the plethora of booking options like Airbnb, finding such a place is easier than ever. For our last camp, we scored a lakefront home with huge front windows just outside of sleepy Clermont. Just looking outside created a sense of serenity. Friendly locals regularly came by to chat and fish off our dock.
While it’s important to have a comfortable and relaxing place to stay, countless teams totally blow this advantage by commuting too far to their training facility. To truly minimize stress, you must slash travel times to the bone. Figure out where you’re going to train, and stay within eight miles. The ultimate goal of my camps is quality over quantity, and this is nearly impossible if you’re draining athletes with ridiculous commutes! One team in Florida at the same time as us had an insane daily routine:
- Drive 30 miles to the track from chaotic Orlando at 7 AM. Train.
- Drive 30 miles back to Orlando for a shower and restaurant lunch.
- Repeat the same annoying commute for the afternoon training session.
Athletes sat in a van for over two hours per day AND trained twice! How are they supposed to run fast if their day is a jumble of commuting, showering, and dining out? Training camp should be a mental break from the grind of daily life. Commuting is stressful, so plan NOT to do it at camp!
Modern society has us constantly communicating with a wide variety of people, both in person and via handheld devices. An away training camp means “out of sight, out of mind.” Family and friends from home tend to bother athletes less when they’re away, which allows them to decompress. During our last camp, we were so rural that cellular service was very spotty, and our house WiFi even ended up failing.
Guess what? It was awesome! Stress levels plummeted. We read books, shared stories, and constantly laughed. We occasionally went to the coffee shop when we needed WiFi, which was surprisingly rare. As an added bonus to the lack of WiFi, sleep routines were far easier to keep. Athletes went to bed earlier with less resistance from glowing white screens. I’m not saying this is an easy trick to pull off, but the accidental results were very positive.
LEGALIZE GRASS: barefoot grass aerobic tempo work is lower impact, increases general fitness over time, and electrically grounds athletes
I gave an example of a team that used training camp as an opportunity to hammer their athletes with excessive work. Carl Valle once told me he likes to structure his camps with one high-intensity day followed by two low-intensity days. It stuck with me, and I continue to follow this formula because it works. On our quality day, athletes go for it—they are focused, intense, and look forward to running fast. The next day, we focus on recovering from the stress of running fast. We do absolutely everything we can actively and passively to speed the return to a parasympathetic state of relaxation.
I am a big believer in Charlie Francis-style extensive tempo sessions (which contrasts with many coaches here who seem to avoid aerobic work), especially at the time of year when athletes crank out some impressive times. As Charlie would say, “Speed is anti-circulatory; tempo is circulatory.” Using heart rate variability (HRV) for the past few years has proved to me that aerobic work speeds recovery, and over time increases general fitness. One athlete I coach managed to drop his resting heart rate from the low 60s to the low 40s over a three-year period, and I have the daily HRV data to prove it (but hey, that’s a separate article).
Nearby Hancock Park is a wonderland of pool-table-flat grass. We checked the ground carefully for unevenness and sharp objects and got to work. Amazingly, athletes looked forward to these often-dreary sessions! Some research even suggests the restorative power of grounding yourself electrically. In the best case scenario, it helps recovery. Worst case is it doesn’t hurt, so why not give it a try?
RECOVER RAPIDLY by maximizing low-cost regenerative tools: Pool work, hot and cold showers, Epsom salt baths, self-therapy, and massage
Sometimes our first recovery day would be a morning session. It consisted of a quarter-mile walk to the saltwater pool (hardly a commute!) for an upper-body mobility circuit followed by a plank circuit. Afterward, an easy swim warmup, then perhaps 6-8×45 seconds of easy pool running with 15 seconds recovery to increase circulation while unloading joints from the previous day’s work.
Athletes would relax in the pool for 15-45 minutes afterward, as simply sitting in a pool has a plethora of potential benefits. The hydrostatic pressure creates a recovery effect similar to compression garments. Another useful benefit is increasing metabolic rate. At our winter camp, we were joined by Melissa, a 400 hurdler from the west coast who was coming off an injury. The combination of excellent diet and averaging 75 minutes per day in the pool were key factors in her dropping 10 pounds in nine days. While it sounds like BS, anyone familiar with the work of Ray Cronise won’t be so doubtful.
Aerobic tempo workouts occurred after lunch; athletes had great blood flow, and it was the perfect time for a contrast shower. We use Waldemar Matuszewski’s protocol of 3 minutes as hot as you can stand, followed by 1 minute as cold as tolerable, repeated three times and ending on cold. Tap water doesn’t get very cold in Florida, so the effectiveness is somewhat compromised, but it’s still helpful. Muscle tone relaxes and reduces the amount of soft-tissue intervention needed.
For athletes who recover slowly or get very sore, an Epsom salt bath followed by a hot and cold shower can be very useful. Newbies to Epsom salt may find their muscles becoming temporarily very loose and unreactive, so make sure you aren’t expecting them to run fast the following day.
Kelly Starrett of MobilityWOD.com has put together some great resources that teach athletes how to perform self-therapy. His book Becoming a Supple Leopard is also excellent. Teaching athletes some of these techniques increases their ability to self-manage, and also reduces the amount of massage work required from the coach or team therapist. Athletes must complete all their self-therapy prescriptions before getting a massage from me. This shows that they are serious and that they respect my time. For those who are afraid to start massaging—just start. It’s not rocket science!
Build the first six strategies around your KEY TRAINING SESSIONS
So far I’ve talked about everything but actual training sessions. You’re probably wondering, “When is this guy gonna get to the meat and potatoes and talk about the workouts?” Let’s be honest here—coaches love writing workouts. I know what my moneymaker sessions are, and so do you. I also know that preparing athletes properly leading into a key workout can be the difference between a good workout and a spectacular breakthrough performance. Getting the first six elements of a successful camp right requires careful planning. Scheduling your workouts is easy, so spend most of your time thinking about what will go on before, after, and in between key workout sessions.
As a coach running a training camp, you are conducting a symphony of interrelated components. Simply penciling in workouts and hoping for the best may still get you positive results. But if you plan carefully and think holistically, your athletes’ performances may shock you—and them!
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