Over the next few weeks I will be sharing with you some thoughts regarding the off-season and why is a good idea to take anywhere between 2 to 4 weeks off triathlon training in order to allow your body and mind to recover and strive for a successful 2008 season. I will also discuss some pointers in order to help you plan your next season/training and finally talk about how to address some of your specific goals on your training during the first few months of the year.
As athletes every year we go trough a similar scenario: we either finish with a great race/season and we get super motivated as well as eager to continue training very hard in hopes of better results next season or we finish the season with a somehow average or even disappointing race(s) and we can’t wait to get back to training and work on the things we know we could have done better. If this sounds familiar and you haven’t been able to hang up the sneakers for a few weeks and allow enough time for your body and mind to recover, you might be decreasing your chances to be successful for next season. But don’t worry; you are not too late to do so. This time of the year, full with social commitments due to the holidays can be the perfect time to loosen up a bit, avoid the stress of structured training, indulge just ‘a bit’ on our favorite foods, catch up with our family & friends, and we can do all that while at the same time sustaining some of our hard earned fitness through other fun activities.
What the off-season should be exactly?
While frequenting and reading triathlon forums or websites I’ve noticed over and over a misperception of what the off-season really means. Some athletes equate it with a period of time in which the training volume is low yet they follow training structure, some others interpret it as a time to work on limiters (our sport weaknesses) and yet others identify it as a time of the year to work on the known ‘base’ (Down the road I'll discuss base training).
In my opinion the off-season should really be exactly that; a time of the year to take time off away from triathlon training and allowing the body to recover and mind to recharge. The off-season will have both: days/weeks off to allow your body to rest or recovery from injuries, and the rest unstructured exercising. It is important that you stay active so you diminish your fitness losses, although it would be a good idea to avoid or limit any swim/bike/run in particular in a structured manner. By that I am referring to something as simple as taking a daily walk with your dog, do some hiking with that special someone or take upon an activity/sport you have interest in such as yoga, climbing, x-country skiing, etc. Just do enough exercise that will give you that dose of aerobic work but which is short/easy enough that enhances your recovery.
If you are anything like me, one of my favorites things is to run and even during the off-season I can’t seem to stay away from it for too long. Hence I still do short easy sessions but I forget about pace or heart rate monitors and I just go out and have fun. I might try some new routes or try some trail running.
How long should the off-season last?
The length of your off-season will be greatly influenced by the length of your racing season, the months you logged of consistent training and your racing distance. For instance, a person training for an IM will probably need up 2-4 weeks (or longer) to fully recover after several months of intense and consistent training plus the effort required to complete a 10 plus hours race; on the other hand, a beginner racing just a few sprints a year might just need a week or even a few days to be ready to roll. Notice that some of the athletes I coach might recover physically in a relative short time but some of them need a little extra time off to recover mentally or devote some time to other life priorities or hobbies that they have been neglecting due to triathlons.
But why is it so important?
The off-season is important because it will allow you to begin your training for next season with your mind feeling fresh but most important with your body healthy, and this will set you in a better position to avoid injuries and/or getting burn off down the road. If you have been dealing with chronic injuries this would be the time to allow those to heal properly without stressing about training time lost. The longer you’ve been practicing endurance sports, the more important the off-season it is because it probably means you’ve been stressing your body for several months. Beginner athletes might be able to swing through a season or two without an established off-season mainly because in general, new athletes focus on shorter distances and/or their training workload isn’t such that it stresses the body to the point that a lengthy off-season is required although a nice mental break might be welcome.
But I don’t want to lose my fitness!
Of course, with the off-season we always have this thought in our mind: if I don’t train I am going lose my fitness! Well yeah, at some degree, but since it is impossible to keep a peak fitness level throughout the year we can afford it. On the bright side, our fitness will bounce back in a relative short time and it might bounce even faster as long as we logged consistent training previous the layoff.
Many physiologists have study how quickly an athlete can regain fitness after an extended exercise layoff. On Gina Kolata NY Times article: Short Layoff, Long Comeback Dr. Edward Coyle discusses how quickly an athlete can recover fitness after a few months off training:
“Even exercise physiologists are surprised at how quickly the body can readapt when training resumes. Almost immediately, blood volume goes up, heartbeats become more powerful, and muscle mitochondria come back.
Of course, researchers say, individuals respond differently and young people may bounce back faster than older athletes. But, they say, speed and strength and endurance do return, even in deconditioned athletes, some of whose lab test results look like those of a sedentary person.
Part of the reason, researchers say, is that training may elicit lasting effects that are very hard to measure, like changes in nerve-firing patterns and blood vessels. Dr. Coyle, who has measured muscle mitochondria, said that even though muscles lose mitochondria when athletes stop training, they retain more of them than are found in muscles of a person who has always been sedentary.”
In his study about Deconditioning and Retention of Adaptations Induced by Endurance Training, Dr. Coyle suggests a ratio of 3:1 to regain fitness, in other words if you take 12 days completely off you should require 36 days of training. But as I mentioned above, if we stay “active” during the off-season we should be able to bounce back rather quick. Finally, just remember that even though it is ok to indulge in some of our favorite foods, during the off-season, this doesn’t give you a free pass to gain weight. Otherwise you might need to join fat camp to shed the extra weight! Ok I am exaggerating, but it will take you longer to get back into shape.
The off-season should be that time of the year in which we take time away from triathlon training to allow our bodies to recover from injuries and our mind to refresh from months of training. This will set you in better position to start your next season healthy and mentally re-charged. The longer your racing season last and the more months of consistent training you logged, the longer your off-season should last. But this doesn’t meant stop exercising all together (unless you need to nurse and injury) it just means take some time off structured training, still you should remain active and exercise.
If you have trained and race consistently since the beginning of the year, you averaged over 10 hrs of training a week, every week, you have been battling injuries and you didn’t took many weeks off to recover in the process you might want to consider having an off-season. You should embrace your off season and don’t feel guilty for taking complete days or even a few weeks off in particular right after a long end of the season race. When you return to training you will feel reinvigorated to tackle next season’s and ready to train lots!
Next time I’ll discuss some tips to plan your next season, what things you might want to consider and how it will determine some or most of your training goals…