The off season is the period between the last race of your season and the first structured training session of the next year, it is arguably the most important part of the year for athletes, as our body needs time to rest and recover from the season of hard racing and training.
This is often a period of the year I struggle to guide some athletes through, as they instinctively want to keep training and racing, especially if this if their first few years of racing in multisport. This is partly due to a puppy dog level of excitement, they’ve found this fantastic new hobby and want to keep going, but is also linked to a fear of losing hard earned fitness from the previous year. Here we take a look at why it’s so important to coast your way through the off season and vastly reduce training volume/intensity.
First and foremost, as a species we are not meant to be active for 52 weeks of the year, the winter was traditionally a time of rest and a fight for survival, stockpiling resources and trying to stay warm. While we now have innovations such as central heating and Gore-Tex to get us through these winter months, the body still expects a period of down time each year. This is why the winter is the ideal opportunity to wind down, although if you’re big into your cyclocross and/or duathlon you may wish to skew your year slightly so it starts and finishes later.
It’s natural for us to put on a little bit of weight and take things easier for a short period over the winter, but this doesn’t have to be for the duration of the season, just a handful of weeks. This should be a minimum two weeks, and even up to 6 weeks in some circumstances, which will depend on how well you recover as an athlete. If you are a lifelong competitor in their 30s then you can probably get away with only a couple of weeks, but if you’re a masters athlete or someone who is very new to the sport and feeling run down, a six week break is preferable to throwing yourself back into training too early.
Training and competing in triathlon is hard, really hard, and it’s easy to lose sight of this. When training your body will be in a near constant state of stress, which prolonged exposure to will eventually take its toll. Overtraining is the single greatest threat to an athlete’s progress, and has bought many promising athlete’s careers to a premature end. While we’re probably not looking at fatigue on this level, we still want to turn up to race day feeling fresh and ready to go, rather than beleaguered and nonchalant about our race.
I’m going to take this opportunity to tell you about a friend of mine who I used to ride with, let’s call him Jack. Jack, was and is a very talented cyclist, we both started road cycling around the same time and we both joined a low profile cycling club in the spring of 2013. He spent the year heading out on rides with groups faster than him, hanging on by the skin of his teeth, until week after week it got easier, and he eventually started leading the faster rides himself. When November came many of us took the month off, and restarted training in December with long, easy rides, however Jack declared “I don’t believe in base training”, containing to lead rides every weekend, racing people up the hills and giving it full gas all the way through the winter. When April came Jack was so exhausted that he started suffering from chronic fatigue and had to take the rest of the summer off of the sport he loved while his body slowly recovered.
While this is something of an extreme example, it serves as a reminder of the physical dangers that come with constant training. The other side of the coin is the advantages of time off. You may be keen to crack on with next year’s training, especially if you’ve just signed up to your A race, but training solidly for 11 months ahead of your race is going to involve a lot of ups and downs, a small break of a few weeks will help you come back with a renewed hunger. This is perhaps of more importance to experienced athletes than novices who will be keen to ride the wave.
It’s an important time for goal setting and reflection as well, time away from the pool and the open road will help you remember why you started in the first place, as well as helping you question what it is you want to achieve. You’ve signed up for a big race, but why are you doing it? Why did you pick that race? What do you realistically hope to achieve? This is a good opportunity to sit down with a coach to help choose some realistic goals, and devise a plan for achieving them.
Rather than feeling destitute at the lack of training, use is as an opportunity to spend more time with your family and enjoy other active pastimes. Go for walks with your family, try a new sport which interests you such as rowing, you could even have a go at improving your weaker strokes to mix up your swimming sets. I encourage athletes to do a bit of training here and there if they feel like it, but it should be purely for enjoyment and done at a steady pace.
A coach is there not simply to set you a series of workouts every week, but to get you to the finish line in the fastest time possible, and time off at the end of the year is an important part of the process.