For many, the off-season is an overlooked or undervalued, time of year. You have to take time off at some point - really, you do! You’ve raced and trained hard all season. Now it’s November, and your still training like you have been? You risk burnout, overtraining, and not getting the recovery you need both mentally and physically.
This isn’t to say that you need to take two months off. The days of age-group athletes disappearing for two to three months at the end of the year are gone. Take too much time off and you risk losing your base fitness, and starting your pre-season behind the proverbial 8-ball.
Two to three weeks of downtime is great. It's enough time to rest, and reenergize yourself without losing your base aerobic fitness. You can then follow this up with two to three weeks of unstructured training. Then you can look to start your pre-season training refreshed, and ready for more intensive training.
This is the time that you recharge your batteries. Have a couple calls or meetings with your coach. Talk about what went right & wrong last season, and what you’re going to do to remediate limiters moving forward. Discuss your upcoming races and goals. Based on this collaborative discussion, your coach can then build some unstructured training for the weeks following the down-time.
What’s unstructured training?
In essence, I call it ‘training without the have-to’. I’ll load up my athletes’ week with a variety of workouts. While we might want to get all the swim workouts in, for example, I don’t necessarily have a preference as to when they get done. I’ll put in some lower intensity running and riding. I want the athlete to get in what they can, when they can – shooting for maybe 80% of the workouts (and I’m not overloading the week).
This unstructured training period will also include a lot of placeholders for cross training. And by cross training, I mean hit the gym a little more. Take the extra yoga class. Do things that one wouldn’t normally do. You’re mostly a road triathlete? Then get off the road. Go mountain biking and trail running. Mountain biking is great for road cyclists – a nice high cadence and smooth pedal stroke will transition very nicely back to the road. And handling skills will improve as well.
This is a great time to lay the groundwork for next season. At the gym, work on strengthening muscle groups that support the prime movers. It’s about adding strength where needed. It’s about risk prevention for when training intensity picks up. (It’s hard to build up supporting muscle groups during the season). And, you can take advantage of this time to work on any deficiencies. Were you lacking a little power on the bike? Then the gym can be focused on prepping the body for the work to come when the off-season is over.
The key during this period is to keep the intensity low. Don’t do threshold work. Don't do VO2 efforts. Keep it aerobic. Just maintain your base. It's only a few weeks until your pre-season starts anyway!
Now, a lot of athletes worry about gaining weight during the off-season. And it can be tough during the holidays – this isn’t carte blanche to eat and drink whatever you want - you do need to be smart about your caloric intake. However, it’s okay for weight to increase a bit during the off-season. A lot of times, the weight that is maintained during the racing season is unsustainable without the high training volume.
It’s okay for your body weight to go up 5% or so. And for women, this can be quite beneficial if they become very lean during the race season. Calcium and vitamin stores can be replenished during this period.
Then, after these 4-6 weeks of downtime and unstructured training, the pre-season can begin in ernest. Training that is more structured in nature, and specific based on athlete needs. After a solid off-season you'll be better prepared for the training to come.