Everyone has their definition of ‘off-season.’ My definition of the ‘off-season’ is a time of planned unstructured training that can last anywhere from two to eight weeks (depending on the athlete). The purpose is to take a break from the formal, structured training program and allow for a mental and physical break.
Below are some of the mistakes I see endurance athletes making when it comes to planning and executing an ‘off-season.’
1) Ignoring the ‘off-season’
I’m sure you have heard endurance athletes say, “When you are as serious as me, there no such thing as an off season.” Yeah, this sounds tough, but in reality, if you are truly training, then you better have some planned breaks. Whether you call this an ‘off season’ or ‘unstructured training’ or ‘mental break,’ there needs to be some point in the year where you mentally and physically detach from structured training.
This detachment is important for a number of reasons:
• you allow your body to recover and repair random niggles and aches that you have been managing throughout the season
• you can do ‘fun’ things like skiing or Ultimate Frisbee or skydiving that you had to skip because you didn’t want to injure yourself or wear yourself out for your ‘real training.’
• You can spend some time with friends and family that unconditionally support you as you obsess about training most of the year.
To avoid this mistake, identify your last event and take two to four weeks ‘off’ of the structured training. This doesn’t mean you can’t swim masters, or go for a bike ride. But it does mean that you should detach from gadgets, structure, and pressure from workout guidelines. Instead, do whatever activity inspires you and feels fun.
2) Completely shutting it down
You can take the ‘off season’ thing a bit too far. Sitting on the couch and eating chips for two months is not going to help you set a personal record next year. A complete break may be necessary, but too much time away from exercise is harmful to your health.
Our bodies have evolved to be physically active. By training for endurance events, you have turned on our ancestral genes… excel at being physically active, and you excel at eating and storing calories (and sadly, we don’t store calories as muscle…). After all, your body is used to exercising two to twenty hours per day, AND your body is used to eating enough to fuel that lifestyle. A sudden shut-down (decrease in daily physical activity) is a shock to your system.
To avoid this mistake, incorporate physical activity into daily life. After all, we do multisport because we like being active. It feels good. So, stay active, even if that means simple things like taking walks or trying something new, like yoga or skydiving.
3) Overdoing it
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the athletes who decide to try an entirely new adventure during their ‘off season.’ For example, they may do cyclocross or train for a trail marathon or do an adventure race. While these things allow you to detach from triathlon training, they do NOT allow your body to detach from training and the stressors of training. Before you know it, you are back into triathlon training season, and you haven’t taken any time off!
To avoid this mistake, incorporate these ‘alternative’ adventures into the flow your season, and plan your break after your adventure race or cyclocross season. Even if you tack on another sport at the end of the formal triathlon season, be sure to take a couple of weeks off.
4) Neglecting nutrition
Endurance athletes like to eat. And when you work out for the majority of your day, you can eat about anything you want and as much of it as you want and not experience some of the effects of a poor diet.
Many endurance athletes continue eating as if they were training twenty hours a week even when they are barely doing any physical activity. This may feel good, but it is detrimental to health, body composition, and future performance.
To avoid this mistake, simple nutrition awareness can go a long way! Without getting into the “performance eating” versus “healthy eating” conversation, when you back off of your training volume, you do not need lots of carbohydrates. So, periodizing your nutrition along with your training can help you maintain health and body composition benefits from your training.
In fact, the BEST time to address body composition is in the off season. Diet is the primary driver of body composition, and it is hard to lose weight AND train at a high level at the same time. So, if body composition changes are a goal, the off season is the perfect time to address this.
5) Not planning for next season
Some endurance athletes lead double-lives. Nine months of the year, they are focused, disciplined, hard-working, and goal driven. But when the season is over, they completely abandon this lifestyle; you may not even know they do endurance sports. While completely abandon the triathlon lifestyle may feel good for a bit, this short-sighted approach can really set you back when January 1st comes around and you re-focus on training. It may take two to three months just to regain the routine, body composition, and fitness you had last season.
Taking time off of formal training doesn’t mean you should avoid thinking about the future. In fact, the off season is a great time to:
• Write goals for the upcoming season
• Work on developing a training program for the upcoming season
• Supplement activity with things that can enhance your performance
• Work on a weakness
With a properly planned off-season, you can recharge your body, your mind, and get a great start on next season’s goals!