For many athletes, the end of the 2010 competitive season has arrived.
What many fail to realize is that what you do at the end of the season is as important as what you do before and during the season. Allowing your body to recover from a season of training and racing is an important step in building stronger fitness for the next season and staying injury-free.
After a season or training and racing, it pays to take the time to rest. Yet few athletes are patient or trusting enough to do this. As a coach, convincing an athlete to rest is ten times harder than convincing them to do mile repeats on the track. But those who listen and rest are the athletes who break through plateaus and build a higher fitness peak the next year.
Often I see athletes stringing together season to season with no down time. They go from triathlon season to marathon season to winter balls out bike classes to spring running races – it’s an endless cycle of push push push. These athletes are often struggling with an injury – whether it be an injury of the legs or the injury of putting forth the same stale performances over and over again. They burn out by August, get sick frequently or keep hitting the same plateaus.
The body as a whole is like any single muscle. You cannot push it over and over again and expect performance. It needs time to rest. Like the muscle broken down during work, during recovery it grows stronger. After all, this is what training and progress is all about – you applying a little stress, back off, apply more stress, back off. Training is just stress. Fitness is gained in recovery.
Knowing this, why, then, do athletes hesitate to take a break?
Most excuses revolve around the idea of not wanting to lose fitness. Keep in mind that takes 6 full weeks of nothing to decondition yourself. Taking a week or two of unstructured activity at the end of your season will not undo what you’ve done. Certainly you will lose some fitness but that is the point. Sure, you can maintain the same level of fitness year round but as a performance-oriented athlete that is exactly what you do not want! You want to be a little less fit in the winter and work to gain stronger fitness during racing season. You don’t want to putting up personal best times in January. Remember that success in sport is all about timing. Winning in January doesn’t mean a thing unless you’re aiming to be January’s national champion.
So, are you?
The other excuse is that the athlete will gain weight. Gasp! This, along with losing some fitness, is a key component for improving in the next year. Staying at race weight year-round is very draining on your body. Someone once told me that race weight is somewhere that you want to be on race day – not a day earlier. For most of us, attaining race weight requires some restriction in our diet. This type of restriction year-round will drain the body and upset hormonal balance. Not only that but it is psychologically draining to always deprive yourself. Instead, let your guard down and indulge a little. After all, it can’t be all work work work all the time. You’ve got to play and relax. Enjoy some of the delights of the upcoming holidays, just be sensible about it.
Often I find the athletes who refuse the end of season break are using triathlon to fill a hole. That hole might come from an eating disorder, an obsessive drive or an exercise addiction. Yet these are the same athletes who want to set PRs the next year. Know that if you plan to improve next year, you must approach the sport as an athlete – not as an addict. Addicts let their obsession control what they do. The athlete takes control. Rather than filling the hole with triathlon, fill it up with the things that perhaps you’ve neglected this year; take the time to reconnect with family or friends, put in more face time at work, try a new hobby, sleep late, go shopping, clean your house. Disconnect from the sport for a few weeks. It will still be here when you get back.
What is rest? At the end of the season, I suggest two weeks of unstructured activity. This means not waking up to a schedule of “I have to _____” today. Ideally, this is two weeks completely off. The longer your race distances, the more important this rest becomes. Ironman begs for rest. The damage is deep and just because you feel ok does not mean you are fully recovered. For those who did shorter races, I find that during these two weeks it is ok to do some light activity; easy spins, easy swims, walks for 30 to 45 minutes. However, I do suggest no running for two weeks. Running being the most injury-prone of all 3 sports, it pays to take some time off to let everything heal. Whatever the athlete chooses to do during these two weeks – whether it is nothing or light something, the point is to not apply stress. No strength training, no intensity, no tearing the body down. Give it a rest and let the body heal.
Right now many of my athletes are on mandatory break through October. During this time, I release them into the wild and let them be. Coaches need an off season too. There’s only so many ways I can tell someone to spin easy for 30 minutes. And do I really need to be telling someone to do that? Instead, I suggest they do as they wish, when they wish. I encourage them to drink responsibly, eat donuts for breakfast and ignore me. To move a little but keep it all light and un-goal oriented. By all means let the Garmin lose its charge and the Power Tap collect dust. The goal is for them to return to me absolutely ready to embrace the runs in the cold, the long rides on the trainer. Winter training requires a fire that must burn for many months before you see the end result. You have to be physically, psychologically and emotionally fresh to approach it. If not, your fire will burn out soon after your first race.
Two very important qualities in an athlete are longevity and consistency. Both require the athlete to find balance between work and recovery. Look around the sport and you see a few standouts who have lasted for years, if not decades, of being competitive in their age group. Longevity makes keeps you lasting and healthy. Consistency is how you make fitness gains. With minimal interruptions during the season from injury or setback and fitness that builds year to year, the consistency of your work yields progress. If you were to ask these athletes, you would find a definite break at the end of their season where they kicked back, disconnected and indulged a little. Many pros do the same. Recovery is their "secret".
Bottom line it works. But you’ll never know until you trust it enough to try. So ask yourself, why not? You have nothing to lose except a little fitness. And chances are you’ll gain more back in the next year.