Every September or so, I start to gently encourage my athletes to go away. Take some unstructured time away from coaching. It’s as good for the coach as it is for the athlete to take some time off. During the fall, I look forward to a lighter workload. Every coach needs time to step away – to find new ideas, to read, to think, to rekindle their passion for coaching. By the time November rolls around, I’m as charged up about another year of coaching as my athletes are about racing.
Around the same time, as an athlete, I give my body (and mind) downtime. This time is critical for your physical, social and mental health. As much as I enjoy structure, there comes a time each year when I enjoy stepping away from structure, from “having” to do something to only doing what I want to. I lessen the training volume, frequency and intensity. I forget about how far or how fast and instead think in terms of how fun. I put away my Garmin, I turn off my power meter, I don’t even look at the pace clock. I don’t worry about what I eat. I drink a lot of wine. I reconnect with friends and family.
After being in this sport many seasons, I can assure you that when you take an off season, you emerge on the other side with the renewed energy and health for your next season. But this is not easy. There's the fear of getting fat, unfit and losing feel for everything. No one believes that you can take time off and still improve your fitness. But it does happen (it just take patience and confidence). The more confident, the more experienced, the more successful an athlete is, the more they accept (and look forward to!) the off season. They take time to recharge their body, reconnect with friends/family and tune out triathlon for a few weeks. They see rest as a stepping stone to that next level. Some of my fastest years were years I took about 3 weeks off - completely. Nothing. No swim, no bike, no run. No core. No yoga.
This is not easy. Triathlon can be a sport of hard-driving, overachieving, more is better and better WINS attitude that has you firing on all cylinders all year round. Rest is a dirty word. But the athletes who have been around the longest – consistently cranking out performance year after year – they have mastered the art of rest. The athlete who struggles with the off season usually falls into one of the following categories:
Insecure: It takes a great deal of confidence and trust to rest. In order to rest, you have to trust that you'll have the ability to rebuild your fitness to a point beyond where you are at now. You have to let go of any fear of losing fitness, getting fat or slow – these are all things that may happen to some degree but they can all be turned around once you start training again.
If lack of confidence is your limiter, take that extra time you have from not training and work on your mental fitness. You might also consider talking with a coach to find a plan you fully trust so you can let go of these fears and insecurities.
Losing Fitness: Many athletes fear losing fitness. They go from Ironman to marathon to early season half Ironman. Eventually, they end up producing one stale, underperformance after another. Or, they get injured. Any advantage they gain from keeping the momentum going is usually lost through the inconsistency that comes with illness or injury. They simply never give their battery a chance to recharge. Hormonally and energy-wise, they get tapped out and plateau (or even start to go backwards).
Research has shown that deconditioning occurs after just a few weeks and fit individuals do take longer to regain their fitness than those less fit. However, I’ve done my own research. And my most impressive gains in the sport came after a long period of time off – pregnancy! This experience gave me more confidence that you can take time off, rebuild and then exceed your past fitness. Time off, especially for endurance athletes, is not something to fear or avoid. Often, it might be just what you need to reset your system.
Obsessive: This sport attracts a lot of athletes with obsessive-compulsive needs to tick off points in their training log rather than seek performance. You have to decide which category you fall into. If you are interested in performance, do what you know you need to do rather than what you think you need to do. In addition, the obsessive athlete usually has disconnected from other outside interests. They’ve abandoned other hobbies and their social life. So the thought of stepping away from triathlon feels isolating and boring.
Obsessive athletes who struggle with the off season tend to focus more on what they can’t do versus what they can do. I make a list of everything I can (and want!) to do in the off season. This list contains family festivals, social engagements, work projects, weekend trips, classes and household chores. I plan out these events as I would my races! Pour that obsession into something else! I also focus on what I can do that I can’t do at other times of the year – yoga, long walks, family bike rides. It’s also a great time to try something new.
Eating Disorder: Eating disordered behavior is very prevalent in this sport, in men and women. Disordered behavior can be restricted eating, obsession with the details of what they eat, eating too well or too little or binging/exercise purging.
This category is a struggle for many athletes. So many of us feel that eating as we wish or eating dessert a few nights a week is one of the “perks” of a higher load of training. And especially with the holidays coming up – it’s hard to exercise restraint or not feel guilty if you’re not burning it off! But, if you’re training for permission to eat – you’re not training for performance. Learn to separate how you feel about training with how you feel about food. Give yourself permission to enjoy yourself, for both training and eating. There is nothing wrong with “just” doing a 30 minute run and calling yourself done for the day. There is also nothing wrong with eating a piece of pie (or two) on Thanksgiving – food is fun, food is family, food is comforting. Let go of the guilt!
So how do you properly implement an off season? Depends on what happened this past season.
If you’re coming off a typical season of up to 8 races of mixed distances (not an Ironman), take a few weeks of light, unstructured activity. How many weeks? Depends (see below). And what is a light activity? Let’s talk about what it is not. It’s not going out for a 3 hour group ride. It’s not joining your friend who’s training for the marathon for a 17 miler. It’s not jumping into a cyclocross race followed the next day by a 5K. It is going for an easy spin with a few spin ups. It is running a new trail with a few strides. It might be going for an easy swim with a few short and fast 25s. Keep some short “speed” work in there to maintain or improve feel or form for faster movements. Avoid long and slow. As endurance athletes we do plenty of long and slow – and for most of us, that is not our limiter! And, ease into a consistent functional strength routine that is purposeful and specific to the sport. Don’t just do stuff that makes you tired or sore – do stuff that makes you a better triathlete.
If you’re coming off a late season Ironman, avoid taking time completely off. Instead, do a cool down to your season. Your body is used to a certain stimulus of workouts and to “pull the plug” so to speak can create hormonal havoc. Athletes who completely stop after Ironman tend to get sick or injured upon returning to workouts. Take 7 to 10 days after Ironman to do light (20 to 40 minute) swims and bikes to cool down from the year. Then, take some time off completely (if you mentally or physically feel you need it) or slowly rebuild your training.
If you were frequently sick, take a few weeks of light, unstructured activity and consider gaining a few pounds. Immune function is influenced by diet, sleep, inflammation, improper recovery – and, more importantly, hormones. If you are frequently getting upper respiratory infections or illnesses, it’s a sign of a system stressed. Especially female athletes who are smaller, follow a restrictive pattern of eating or train excessively get into a situation of low energy availability where they simply cannot replace what they are burning quickly enough. They try to exist in this state all year, maintaining race weight at times when it’s not appropriate (nor necessary!). They become depleted and this creates stress. Stress impairs immune function. Studies have shown that gaining a few pounds can counteract the stress of excessive exercise, even without making any changes to your exercise routine. Consider carrying more weight throughout the year for overall health and immune function. Remember, race weight is only worth it if you can get to race day healthy and ready to race.
If you were frequently injured or had a niggling injury throughout the year, take some time off from the offending activity. The goal is to fully heal (and further prevent) your pain by getting to the bottom of your injury. Most injuries are caused by the wrong training at the wrong time, by doing too much too often, poor recovery/diet or by using improper equipment/form. Consider which category you fall into. Explore massage, active release therapy, yoga, physical therapy, new equipment, professional fittings, form analysis – hit it from all angles so it doesn’t carry over into another season. If your injury was a stress fracture, consider evaluating your overall training load, structure and especially your diet.
Lastly, if your season felt like a series of great training days followed by not so great races – take some time completely off. You’re probably carrying around too much fatigue. This might be solved by better training, better tapering but first you need to rest. This is a hard sell as these are the athletes who are often the most resistant to rest, feeling that hard work or old habits are the key to digging themselves out of the rut. Don’t keep digging. First, get out of the hole. These athletes also tend to be self-coached, lacking the clarity (and restraint) needed to see the most simple solution to their problems – rest!
Do you need to take time completely off? Maybe. But after about 1 week of “nothing” I feel ready to do “something” again. At that point, I assess my body and mind. Are all of my aches and pains from the season gone? Am I sleeping well? Am I emotionally level? How does my skin look? How’s my appetite? Keep in mind that all of these factors are also influenced by hormones. Endurance sport is very hard on your hormones. As our hormones rebalance, we feel a sense of well-being, we feel more rested, our body returns to a more normal state. Give your body a chance to get there! If you constantly exist in a stressed state even through the off season, you risk burn out and plateau.
Before I begin “training” again, I also consider: how’s my motivation? Am I truly ready to jump back into the swim, bike, run? Early morning workouts? The pressure of “having” to do something? And, can I keep this motivation going through to my peak race? Motivation is tricky – we have to be sure our motivation to move isn’t fueled by one of the categories I mentioned above: obsession, eating disorder, boredom, etc. You must consider: what’s the rush? What are the benefits of starting now versus starting by December 1st? What are the risks? If you’re like most triathletes, you put a lot of pressure on yourself to perform. That pressure can be very motivating causing you to focus, sacrifice and work for your goal. But this same focused intensity can be very draining. Be careful not to jump back in too soon.
When you do plot your return to training, make sure it’s timely. If your peak race is next October, you might want to hold off on jumping in too quickly. Athletes tend to be eager to jump on board, fired up to train for their peak race and that burning motivation can easily fizzle by April – before racing even begins! Most athletes can sustain energy and focus for about 6 to 9 months of structured training. For athletes who want to return before its necessary, I give them a loosely structured schedule, ask them to set aside technology for that time and give them permission to skip, move or shorten workouts as needed. The goal is to get to the point where you need to start training with as much energy and motivation as possible. Don’t burn it up too soon!
There is definitely value in pre season work, consistency in training and limiting the deconditioning process, yet I think there is even more value in taking a step back, recharging your battery and breaking out of the endurance sport world for some time each year. The amount of time depends on a lot of factors. But one thing is certain: don’t rush it because you are unconfident, insecure, afraid or want an excuse to eat more. Take your time. Rebuild your health. Gather fuel for your motivation fire. If you’re truly interested in performance, look at the overall picture of what it takes to succeed – fitness and health. And see rest or an unstructured break at this time of year as an integral part of gaining fitness, maintaining good health and becoming a better athlete.
To the off season! (raise your wine, or cupcake, or bacon...I've eaten bacon every day for the past 5 days...really)