The Complete Off-Season Guide
Triathlon Coach Alun ‘Woody’ Woodward talks about the importance of taking the time to relax and recover during the off-season. His includes lots of food with sushi and pig trotters stew high on the list this year.
This time of year is all about change. Summer is well and truly behind us and we are now deep into winter. The racing season is pretty much done with the last one or two big races about to take place. I love this time of year as it signals a break from the demands of training and racing along with the excitement and planning for next year.
Planning is important for the next season but first—enjoy the time relax.
For me this period is about rest and regeneration, both physical and mental; it is one of the most important parts of the year and key to success the following season. Too short a break or starting back before the body and mind are ready can have a big impact on the training year ahead.
This is the time to rebel, time to get out and do the things you can’t do during hard training and during the race season. How you rebel is a highly individual thing but the important thing is to not resist temptations now as it will make the resisting through the important times much easier!
For me the off-season is about food—far too much sushi has been eaten recently, desert is definitely on the menu, and drinks with friends has been a regular occurrence. One of my passions is cooking and I love to experiment at this time of year: no ingredient is off limits and portion size is off the charts. Pig trotters stew is on the menu this year, an amazing taste sensation!
Remember this is personal: whatever your passion, be it climbing, mountain biking, music or travel, then indulge in it now, spend more time with family and friends and try not to think about training and, most of all, do not think about losing fitness. This is the goal. Do this right and you will come back stronger and faster next year.
Loss of fitness
As a pro, the end of season was always important and it was never a problem to lose fitness as we all knew this rest brought us back stronger and ready to attack the new season.
With age groupers it seems that this loss of conditioning is seen as tragic—the feeling that you have worked so hard to get fit so why should you now let it fade prevails. It is always the athletes who don’t rest and push all through the year that end up burnt-out very early the next racing season and, as a result, have to take an enforced rest then!
Never forget as a performance age grouper that you are under a lot more stress than a pro: not only do you have to train hard, long hours, you have to do this on top of working a 40+-hour week and all the demands your job may place on you. Stress is stress no matter where it comes from and it affects the body the same way.
Stepping back is hard but the rewards for doing this are huge; if you normally skip this time off, then make a change this year and you will be richly rewarded next season.
The initial key step is reviewing the season just gone and deciding what you want to achieve this coming year—always take time to write down all these points and then review them with a coach, friend and consult your better half if you’re in a relationship. Trust me when I say as an athlete that we are blind to many things and having them pointed out now can be a huge blessing for the year ahead.
Too many athletes charge back into training after a short break with all guns blazing and quickly come to peak form mid-winter or, worse, get injured. We want to be fit and ready to race when our main races come around—not mid-winter; this takes a lot of discipline and patience and we can learn a lot by looking at our pro athletes and the way they plan their seasons.
The biggest race of the year is most definitely the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii; let’s consider Leanda Cave who won in the past after a 3rd place year before she has been named Ms October because for the past few years she has come into peak for this most important time, racking up some impressive wins. The reason I wanted to look at pro athletes is because we see them racing most of the year but their form can be very different through the year; the pros are always training but the effort level and focus varies at different times of the year.
Achieving your best shape requires very hard training and focus for a certain period of time, usually about 12 to 16 weeks. I am sure Leanda is training hard all year round but there will be a special focus through the months of August and September to ensure peak performance at Kona and surrounding events on the calendar.
We regularly also see pro athletes who get this wrong and let emotions get the better of them; a bad race in Hawaii, or any other key race, prompts them to go into winter thinking they have to train harder and longer than ever. In reality, they might well have trained too hard the winter before and did not have the mental focus to do the real tough work required when it mattered in the final weeks leading up to Hawaii.
So when planning your year, you need to be looking at when you need to be at your best and have your biggest focus and hardest, most consistent training in the 12 to 16 weeks leading up to this time. This means holding yourself back in training through the winter—volume may be a couple of hours lower than in peak times and hard sessions are just a little tapered back in either effort or duration.
Patience and planning is a huge weapon in endurance sports but one that goes against our big-moment sports culture. We always see big moment plays in sport and we want to feel that in our training; it becomes too easy to push the boundaries when we should be holding back. I will write more about this in a follow-up article.
Sitting down in your planning now, you may have 20 weeks to go until you even reach your final 12- to 16-week focus—that’s a long, long time for good consistent training and progression.
The first step to planning starts with considering your weaknesses through the last season; work out if you need to look at changing swim stroke, bike – or run technique. If you know this is the next step to your development then this is the time to do it. By focussing on these weaknesses now through developing good technique, we make sure that every stroke, pedal cycle and stride through the winter are good ones that will lead to a better performance come race season!
The second step to the planning should be considering your training volume. We are in an endurance sport and time counts but it must fit in with your life—consistent 10-hour training weeks will benefit you far more in the long run than the occasional 14-hour week, followed by several weeks recovering at 8 hours a week. Write down a weekly plan with all activities—that includes time for family, work, cooking, socialising and travelling. Next work out how many hours of training can fit into the week and then we are going to say that this volume is your peak volume for your focussed phase of training: for the winter we are going to take 10 to 15 percent away from this. Now you have reached this number, you can start to fill the time with a structured plan that is going to lead to improvements.
Once back into training, embrace that you’re unfit, slow down a touch and do not expect to be back to full fitness for at least six weeks. Due to muscle memory you will actually start to feel great within two to three weeks in certain sessions but keep the speed down and be patient—your muscles might be ready but your system is not yet going to be up to speed. Go too hard too soon and you will soon start to pick up illnesses that you would normally avoid.
After the initial six weeks, you can start to ramp up speed and intensity in your program.
HOW TO TRAIN HARD WITHOUT TRAINING HARD!
This makes no sense but if you read through what I have written so far you can see this is essentially what we are looking to do. To advance fitness and race results, we need to train hard but we need to do it in a safe manner that does not over-stress our system and bring us to peak too early.
There are many ways to do this but I want to give a couple of examples:
Let’s look at bike sessions. Say your goal in summer is to ride at 200 watts for an ironman bike, which would translate to a 250-watt threshold (sustained hard riding). In your peak training you may be looking at classic sessions such as 2 x 20 minutes at this 250-watt level; in your 20-week build phase you might look to complete 30x1min at 250 watts with 1-minute recoveries—you are getting a good workout hitting the numbers but the recoveries ensure the stress never becomes too high as it would in the 2x20min session. The 30x1min session is sustainable over a long time without damaging motivation or will to hurt, and as a result you will get to the main build period into your race fresher and ready for the harder sessions.
The same principle can apply here. Let’s say you want to run at 5 minutes per km for the marathon on race day. You will be looking to run for long periods of time at this pace in your final build and these are very demanding sessions that place a lot of stress on the body. We certainly do not want to be doing these sessions all year round, but we can break the session down into short intervals with good recoveries and this reduces the stress of the session while still delivering a hard workout.
Planning may well be boring and it is the area most athletes do not think about, but when you are looking at performance and results you can be sure some of your competitors are doing this, guaranteeing that every training session counts towards their performance. With the competition for Kona slots or podium places increasing every year, the difference between making it and missing out can be as simple as a couple of hours spent planning your year.
Alun “Woody” Woodward,
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