The Off Season
Eric Bean MD, MS and Alex McDonald MD
Ahhhh…the off-season! Finally a time for some well-deserved R&R after a long hard, and hopefully successful, season. At first glance, the off season is straightforward. Just do less working out and do it easier. And for most intents and purposes, it is a simple and straightforward (though often overlooked) part of your season. Let’s take a closer look at the purpose of this time of year, if nothing else it will make your feel less guilty about being “lazy,”
The two priorities of the off season are to allow your body to physically recover and the equally important (often more important) task of allowing your mind to recover. Both these goals will require the athlete to get out-of-shape, yes you read that correctly. You want to loose fitness during this time of year. This feeling of losing hard-fought fitness is daunting and terrifying for many, but it is a proposition made more palatable with confidence. The confidence to know that taking a step back now will lay the foundation of mental and physical health required for championship level performance in the next season (and by championship we mean your own personal championship, whether that’s finishing the local sprint triathlon in 178th place, or qualifying for the 2012 Olympics, the concept remains the same).
In our experience, athletes gain the confidence to rest thoroughly in the off-season after they’ve had 1-2 successful seasons with proper periodization, hence the off season can be thought of as the first phase in periodization: resting to ensure that you are healthy, sans injury, and mentally recharged and ready to attack the season when it counts (which is later). So, if it sounds scary and you had trouble taking a break last year, this year will be better.
Most nagging injuries that plague an athlete by the end of a hard season are of the soft-tissue variety, eg: tendon, ligament, cartilage, and muscle injuries. Non-muscle soft tissue is avascular, meaning that it does not have a direct blood supply and derives its nutrients from diffusion through the interstitium (the space between cells). Recovery rate is directly proportional to blood supply, so these poorly perfused tissues heal slowly. The medical field uses a 6-week rule of thumb for soft tissue injury healing time. Hence, we recommend the off season be a 6 week period of unstructured training involving low intensity exercise. It shouldn’t escape the reader that 6 weeks happens to be the nominal duration of all periodization phases, with minor adjustments made to meet an athlete’s specific needs.
The importance of a mental break from training cannot be overlooked. The mental fatigue and stress that accumulates throughout the season needs to be repaired as well. Although the physiology of this mental repair is not nearly as well understood, it is vital none the less. The strength and focus that is required to get thru a hard bike set or track workout is limited and cannot be achieved or maintained year round. Those instances where an athlete has to dig deep and mentally “burn a match” to get thru a workout should be saved for when it really counts in the weeks and months leading up to a key race.
Another common pitfall in which many athletes find themselves is doing too much, too soon. Six weeks of unstructured training is just that, unstructured. If you don’t feel like working out on a particular day, don’t! Give yourself permission to…LISTEN TO YOUR BODY! We all know the guy who trains very hard in December and January only to be mentally burnt out before mid-season. Much like patience and pacing yourself thru an Ironman or other long race, a similar approach should be taken for the season: begin steady and slow and gradually build through the season. After a break from training often there is a tendency to jump right back into it and pick up where you left off. Remember the goal is not so much to lose fitness as it it to deeply recover, which requires a loss of fitness. Then ease back into training gradually so that you can build your fitness to new heights upon a foundation of health.
Not only should athletes have at least 6 weeks of unstructured training per year, in our experience (both as athletes ourselves and coaches), athletes tend to need an abbreviated season or an entire season off, every 4-5 years. We are convinced that this approach leads to greater longevity in one’s athletic career. This is even more true for age-group athletes who have added stresses from family and careers.
Lastly, due to the lower training volumes in the off season it is a great opportunity to spend more time with family and friends. It is important to remember those who support us throughout our race season and often do not see us much in between our busy weekend training schedule.
Suggested off-season workouts:
- Start with low impact activities like cycling and swimming
- Efforts are steady-state and 50-75% of VO2_max intensity initially
- Add strides and short “Economy”-style intervals during the second half of the transition/off season phase , yet keep the intervals light and short; no harder than moderate effort, and keep it fun.
- Add running carefully, especially if you don not have a strong running background. Keep running confined to trails, fields, treadmills and rubberized tracks. Avoid asphalt, concrete, and steep downhills, especially during the first 3-4 weeks of your return to running. Build mileage gradually, by no more than 10% per week. A good starting point with respect to mileage is 1/2 the average weekly mileage for the final 6 weeks of the season.
- Include copious amounts of bike technique drills to improve efficiency and neuromuscular recruiting patterns. One-leg drills and spin ups are excellent and simple drills.
The off season is also an excellent time to focus on your weaknesses…
- Strength work is all-the-rage during the off season, but we find that is it often overrated and an over-zealous approach can be the culprit of many injuries. We recommend functional strengthen based on body weight multi-joint, multi-plane exercises, that mimic the velocity and biomechanics of the specific sports movements that are a particular weakness for an athlete. Higher reps are best for now. This is the time to lay the foundation to do hard strength work in the future (during base), rather than this being the time to do heavy lifting. You need to prepare your body for that with 6-8 weeks of strength work preparation.
- Swimming, for those who did not swim on a team growing up, is often a challenge. This is a great time of year to reinvent your swim stroke from the “ground” up. Often technique flaws limit your speed and power in the pool. An individual swim lesson can make a big improvement in swim mechanics and help to build a better foundation with which to work from when the heavy training begins. Although drills are often learned by swimming slowly, technique must be practiced at race speeds to translate to race performance. During the off season, keep race-pace intervals short so that your technique does not regress to it’s imperfect form. Gradually lengthen race-pace intervals, but continue to recover well between them so each can be done with near-perfect technique. Perfecting technique during the off season, and being able to use that technique at race pace, means that it is on it’s way to becoming second nature. Now all that remains is to add endurance, and that’s easy.
- Single-sport weakness: often there is one sport which is weaker than the other three. The off season can be a great time to focus more attention on this weaker sport, even if it is at the cost of your stronger sports–you’ll quickly return to great fitness in those when the season-proper starts, don’t worry. If swimming is a weakness, follow the suggestions above, and add 1-2 swim sessions per week, and bike or run less. If cycling is your weakness, an additional 1 or 2 cycling sessions per week can boost your comfort and durability on the bike. These need not be hard, nor do they need to incorporate intervals, nor be as long as the rides you do during the season. Rather, ride more frequently that you normally would during the off-season, ride on gentle to moderately rolling hills, practice staying seated while climbing, and play with varying your cadence between 75-110 rpm throughout the ride. It should be noted that this is strictly referring to slightly increased volume and frequency, not intensity. The overall intensity of these rides should be low to moderate. If running is your weakness you need to be especially careful to increase your volume gradually. Because it is your weakness relative to the other sports, this is a sign that your technique and/or biomechanics is in need of a tune-up. The four most important things to think about while you run are: (1) stride rate of 180 (90 with each foot) per minute, (2) lean slightly forward from the ankles with a straight long-axis (head to toe line), (3) plant the foot underneath to slightly in front of your hips with a midfoot to forefoot (or minimal heel) strike, and finally (4) relax! Again, we can not overstate that running is a high impact sport, that connective tissue adaptation happens slowly and that athletes must change running from and increase volume slowly. Your priority during the off season should be in improve technique, and this will require a temporary decrease in volume, hence why the off season is a perfect opportunity to focus on technique.
The terms “lazy” and “guilty” are often associated with the off season, but instead replaces those with “refresh,” “repair” and “rebuild.” Listen to your body, be smart, this off season and allow yourself to be confident that next season will be your greatest yet.