Off Season gTips

I’ve had a few false starts coming back from IM Canada so, now that Kona is completed (gotta love the UltraCanucks!), I wanted to share some ideas that might help you avoid some of the more common pitfalls of the off-season period.

The off-season presents an interesting conundrum in that the more experienced and fit we become, quite often, the deeper our end of season recovery needs. As well, the greater our fitness at the end of our season, the more damage we can do by coming back too quickly. My greatest off-season errors have come following my best end of season race performances.

I like to look at the off-season in three phases. Each of the three phases will last between two and five weeks. With my own athletes, we typically use three to four weeks per phase.

Phase One – Total Rejuvenation
Following the final race of the year, we shut it down completely. No structured training and nothing more challenging than walking. I encourage my crew to sleep as much as they can and take up a non-triathlon project. For example, last year, I used the month following IM Canada to write the bulk of my book.

You’ll likely gain some weight in this period, that’s to be expected. Remember, though, that the goal is mental and physical relaxation. Stacking on the pounds isn’t a goal of this phase, or any time of the year.

The most common questions about this phase are: how easy should I take it; and how long should I take it that easy?

You should take it very, very easy in this phase. For the three weeks after IMC 2002, I averaged one hour per week of training. Twelve weeks after my return to training, I had life best fitness and won Ultraman.

There is much greater risk from a week too little rest, than a week too many. Part of the benefit of a longer period of total rest is that the short term loss of fitness prevents you from smoking yourself when you return to training.

My recommendation is that the higher you take your fitness, the lower your off-season needs to be and the longer Phase One should be. Cam Brown mentioned to me that he feels that 4-5 weeks is a requirement for him after IMH. I have read Lori and Grip talk about a month completely off.

Phase Two – Aerobic Reintroduction
After an extended break from training, you’ll need a period where you get your body used to moving again. I tell my crew that the goal of this period is simply to “do a little something every day”. Expect the first 14 days to be challenging, they always are. However, around two to three weeks into this phase, your aerobic systems will kick back in and you’ll start to feel more like your old self.

As it is the greatest skill oriented sport, most athletes will benefit from making swimming their highest frequency activity in this period. At the end of 2000, I had a desire to learn bilateral breathing as well as flip turns. So in this period, I skipped masters and focus on picking up new skills.

You’ll want to limit training at (and completely avoid anything above) your steady zone. Be VERY cautious in group training environments. Your discipline and patience will pay off.

If you do strength training then this period should be light in nature and focus on a wide variety of lifts. You’ll get clear feedback if you over-do-it (extended muscle soreness). If a lot of soreness happens then you’ll need to back off on your strength intensity – weights should be “embarrassingly light”. Don’t seek to “add” any strength until you’ve been training for six to eight weeks. You’ll get a bit stronger from the training but let it happen naturally.

Phase Three – Early Base Training
So you’ve taken your break, avoided the late season hammer-fests and have restarted your aerobic and strength platforms. What next? It’s time to start your base training, with a twist.

If you are new to the sport then I would recommend that you focus on balanced, traditional base training. You will have the greatest gains from focusing on the Four Pillars (see the XTri coaching archives for more).

If you have completed several seasons of Ironman racing then you have some choices that you can consider working into your preparations:

Sustained Flexibility – In the winter of 2001/02, I underwent a crash course in yoga. For ten weeks, I averaged five to eight hours of yoga every week. It was humbling to learn a new skill but I made excellent progress and my body (and TT position) have been improved ever since. It takes a lot more effort to take the body to a new level than to maintain it. Realistically, this is the only time of the year where you will have the time to make a true commitment to flexibility. If you experience back pain, are frequently injured or simply want to get your bike position looking more like Larsen than Zack – then this is time very well spent. You can easily make up the sacrificed aerobic training later in the year. [BTW, respect to both Steve and Jurgen who are excellent athletes!]

High Frequency Training Periods – While nearly all triathletes like the concept of hammering themselves with epic training or a string of high intensity workouts; the safest and most effective way jump start single sport fitness is to increase your frequency. The early base period is where I like to schedule swim and run “camps”. The aim is to swim (or run) five to six times in a week. The supplemental volume is done at easy or steady effort (see The Coach, for my aerobic threshold series). You’ll be surprised at the impact this can have on your performance. More in this blog entry.

Nutrition – The early season is the safest time of the year to make gradual changes in your nutritional strategy. For most of us, it also coincides with Thanksgiving, Christmas and the office party circuit (those were the days!). Not a bad time of year to show some nutritional restraint. For most age-group athletes, nutrition is a simple way towards faster times. As a good nutritionist will tell you, the right choices are often simple but not easy.

Have patience with your base training and remember that you have plenty of time until your next key race. Pace your season, just like you would pace your Ironman. Save the mental toughness aspect for the end. The early season should be low stress and very enjoyable.

See you at the races,