One of the greatest reasons for the dramatic improvements seen in performances in endurance sports like triathlon recently has been the complete revolutionization of what used to be referred as the Off Season.
Firstly, let me acknowledge that we all have different goals and objectives in our involvement in our sport. For some, getting ‘in shape’ to do the annual local triathlon or century ride is the goal, after which they return to their normal schedule, their lives, their jobs, and their families.
For others, they place a much greater emphasis on their involvement in their sport, and dedicate much time and commitment to their training in the hope of making improvements year over year. This article is written with those individuals in mind.
What comes to mind when you think of the off season?
Historically this was a time to put in some base miles – LSD – or long, slow distance training. And for those who were cutting edge in their approach to training – some strength work in the gym.
When I was racing as a cyclist, we would take November off after a hard year of racing. Then we would begin our buildup for the following season with 3 months of huge miles on the bike, typically between 3000 to 4000km per month. In March we would start doing some small races, and we would start doing some interval or quality work on the bike. By late April or May we would be riding well, but peak performances only came from June onward.
The Europeans turned this approach on its head when they began doing what is termed reverse periodization, which involves doing much more quality work in the off season, and then building endurance throughout the racing season. Not only did they start the season much stronger and faster, but they also raced consistently well during the season with a less pronounced single peak of just a few weeks. As a side note, this system was partly developed because doing 5+ hour rides on the rollers in the basement 20+ years before Zwift was even a dream was a lot less appealing that doing a more quality workout that only lasted a couple of hours.
Today, the top pro’s in endurance sports have a much less defined off season. Their off season could come in July, September, or December. The break from training – the true off season – is sometimes only one to two weeks long. The focus is in a stair-step approach to improving performance. No longer do athletes think in terms of a single season, but rather a progression over multiple years toward their peak performances. So the rest phase of the off season is very short. Then, at most, they do a block of 2 to 3 weeks of what was typical of winter training, where they do a combo of LSD training combined with a strength and conditioning program. But even this short phase is not entirely made up of long, slow training. To maintain what they have built over the course of the past year, they still include some short, moderately hard efforts.
It is worth noting here that the old adage of ‘use it or lose it’ very much applies to training the human body. As soon as you take your foot off the gas, as soon as you drop the volume or intensity of your training, your body starts losing conditioning. For older athletes, over 45, this process is even more dramatic. A 50 year old endurance athlete who takes 3 weeks off training, and enjoys some of the foods and beverages they typically deny themselves, will have a hard 3 months ahead of them to get their fitness back to where it was before.
Getting back to our elite athletes – after their short stint of base training – they get right back into a program that includes a lot of specific training, that includes intensity. Obviously, they will not start out with an ironman race right away, but part of the training progression does include some racing into their schedule.
The whole process of taking their break, doing some base training, and then ramping up the intensity and specificity again, and being ready for some good performances will only take around 2 months. This compacted off season allows them to build on the strength and fitness they had at the end of the previous race phase, and that allows them to see good improvements year over year.
The old system basically had you starting from scratch again each year!
So, to summarize:
- Keep your break from training short – one to two weeks long.
- Keep your base training phase short – two to three weeks long, and include some tempo work.
- Move into a program that includes quality and specificity in training right after the base phase.
- Include some shorter, less significant races in your buildup phase.
- Work on endurance throughout the season, in proportion to the distances you will be racing.
Final note: In a future blog I will discuss how to stay married and train for a big endurance sports event. Part of that discussion will include the importance taking time for your family and friends. With such a condensed off season as described above, its important to make time for other things that are important to you throughout the year. No longer can we survive on the good will we created with our loved ones during the 3 to 5 months of off season…so we need to schedule time for this throughout the year!