by Christopher Bagg January 17, 2022
Real things I have heard athletes say in their offseasons:
What's even more alarming about these real things that athletes have said is that they are paying their coaches to craft schedules designed to make them faster. Forgetting that fact, for some reason, the athletes above headed off on the bike, or out to run, deciding to make themselves feel better in the short term while putting their long term development at risk. Here's the thing: you are an endurance athlete, and to reach a certain level in your sport you're probably going to be training almost every day, and usually twice a day. Your "normal" is pretty tired, but since we're amazing adaptable animals, we just adjust to that feeling and come to recognize it as our baseline. When we take some time off, things happen: some muscles tighten, while others lose some of the tension they've developed; you retain water for a few days as your body tries to figure out this change in routine; your dopamine receptors feel all neglected, and pass resentment right on to you. The result? After three or four days off your body is one big mess of tight and slack, while the normally calibrated arc of your brain chemistry waves around like an oscilloscope. Just go for a run, your whole being, body and mind, whispers to you. What could one run do?
Quite a lot, actually. A proper offseason reduces the short-term stress associated with endurance training and racing to zero, something that can be accomplished in less than two weeks. Your long-term stress (which is just another description of your fitness) takes much, much longer to dissipate, and any feeling that you're "losing fitness" is just that: a feeling, and nothing more. But if you complicate this resting period by "tossing in a few workouts," you don't get that short-term stress to zero, so your body doesn't recover. Sure, you feel like your good 'ol normal self, but you're setting yourself up in a dangerous place in the world of the endurance athlete: the permanently fit.
Sounds great, right? Fit all the time? Well, sure, if your goal is to be pretty good most of the time. Most of us, though, that pin on a number want something more—we tend to yearn for more than "pretty good," and that's all that permanently fit gets you. Good, but never rested enough to make the big pushes required to get to the top of your age group. Making those big steps asks patience of you, and if you can't manage that patience, well, then, I hate to say it, but you are an addict, not an athlete.
If you give yourself a chance to lose some fitness now, but bank some mental and physical recovery, I promise you that 2022 will bring you some gains in speed and fitness. I have the luck and privilege to coach a swim squad at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, and some of the elite runners come in to swim or aqua jog each week. I promise you that they take longer offseasons than most age group triathletes or runners, and we could all mimic their approach. Here is one of their offseason frameworks:
That's just about six weeks, start to finish! I'll bet you that most professional athletes have off-seasons that look like this, while most age group athletes take two or three days off, get antsy, and then start their training again, heedless of their coaches' cries for restraint. We asked a friend of the brand professional triathlete to chime in for this article, and here's her usual offseason plan:
I asked this athlete if she had made any mistakes offseasoning in the past, and here's what she had to say: "I have done off-season in both extremes. I've not taken enough time off, didn't put on much weight, got back into things quickly and ended up burned out and injured, I neglected to appreciate what a season I had. I also have done the opposite extreme: I took off two months off everything and started at ground zero and took a good chunk of the season to get back to proper form. I ended up skipping a good base phase and rushed into intensity too soon and felt like I was chasing my own tail all year. My best race seasons have been built around balance and consistency—so that is always my goal. Continuous and consistent hard-work. More than anything I think I work hard and live a very committed life for ten months of the year, so it's great to treat yourself—live a life of balance, give back to the family / friends / community that supported you, and enjoy the fruits of your own labor!"
Here, then, is a plan to help you de-train a little, but also set yourself up for a great 2022.
Yup, it can be hard. But you're a long course triathlete! You eat hard for breakfast. If your season has been mostly Olympic-distance and 70.3 races, take seven to ten days completely off. Yup, off. No Orange Theory classes, no bike rides with friends, no "runs because I felt like it." Off. Hang out with your family. Go see a movie. Have brunch for the first time since you started this damn sport. Remember brunch? It happens on Sunday at, like, 10:30, when you're usually at mile eleven of your long run. Get into it. Eat some Eggs Benedict. Put on two pounds. It won't kill your Instagram feed.
OK, now you can start moving again. If you're super lucky, you've timed this with some vacation, maybe, and you're headed somewhere super warm or super cool. Go snowboarding or cross-country skiing. Surf. Snorkel. Rock climb. Play a ball sport (but don't, you know, pull a hammy). Take some long walks in the woods. You're reintroducing activity, but really try to keep it separate from your normal sport. Avoid swim/bike/run if you can. If you can't, I allow my athletes to hit the pool sooner than the other two sports, as long as they can be trusted not to bang out a quick set of 40x100 on the 1:20. The idea here is to simply be active each day, but in other modes of movement. You may find that you're fitter than you thought you were, and your body will appreciate the changes.
Time to lace up them sneaks again. You've been away from triathlon for three weeks, and we're going to re-introduce it over the next three weeks. Here's your model:
So that's it! Six weeks to your best off-season yet. You may experience some difficult moments, but treat those as opportunities to examine your own neuroses. What is it, exactly, that is driving you train? Are you training for something, or are you merely exercising? Asking yourself that powerful question may help quiet the demons.
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