Dealing with the Off Season – Part 1

Depending what your preferred discipline is (and your geographic location) your athletic season is probably getting ready to come to a close. Here in Canada cyclists and triathletes are finishing up their final events and looking forward to some time away from training. While runners may be just getting their groove going for the fall marathon season, there’s no question that there’s an air of closure floating around. The end of summer and the end of racing for most of us go hand in hand and the weeks following our last big race often leave us feeling as though we are in a state of limbo.

Some are too busy with getting the kids back to school to notice, while others are getting ready to transition to the fall and winter sports. It’s often a question for most single sport athletes what to do for the next few months before next year’s training begins. Should you stop training altogether? Should you decrease your weekly hours? Should you do some unstructured training?

The answer to this question varies depending on the athlete’s training style and long term goals. Many age group athletes focus their training for the big event they’re training for and build their training around that event. Many AG (age group) athletes may not have an ‘offseason’ but rather periods where they have no scheduled events on their calendar. Either way it is important for athletes who plan to do events each year to think about what they’re doing during those periods where they aren’t training for specific events.

Annual Athletes

The annual athlete is someone who develops a training plan that includes several ‘A’ priority events and many ‘B’ priority events. While their primary training focus is the ‘A’ events, their training plans are tailored toward developing longterm fitness, carrying over from year to year. Cyclists are a good example of the annual athlete. They begin their training early in the winter and carry on through to the end of summer. Their season usually consists of–and often is focused on– a series of races that take place throughout the summer. The Ontario Cup road racing series is a perfect example of this. Cyclists train to peak for one or two big races or races suited to their strengths but also maintain form throughout the season in order to remain competitive for all their events.

In addition to their short term goals, their training plans follow a yearly cycle that allows the athlete to continue to improve upon the previous year’s benchmark fitness. For these types of athletes the off-season is vital to their growth as an athlete. They often tread the fine line of peak performance and overtraining. Just like rest days and rest weeks are vital to the smaller micro training cycles, the off season is meant to be a restorative time where the athlete can unload all the of accumulated fatigue built up over 8-10 months of training and 4-5 months of racing. Conversely, however, annual athletes are also most susceptible to sharp declines in fitness due to inactivity. “The fitter you are, the harder you fall,” is the mantra of the elite athlete. There is evidence to suggest that VO2 max can decline between 7-10% in highly trained athletes after 12 days of inactivity.2  This means that while the off-season is an important part of the annual training and recovery process, it can also have detrimental effects for the athlete if not done correctly.

For an athlete to see continued improvements in their year-to-year fitness, they need to make sure that their off-season still involves plenty of activity. Cross training and unstructured sport specific workouts can help alleviate fitness decline and be beneficial both mentally and physically. Many age group cyclists train 15-20 hours per week while still working full time jobs and juggling family commitments. Constant and rigid adherence to a structured training program can be not only physically draining but mentally taxing and can lead to overtraining, loss of motivation and love of the sport. Taking some time to ride as you please without worrying about power numbers or intervals or TSS scores is important to maintaining a good balance between fitness and enjoyment. Cross training is also a great way to fill the void in the off season. Cross country skiing during the winter months is an excellent way to maintain–or even improve–VO2 max and aerobic endurance without having to devote time to a structured training plan. It also gives an athlete a reason to get outside and can help prevent seasonal affective disorder.

The amount of time to take off from the sport largely depends on how an athlete trains. Some athletes will transition to training for other sports. Triathletes often spend the fall months training for and participating in running events. Cyclists often transition to cyclocross. A good coach can use certain indicators to determine how much downtime an athlete really needs to recover from the season’s training. Training Peaks and other software that track acute and chronic training loads are useful ways of determining how much time an athlete can afford to take and what they ought to take in order to get the most recovery and avoid overtraining. The annual training plan can also be a determining factor. If an athlete’s season ends in late September and their first first ‘A’ priority event of the next season is in early April, there may only be a few weeks or a month between the end of one training season and the start of the next. It’s important to plan ahead and pay attention to how hard you’ve been working throughout the season in order to effectively plan your downtime.

Event-based Athletes

Event-based athletes are those who develop focussed training plans for a specific event. Beginner athletes usually fall into this category. Sometimes, however, the nature of the event can determine whether an annual training plan or an event-specific plan is more beneficial. Many triathletes who normally follow an annual training plan to compete in a series of Sprint and Olympic distance events will choose to follow an event specific plan when making the jump to an Iron-distance event.

For most, however, little is made of training unless there are events on the calendar. Often event-based athletes need to have an event planned in order to find the motivation to train rather than just train for overall improvement in their sport. For these types of athletes, downtime is not as crucial to their training. The lapse in time between events often means there is ample downtime where there is either no exercise or only light activity. Because of this they are less susceptible to performance loss due to inactivity–to an extent. While annual athletes start to see decreases in performance after only 3-5 days of complete inactivity, everyone sees about the same performance decreases beyond 4 weeks of inactivity.3 It’s important that even if there are no events planned in the next month or beyond, all athletes should remain active. This becomes more apparent as an athlete ages. The effects of inactivity are accentuated with age. VO2 max and type I muscle fibres are remarkably resilient to the effects of aging as long the athlete remains active. As a person becomes more sedentary and they lose muscle mass and aerobic capacity it becomes harder and harder to gain it back. Use it or lose it. It’s important for event-based athletes to continue to be active, whether it be continuing to train during periods where there are no events planned or having other physical activities to engage in such as cross training or even activities such as hiking and walking.

Read the second part of this article

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