Dealing with the Off Season – Part 2

To read the first part of this article click here.

In the first part of this article we talked about the importance of the off season and how it affects an athlete’s annual training cycle. In part 2 we’ll examine how an athlete can use the off season to continue to make important gains in their overall fitness and skill level. The gains that can be made in the off season don’t necessarily come in the form of increased speed, power, endurance that we hope to see throughout the rest of the year. Instead the off season is the time to focus on specific limiters and weaknesses for each sport. For triathletes it is often the best time to begin form work in the pool. For cyclists this time can be spent developing better spin technique, form and handling ability. This is also the time for all athletes to hit the gym with a good strength program.

With a full season of training behind us, the off season is a time to look back and determine what went right and what went wrong; what worked well in training and what didn’t; where we need to improve and what we do well. Weaknesses in speed, power and endurance ability are addressed primarily during the base and build periods but specific weaknesses like cadence, swim form, run stride, flexibility, overall strength and conditioning, and body composition can be addressed in the off-season and early training cycles. For triathletes this period can also be used to even out imbalances in fitness between disciplines. Many triathletes come into the sport having experience in at least one discipline while severely lacking in experience in another. The off-season is the time to develop the weaker disciplines by directing some of the time between structured training cycles to one discipline. For those with a weak run relative to their bike and swim, the period between September and November is an excellent time to train for and participate in running events.

Off Season Cycling

Cadence, Spin Technique & Handling Skills

Most cyclists have difficulties with cadence. Growing up we tend to ride over-geared bikes (junior gearing doesn’t really exist on the department store bikes we grew up with) and the natural we assume that larger gears produce greater speed. Therefore, when we start riding as adults, we’ve already been conditioned for years to ride with slower cadences. Not only is this bad for our joints it can be very inefficient. If your natural tendency is to ride below 90rpm, then the off season is the perfect time to work on cadence.

Exercises to increase cadence and develop better spin technique. These are best done on a trainer, flat roads, and/or the rollers.

Spin ups – 20-30 seconds intervals bringing cadence up as a high as possible with bouncing in the saddle. Effort should be low. You should feel almost no resistance. Start the interval spinning up to near your max controlled spin and then gradually spin back down. The most important thing to consider during this workout is trying not to bounce in the saddle and controlling the rate of your spin up and down.

Quick Leg Drills – 1min-20min intervals at moderate intensity. Start with 1min intervals at an endurance or tempo effort and bring your cadence 5-10rpm higher then what you are accustomed to. The second 1min interval should 10-15 rpm higher than normal. Continue to bring your cadence up with each interval until you cannot complete the full minute or you begin to bounce too much in the saddle. Over the weeks gradually increase the duration of the interval until you can complete a 20minute interval at around 95rpm or greater.

Single Leg Drills – This can be done outside but it is easier –and safer– to do it on a trainer. Start with 20-30second intervals riding with one leg clipped in and the other held up or out on a stool. Try to keep your cadence at least at your normal rpm or above 90 if possible. Do this a 2-3 times for each leg.

Spinning on the Rollers – The best place to work on spin technique is on the rollers. They take some practice getting used to but they will vastly improve spinning technique and cadence. Start in a doorway so you have something to lean against. Look at something on the floor about 8-10ft in front of you to help with balance. Once you become accustomed to using the rollers you can start to do some of the other drills on rollers like spin-ups and quick leg drills for added difficulty.

Pop Bottle Drops – Fill up a 2L pop bottle halfway with water and find an empty parking lot (driveway works too). Put the pop bottle on the ground and ride past it, slowly at first, trying to pick up the bottle. At first you might be able to reach over and knock the bottle over. Once you get comfortable doing that, try to pick the bottle up. Once you get good at that, you can attempt to pick up the bottle ride a short distance and place it back down without it falling over. With this exercise you can get creative: add obstacles to go navigate around, use a shorter/smaller bottle, increase the speed at which you ride as you pick up the bottle.

Feed Practice – This is best done with a partner but can be done using a ledge, tailgate, or trunk of a car. The premise is pretty simple, practice riding past your partner as they hold out a water bottle for you, taking the bottle and putting it in your cage. Without a partner, rest the bottle on a ledge or car trunk and practice grabbing the bottle as you go by. It seems like a simple exercise but many cyclists find it difficult to take bottles in feed zones. The majority of cyclists are right-handed and therefore feel more comfortable riding one-handed comfortably with their right hand but no the left. In races and events, most feed areas occur on the right side of the road and so it is good to practice controlling the bike with the left hand while taking food and drink with the right.

Handling Drills on the Rollers – Just riding the rollers under normal circumstances is a challenge for most and learning how to handle yourself on the rollers will aid your bike handling skills significantly but for those who have developed some degree of confidence can begin to practice different skills on the rollers. Start by trying to look around at different objects in front of you. Focus on different points in the room for 10-20 seconds at a time while keeping the bike centred on the rollers. When you feel comfortable doing this next try to look over your should at something behind you. Alternate looking left and right. For added difficulty you can try watching television from an off centred position while riding the rollers.

More advanced riders can practice riding out of the saddle. This is particularly useful for climbers and sprinters. For climbing drills get out of the saddle and practice balancing the body over the bike and maintaining a fluid rhythm. For sprinters, practice spinning quickly out of the saddle.

White Line Drills – If you don’t have rollers or prefer to get outside, find a road with a solid white line demarcarting the road from the shoulder. Practice staying on the white line by looking at the line 15ft in front of you. Once you get good at this practice looking over your right and left shoulders while not wavering from the white line.


Swimming in the Off Season

Form Practice

Triathletes spend most of their time increasing their speed on the run and bike through interval training and structured workouts designed to increase aerobic capacity. The best way to shave seconds off your swim pace, however, is to improve form and swim stroke.

Pull Buoy Drills – The pull buoy is designed to provide buoyancy around the hips so you can focus on swim stroke and body roll. It forces you to keep your legs straight and in line with your body. In order for the pull buoy to be an effective tool it must be used correctly and not as a crutch to compensate for poor form. Use the pool buoy only for working on body roll and swim stroke. If maintaining a streamlined position in the water (e.g. sagging hips) other exercises should be undertaken regularly in order to prevent becoming to accustomed to the buoyancy provided by the pull buoy.

Phantom Pull Buoy – For those having difficulty keeping their hips up and body streamlined, practice swimming as you would with a pull buoy but without using a pull buoy. Essentially you are doing a front crawl without using your legs. The goal here is to focus on using core strength to balance your body in the water to bring your hips up while maintaining proper body roll through the water.

Paddles – Paddles are an excellent way to develop muscular strength in your swim stroke. More importantly, however, they accentuate the effect paddle effect of your hands and arms through the water allowing you to better understand the mechanics of your stroke. It is easier to ‘feel’ resistance as your complete your stroke. By paying attention to this and varying your stroke you can optimize your efficiency in the water.

One Arm Side Stroke – With one arm at down flat against your side and the other extended straight out above your head in line with your body, swim on one side keeping your face against your arm while keeping your hip above the waterline. Alternate sides each length of the pool.

Running in the Off Season

Cadence, Stride and Injury Prevention

Off Season for runners and some triathletes (who usually double as runners) can be tricky because fall is prime marathon season, which means many don’t take time away from training to have a real off season until near to winter when outdoor running can be a challenge for those in less temperate climates. Runners and triathletes should devote some time to working on their stride and run cadence. 90rpm (45 per leg) is generally considered to be optimal (cadence in running is the number of times the foot strikes the ground per minute). Increasing cadence often means shortening the stride length. A shorter stride forces you to land mid foot rather than directly on the heel. This is beneficial not only for efficiency but also for injury prevention. Mid- and forefoot strike reduce the impact to the knees and hips.

Cadence Drills – Just like spin ups in cycling, cadence drills can be performed where pace remains the same but you increase the amount of steps you take per minute. At first it can feel a little like shuffling if you’re used to a long stride, but with practice it will come to feel more natural. You will be more efficient (more time with both feet off the ground equates to a slower overall pace) and you’ll like feel less strain on your muscles. If you are heel striker, take this process slow. It will take some time for your achilles tendon to stretch and strengthen enough to handle its new role as a reflex spring. Short burst of 20-30 seconds are all that is needed for the first weeks.

Wall Sprints – Lean forward and place hands on the wall at shoulder height at a slight incline. Make sure your back is flat and you are not bent at the waist. Run in place quickly landing on the balls of your feet allowing your achilles tendon to absorb the impact. Your knees should come up until your thigh is parallel with the ground. Try to be light on your feet and not bounce your upper body. You shoulders should remain at a fixed height (within reason). This will help develop good running posture and form. This exercise will also help strengthen your achilles tendons and reduce the chance of ankle/heel/achilles injuries

Strength Training

Strength Training and Injury Prevention

Swimmers and cyclists should develop a strength program that increases overall strength without increasing muscle size or reducing range of motion. 8-10 reps of a weight that can be lift 12-15 times is sufficient for most athletes. Swimmers in particular should perform exercises that use the full range of motion and simulate the motion used while swimming: cable crosses, lat pulldowns, should raises, etc. Cyclists typically performance deadlifts and squats. Controlled movements should be performed for most cyclists. Those who wish to increase sprint power can perform more explosive movements (with careful practice and proper safety precautions). Runners should focus on lighter weights and perform exercises that require balance and work the small stabilization muscle groups. All athletes should make sure to consult with a trainer or coach before performing strength exercises.

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