Plan ahead to find the right balance between activity and rest
The off-season is just as important a training phase as any other. Its primary purpose is to provide recovery from the physical and mental fatigue that accrued during the previous training and racing season. The second objective is to minimize the amount of detraining that occurs while still facilitating this all-important rejuvenation process. Achieving these goals will ensure you are prepared for the beginning of next season well rested, motivated, mentally fresh and injury free, while having minimized the decrement in your physical fitness. Striking the balance in the off-season between reduced training for recovery and enough to minimize detraining is the key to improving as an endurance athlete from year to year.
Observational analysis suggests many serious age-group athletes, those who train consistently throughout the majority of the year, underestimate the importance of the off-season. Their common off-season flaw is combining weeks of too much training with weeks of too little exercise. Training too much doesn’t allow the recovery necessary for the body to repair itself, while extreme reductions in training during the off-season accelerate the detraining process. The unfortunate result of such a poorly planned off-season is the inability to build on the previous year’s training and racing. This can create a plateau in race performance from year to year.
The cessation of training for as little as one week can lead to a decrease in physiological markers associated with performance. For example, levels of oxidative enzymes drop dramatically within 2 weeks of stopping training. These decreases continue for up to 6 weeks until enzyme levels have decreased to pre-training values (*). To make matters worse, it takes longer to increase enzymatic levels than it does to lose them. In fact, it can take as much as 3 months to regain fitness levels similar to those preceding six weeks of not training (*). It will take an athlete who stops exercising for the month of December, several months to reach a similar level of fitness they had in November. In addition to the delay in returning to the previous level of fitness, the greater stress and higher level of cumulative fatigue required increases the athletes’ susceptibility to injuries and overtraining. This is easily preventable with some off-season planning.
Creating an Off-Season Plan
Of course, individual factors have the most influence on the best off-season plan. Nevertheless, here’s some general yet practical advice that might prove useful for your off-season. For a period of 4-8 weeks, cut the duration and frequency of training by 25%-50%. Almost all of the workouts should be low-density (short duration and low intensity). It turns out that the frequency and duration of workouts are the least important components of maintaining fitness (*). This leaves intensity as the training parameter that is crucial to minimize detraining. The good news is it takes surprisingly little intensity to accomplish this. One workout (per sport) every 1 to 2 weeks at a moderate to hard intensity should suffice. Similar to duration and frequency, the length of the intervals and the number of repeats should be decreased compared to other training periods.
But it’s not all about reductions in the off-season! It’s a great time for you to grow as an athlete. Take this time to gain and consolidate new assets – especially in regards to economy, technique, and mental skills. Furthermore, take the off-season as a window of opportunity to address any imbalances that may predispose you to injury when training resumes (*).
Finally, a good off-season plan can substitute some of the typical workouts with exercise from a variety of other sports. This can be refreshing compared to the monotony associated with your normal training and will give your body and mind the rest it needs to recover while staying active.
Last but not least, a few words on nutrition in the off-season.
For many athletes, a major concern is gaining weight during off-season. However, adding 5-10 lb of bodyweight in the off-season is an expected fluctuation and within a healthy range. Often even welcomed to restore a potential Athlete Triad.
To adjust your nutritional intake for off-season training, replace energy drinks and gels and hydrate with pure water during workouts. Aim for ~3 liters of liquid daily. This could be water, low-sodium broth and/or non-sweetened tea. Grab immune-boosting groceries rich in nutrients, such as sauerkraut and dark green veggies.
Having said that, letting go of discipline for a while also holds true for nutrition in the off-season. Be ok to enjoy foods that you did not allow yourself during the season. So yes, it is totally ok to choose a couple of slices of pizza over that serving of brown rice or a donut over plain oatmeal!
(*) For references regarding this article please contact Coach Marion Summerer.
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Something for you to try...
Now that you know more about the off-season, here is what you can do to get started:
- Write down how you approached your off-seasons in the past in regards to
- training load (volume, frequency, intensity),
- economy training (technique, strength, coordination),
- mental power (mental skills exercises, sleep hygiene, mindful breathing),
- nutrition (eating habits, junk foods, immune boosting foods, hydration, indulgence versus disciplined)
- Write down all the aspects from 1.) that you would like to change this off-season and how you would go about changing them.
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