Staying Strong Means Staying in the Game: Get more bang for your buck with fall training (By: Gina Rymal)
If you are an athlete of any sort, there is no such thing as an off season. There’s no time of the year for you to hang your hat, bike, or sport on the wall and forget about it for 4-5 months of the year. Triathletes and endurance athletes are no different, just because there are no races scheduled from December to April doesn’t mean this is the perfect season to eat all you want and throw your running shoes and goggles in the back of the closet. This is the time of year where you train different and refresh mentally to come back stronger than where you left off. There is no off season, just a change of seasons.
If you want to come out ahead of the competition next summer you train in the winter; while everyone else is busy doing nothing you’re busy getting faster and stronger. Unfortunately, it is common practice after the last race or event of the season to hang up the equipment and try to get some "well deserved rest". Most recreational athletes aren’t out chasing the sun when the temperatures dip and the days get shorter. This means it is your time to shine, get ahead of the competition, and become the best you there has yet to be. Winter is the best time to refocus goals, do speed work, and maintain a strong base for your sport. Staying strong means staying in the game, you can’t come back to the first race of the next season and pick up where you left off. Calling it quits for even a few months is essentially the same as detraining. Detraining is the point in an athlete’s life where they back off or quit training and it results in loss of endurance, muscle mass, and oxygen consumption and causes muscle atrophy - no one wants that! Keeping up with some type of training, even if it’s something different, is way easier than starting over. Detraining can start to show in as little as 24 hours in things like heat/humidity acclimation and up to 12 weeks for endurance and VO2MAX. Even cutting back to 30-60 minutes a day 4-5 times a week, is better than cutting all exercise out.
Sometimes you just need a brain-dump, you train different when you are racing. When you’re racing you have a different mindset, you’re more conscious of (potential) injuries and your training sessions are directed at getting better at a particular event or discipline. You are focused, event (i.e. goal) driven, and ready to conquer during your peak season training. But when race season is over, you can relax a bit, reinforce good training practices, and reintroduce conditioning that may have been left out or weak during peak season training. Off season training is the best time to cross train and do something mentally different. It looks different for everyone, maybe if you are a roadie you might try mountain biking, or a marathon runner may opt for some track time or trail runs. You could learn how to kayak, play tennis, or pick up a new hobby. The idea is to use different muscles, do something different for your mind to think about, refresh yourself for your next season, but not end up completely de-conditioned or bored. Cross training allows your body to heal and relieve over-used or over-trained muscles. Overtraining can lead to injury, strains, and burn out, taking a few months off in the year to do something fun and you enjoy does help put the sport back into perspective, gives your "why" back, and helps the body recover from the long training and racing season you just completed. Cross training is also aids in building supporting muscles, athletes may have great primary muscles for running, cycling, and/or swimming but weak secondary muscles. Adding some resistance training during the off season helps create balance in the muscular system which helps reduce and prevent injuries.
Endurance athletes have the potential to be really strong for movements and power but we often forget to build the supporting muscle structure underneath that strength. Off season is a great time to reintroduce some weight and resistance training in their weekly regimen. Building core and lower back stability, hip mobility and flexibility, and arm strength and pulling ability all means more comfort, power, and speed in the swim, the bike (especially in aero position!), and the run. Spend some time adding sport specific resistance training 2-4 times a week for 30-60 minutes a session to make sure you are removing the weak links in your body’s chain of action and building a solid muscle and skeletal system to support your enduring sport. Building muscle isn’t the same as having extra weight, when a person has muscle mass, unlike fat mass, they have the power and force behind that muscle and their bodies are more able to respond and react to a movement without injury or pain if the muscular system is fully and evenly developed. Do you want to go out and gain a lot of muscle mass? No, but lean mass with power is a great combination for an endurance athlete without compromising flexibility, speed, and agility.
Race weight is something we all strive to be at for our A-race and it takes a lot of long hours of training, correct nutrition, and sweat equity to get to that ideal weight. Weight is such a big deal to racers so it's important to see both sides of the ideal weight number. Zooming out to the bigger picture, when race season has come to an end, you ideally need to put on a few more pounds. Some fat on the body, we’re only talking about gaining 7-15ish pounds of fat and muscle, helps reduce inflammation, restores over-used muscles, protects joints, and, overall, supports the vital organs and brain function better than our stripped down race models. Adding this weight now can help with recovery and not slow or hinder performance during peak season racing and training. If done properly through clean eating and resistance training, this weight will come off easily when race season rolls back around but with a better power-to-weight ratio.
The opposite is also true, off season is such an easier time to try to loose weight if you have that as a healthy goal. There really is no such thing as “fat-fit” and being heavy or obese taxes the cardiovascular, cardiorespiratory, and muscle/joint systems of the body. Trying to carry around extra pounds means your heart has to be able to pump blood through the extra tissue (fat), your lungs have to be able to support the extra O2 distribution and CO2 waste collection, and your body has to be able support the extra weight on its feet, ankles, knees, back, etc. Peak training season is one of the hardest times to focus on weight loss since you’re demanding a lot from your body. Your body is already under stress from the training (not to mention anything related to work, home life, kids, finances, etc.) and your body is focusing on repairing muscle damage and fueling itself from your last 7 hour ride or 8 mile run. Throw a calorie restrictive diet into the mix and your body isn’t going to react the way you’d hope, this can lead to further weight gain, injuries, and fatigue. But in off season, you can shift your focus from training to reaching a healthy weight without the added stress or risk (starvation mode) in your body.
Fat gets a bad rap but fat is the second best fuel source during aerobic training (carbohydrates are the ideal) and healthy fats should be eaten routinely, in moderation, as it helps reduce inflammation, gives energy, supports cell growth, protects organs, and aids in nutrition and hormone absorption. A fat restrictive diet can lead to cravings, fatigue, brain fog, and water retention. Off season training is one the best times to refocus on healthy eating habits since you’re not pounding the pavement everyday looking to eat everything in sight when you finish. Changing a diet or nutrition plan is daunting enough alone, doing a major food makeover in the middle of peak training with 10-20 hours a week of training is a struggle and frustrating. Take the time now, when your body isn’t as stressed, to reevaluate and realign your nutrition with your sports goals.
Rest and active recovery is one of the best ways to wind down a packed race season. When all of the podium pictures and early morning race days have come to an end for the year is not a ticket to sleep in every day and not train at all. But it is a good time to center up good sleeping routines. A rested body is a primed body. Athletes who get regular, adequate sleep experience better reaction times, reduced injuries, more years in their sport, and a better mental capacity for motivation, focus, memory, and judgement. Sleep also aids in a healthy weight, optimum energy stores a n d h o r m o n e r e g u l a t i o n , b e t t e r performance, and overall well-being. Plenty of sleep means improved cardiovascular function and emotional stability. Use your off season to reestablish good sleeping habits with regular bedtime and awake times. Active recovery is also a major role in off season preparation for another peak season and includes activities like yoga, walking/hiking, playing frisbee or basketball. Active recovery isn't sitting and sleeping, as much as it doing something active but at much less intensity and volume. Optimal recovery should include plenty of sleep, rest days (i.e. no exercise at all), and active recovery days (i.e. no impact workouts).
Off season looks different for everyone and it should be personalized to fit the athlete's goals, desires, and abilities. But the idea is the same - don't let all your hard work this past race season go to waste, rest up, and do something fun. Off season training is an important phase to an athlete's success, aids in physical and psychological recovery, conditions any imbalances or weaknesses, and sets up the athlete for a stellar next season!