Redefining the Off-Season

There was a time when only one ironman distance race existed, that was the Hawaiian Ironman in 1978.

Fast-forward 35 years. Now, there are 32 ironman distance triathlons every year around the world, 15 of those in North America. There are also 59 half-ironman distance races per year, 30 of those in North America. And those are just the World Triathlon Corporation sponsored events. Thousands of other corporate and independent races occur worldwide annually. There is no longer an off-season. At any time of year and in any corner of the world, you can race a triathlon. As a result, an athlete needs to train consistently throughout the year in order to improve performance and remain race-ready. Whether you are competing many times throughout the year or you need to peak for only one race, consistent training year after year is a hallmark characteristic of all successful endurance athletes. The caveat here, however, is that the training phases are variable. The days of an unfocused off-season are over. Focused training must continue throughout the year. Goals, objectives, intensities, and training session duration all change during the yearly training plan (YTP) depending on what training phase the athlete is in.

Let’s review some exercise physiology principles. The idea behind training is to induce an overload. Overload is a stress that produces a strain resulting in a response. For this equation to work, the stress must increase over time for the athlete to continually improve. In other words, if I run the same route, at the same pace, every day for six months I will not see an improvement in performance. To improve, the stress imposed by training must increase. For example, I need to run multiple distances over varying terrains at prescribed intensities to see improvement. The increase in training stress over time is called progression. In addition, the adaptations that occur to an athlete are specific to the stress that is induced. For example, if I am training for a marathon, swimming 10 hours per week will have little effect on my running performance. The response to the appropriate exercise stress is improved aerobic capacity and more efficient fat metabolism; both of which are integral to endurance performance.

In 1940, the Soviets implemented the idea of periodization, which is basically a method of breaking up the YTP into manageable blocks of time. These blocks have different characteristics throughout the year and allow specific types of training to be emphasized and quantified. Most athletes are familiar with the basic phases of periodization, such as the Base, Build, Peak, and Race phases. These are the most common and emphasized blocks of the YTP. What is not often emphasized is the training that occurs during the periods in between an athlete’s competitive season.

Recovery. This term is almost a curse word for some triathletes. However, it is during the recovery period, following overload, that the athlete becomes stronger. It is the recovery, not the activity, which allows the athlete to absorb the training and produce the adaptations needed to improve performance. This is the basis behind the pattern of 3 weeks of increased training stress followed by a recovery week, which is standard in endurance training. It is the recovery that allows an athlete to further increase the training stress (remember the term progression) over time to continually improve performance and fitness level.

Now, what do all of these principles mean for the endurance athlete in the fall and winter months? Endurance athletes often neglect the fall and winter seasons, also commonly called the “off season”. I would like to offer some ideas to change the mindset of athletes and propose some specific training objectives for the weeks and months that follow a peak race. Let’s use the terms transition period and preseason period instead of “off-season”.

The transition period can be thought of as the recovery period, both physically and mentally. This is the period of time at the end of the season or after the completion of a top priority race. This transition can be as short as a few days following a sprint race, or as long as 2 weeks (or more) following an ironman distance event. There are no hard or fast rules here, the recovery time is unique to each athlete and needs to be assessed honestly by the athlete and coach alike. I attribute my longevity (25 years) in the sport and my lack of significant injury to the month of transition I take following an ironman distance race.

The transition period leads into the pre-season period. Pre-season has traditionally been used for base training to re-build aerobic capacity. This is still the case and improving aerobic capacity is paramount for endurance racing. However, the trend now is to also use this time to incorporate sport specific training blocks that last from 4-12 weeks. During these blocks the athlete focuses on improving identified limiters in one sport while maintaining and building base fitness in the other two sports. For example, a coach might prescribe a focused block of run specific training to improve running efficiency. During this time the coach would also schedule low intensity swim and cycling workouts to aid recovery and improve aerobic capacity. This run specific training block ends with a recovery period, which would lead into another sport specific block (cycling technique, for example). A pre-season can last up to 30-weeks, enough time to incorporate three sport specific training blocks. These sport specific training blocks are the best way to utilize the preseason period and most efficiently prepare the athlete for the upcoming race season.

Therefore, as the transition and preseason periods approach, I hope that I have convinced you to consider, along with your coach, incorporating an appropriate recovery phase and multiple sport specific training blocks into your YTP. This efficient use of your training time during the winter months will improve performance for your spring and summer racing season.