A Better Off-Season

Follow these five steps to start your 2013 season stronger than ever.

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Follow these five steps to start your 2013 season stronger than ever.

This article was originally published in the Nov./Dec. 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

Leslie Cornick’s last race of the 2011 triathlon season was TriRock San Diego, held on Sept. 11. The then-45-year-old marine biology professor did fairly well, finishing the Olympic-distance event (the bike leg of which was cut a bit short) in 2:57:03, good for 20th place in her age group. Upon returning home to Wasilla, Alaska, where autumn was already well under way, Cornick elected not to indulge in any kind of off-season. Instead she took a quick break and then started to train for January’s Goofy Challenge in Florida—an event that entails running the Walt Disney World Half Marathon on Saturday and the Walt Disney World Marathon on Sunday.

After that, Cornick took another short break but again elected to forgo a proper off-season. Instead she started to train for the 2012 Lavaman, an Olympic-distance triathlon held on Hawaii’s Big Island in March. Cornick had done the race twice before and it was one of her favorites. However, her training went poorly. She felt flat and fatigued in most of her workouts. The race didn’t go any better—Cornick’s bike and run splits were the worst she’d ever recorded in the event.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Cornick got sick soon after the race and spent the whole month of April recuperating. “I don’t think I really understood how burnt I was until after Lavaman,” she says. “As I look back I think the winter training for Disney was what did me in. I didn’t really take a proper break until I got sick, and by then I think it was too late.”

The human body was not designed to train hard and race year-round. Giving yourself a recovery day each week and a recovery week every several weeks will keep you going for a while, but not forever. At least once a year—most likely in the winter—you need to afford yourself a deeper sort of recovery.

The overarching purpose of the off-season for every triathlete is to set oneself up for success in the next triathlon season. Failing to recuperate in the winter is just one of several ways in which age groupers miss opportunities to fulfill this purpose. There are no fewer than five things you can do during the off-season that will aid your performance in next season’s triathlons: Take a break, do alternative sports or fitness activities, get stronger, work on your weakest triathlon discipline and get leaner. It is sensible to prioritize these steps in the order in which I just listed them. Let’s take a closer look at each.

Step 1: Take a break.

It’s imperative that you start your off-season with a total break from structured training. Even if triathlon were the only thing you cared about in life, such a break would be the best thing you could do after a peak race to get ready for your next peak race. But, of course, you do care about more than triathlon, and starting your off-season with a break from the old swim-bike-run routine gives you a chance to put more time and energy into other things such as socializing, keeping house, reading, church, sleeping in, whatever.

The best proof that a training break is the right first step of a beneficial off-season is the fact that virtually all professional triathletes do it. For example, after winning the Ironman World Championship in 2010, Mirinda “Rinny” Carfrae rented a bungalow in Hawaii with her boyfriend and spent a week relaxing there. She then spent a little time in Boulder, where her priority still was not training. “I have never had so many margaritas in my life!” she said in an interview with one of her sponsors, energy gel maker Gu. From Boulder, Carfrae and her boyfriend went to the Cayman Islands for more vacationing. Not until December, almost two months after Ironman, did Carfrae resume training.

Did Rinny’s long break sabotage her 2011 triathlon season? Hardly. She finished on the podium in all eight of her races and took second in Kona with a personal-best time of 8:57:57.

A more typical off-season break for a professional triathlete is two weeks, and I think this is a good standard for most age groupers as well. Fourteen days is just enough time for the body to achieve the hormonal recovery that is needed after a triathlon season and is usually just long enough to restore a hunger to train also. Yet it’s not so long that it will result in an unnecessarily large loss of fitness. If you take much more than two weeks off, you will struggle to get back to full fitness in time for your first race of the next season.

Your two-week break from triathlon training need not be a total break from exercise, but it can be. If you fear going stir-crazy, you can always go for a hike. But if you, like many triathletes, have a tendency to do too much, don’t fool yourself into thinking that a two-hour mountain-bike ride undertaken four days after your peak triathlon counts as a “break.”

Step 2: Do something different.

The second step of the off-season agenda: enjoying alternative forms of exercise. Some triathletes like to replace swimming, cycling and running completely with one or more alternative activities for a period of time in the winter. Some of the great San Diego triathletes of the 1980s did little else besides surfing between Ironman in October and the new year. For those living in northern climates, replacing some or all triathlon workouts with winter sports activities such as cross-country skiing, downhill skiing and snowshoeing keeps fitness high while recharging the mind.

What you do and how much you do for fitness outside of the triathlon disciplines after your training break is a personal decision. I recommend that you at least dabble in something, because variety is fun. But one thing you want to avoid is neglecting one or more of the disciplines for so long that you lose any hope of improving upon it next season.

The 12-week off-season training plan includes a two-week phase in which alternative activities are prioritized. Naturally, you need not feel compelled to confine this step of your off-season plan to a two-week period—this is just a suggestion. As for your specific choices of activity, anything that elevates your heart rate—from ice skating to paddleboarding—is acceptable.

Step 3: Get stronger.

Recently I designed a training plan for a triathlete who had just completed her first Ironman and was looking to improve. She had some good ideas of her own about how she might get better. “Strength is the area that I hardly ever do, and I would like to see how much improvement I could make by adding this as a component of the training plan,” she wrote in the questionnaire I gave her to fill out. “I did zero strength while training for Ironman.”

This is another common scenario. Every triathlete knows that he or she should cross-train, but there are only so many hours in the week and at the end of the day, most triathletes decide that squeezing in another swim, bike or run will do them more good than hitting the gym.

As a coach I like to be realistic. I strongly encourage year-round strength training, but within the race-focused training cycle, I usually prescribe a minimalist approach because there are important swim, bike and run workouts to contend with.

The off-season is another matter, though. In the winter, when triathletes are (or should be) swimming, cycling and running less, they have more time to strength train. I urge you to make use of that time this off-season, specifically by working hard to increase your raw strength in your major muscle groups, creating a reserve of power that will carry you through the rest of the year with a modicum of maintenance work.

Winter is not the time to prioritize correcting imbalances with PT exercises that target neglected and hard-to-find muscles. It’s the time to move some heavy loads with classic strength-building movements. Here are some suggestions: the chest dip, the bent-over row, the push press, the box squat and the suitcase deadlift.

The strength-building phase of your off-season training plan can begin immediately after your break, or it can wait until you complete a period of focus on alternative cardio activities. It should then continue until you start your base training for the next racing season. In the 12-week off-season training plan, the strength-building period begins in week 5 and continues through week 12, overlapping with steps 4 and 5 of the program.

Step 4: Shore up a weakness.

All too often age groupers deal with their weakness by avoiding it. This is understandable because it’s usually more fun to train in one’s strongest discipline than in one’s weakest. But it’s not a very good way to improve in the sport.

You might think I’m about to say that triathletes should train hardest in their weakest discipline, but I’m not. Within the training cycle, it’s best to put an equal amount of effort into all three disciplines regardless of which is your weakest. Triathletes who place too much emphasis on their weak discipline tend to lose some of the advantage of their strong discipline.

During the off-season, however, it is acceptable and even advisable to focus on shoring up one’s greatest weakness for a period of time. The best way to do this is simply to practice it daily. Nothing makes a person a stronger swimmer, cyclist or runner than swimming, cycling or running every day, or almost every day. You don’t have to think about it or even work terribly hard (most of the time). Just do it.

Sure, you can do some challenging high-intensity workouts and some technique drills—these things will help. But it is the off-season, remember. If you work too hard in even one discipline you risk burning out before you even get to your first race of the new season. I recommend that you keep the intensity moderate—roughly 70 percent of your maximum heart rate—in all but two of your weak discipline practice sessions each week. One of the other two should start at the same intensity and may conclude with a fast finish—5 to 15 minutes at lactate threshold intensity, or the highest intensity you could sustain for one hour in a race. The remaining workout may include some very short, maximum-intensity efforts—full sprints lasting 10 to 20 seconds. These are excellent for improving efficiency yet they are actually less stressful than longer intervals, provided the total number of sprints is kept manageable.

In one of your moderate-intensity weak-discipline practice sessions you may include technique drills such as the catch-up drill (swimming), one-legged pedaling on a stationary bike and one-legged hops for running. Go to Insidetriathlon.com/drills for full descriptions of a variety of drills.

Our off-season plan includes a four-week weak-discipline focus that begins in week 5. Suggested formats applicable to any of the three triathlon disciplines are given for each.

Step 5: Get leaner.

In the sport of cycling, it’s common to wedge a short weight-loss period between the end of the off-season and the start of the next training cycle’s base building. The practice is less common in triathlon, but it shouldn’t be.

While heavy training itself may induce weight loss, the fastest way to lose weight is to maintain a sizable caloric deficit. Such deficits tend to sabotage heavy training, so they are not appropriate within the training cycle, but just before the cycle begins is an ideal time to shed excess body fat by deliberately taking in less energy than your body uses.

I recommend that you aim for a daily energy deficit of 200 to 400 calories for the last four to eight weeks before you formally begin your base training. You can enhance fat loss during this period while also preparing for base training by adding fat-burning workouts to your training schedule. These are long rides and runs of moderate intensity in which you consume no carbs in order to maximize fat burning.

12-Week Off-Season Training Plan

Twelve weeks is an appropriate length for an off-season training block that includes all of the elements discussed in this article.

There are as many ways to plan an off-season as there are triathletes. The right approach for each athlete depends on a number of individual considerations. The following schedule may or may not be a good fit for you this year. Consider it a suggestion or starting point for designing a better off-season for yourself.

On the schedule, “Strength Workout 1” indicates a session in which you complete one round of the five movements photographed. “Strength Workout 2” indicates a session in which you complete two full circuits of the exercises. “Strength Workout 3” is three full circuits.

Click here for the 12 week training plan.

Click here for strength-building exercises.


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