Training

Dear Coach: How Important Is the Off-Season?

Getting your training right through the fall and winter off-season can significantly improve your chances of success next year.

Though there’s not much to look back on for the 2020 season, you can still use this “off-season” as a prime time to set yourself up for success in 2021.

The period between October and March in an annual training plan (ATP), for most athletes, is the period I’ve come to understand (as both a coach and an athlete) where we need to “train in order to train.” We need to keep moving in the right direction during this time to strengthen our bodies, work on weaknesses, and maintain a certain baseline fitness. By doing so, when springtime arrives we are ready to tackle our race-specific training and we are not starting from zero, but rather from a place of being fit and strong. This is how breakthroughs are achieved—and this is also why it’s so important to get things right at this time of year. Instead of naming it the off-season, I prefer calling to our ‘Training to Train’ time and here’s why it’s important to plan yours and get ready for a strong season in 2021. Even if we can’t know exactly what that season will look like, you’ll find motivation in laying out some structure toward a hopeful 2021 season.

Evidence

You simply cannot jump into your race-specific training next spring thinking you will be able to hit the ground running at the same level unless you invest time over the next few months into your training. Our bodies just don’t work that way. I like the analogy of an airport runway: if a plane has a longer runway, it’s easier to take off. The same can be said for a triathlete. If you have worked on building up endurance and speed during your ‘Training to Train’ period, you will most likely have a better handle on what you can accomplish during race-specific training. And, you could go about it without pushing toward unrealistic goals, in an unrealistic time-frame. At the very least in the off-season, you should be working on your weaknesses.

I have many examples of taking an athlete who didn’t prepare for a race-specific period one season, and then getting them on the right path the next, and the difference is remarkable. Here’s one athlete story that’s fresh in my mind: An athlete liked to just do what he wanted during the off-season and each race season it would take until the end of the season until he was in race shape. Finally, I convinced him to take the off-season seriously, and we saw 8% gains in FTP (functional threshold power), a 30-second improvement in his run pace at zone 2 heart rate, and an eight second per 100 improvement in the pool. The improvement during the race season for this athlete was remarkable and, as a coach, it truly showed me how important the off-season can be.

Begin the Off-Season by Assessing Yourself

In order for this time of year to be most effective for you, it’s a good idea to start by doing a personal inventory of both your time and your skills. Here’s how it might look:

  1. When is my race in 2021? How many weeks do I have to get ready? Typically, athletes start 20 weeks out and we call that race-specific training. This period includes your build-up toward your ‘A’ race, including race-paced training. When you only look at those 20 weeks, you are limiting your chances for success.  
  2. If you add in a ‘Training to Train’ period, your chance for success climbs significantly. To figure out that timing, count back the appropriate number of weeks of race-specific training time (16-24 weeks) and then incorporate 16-24 weeks of ‘Training to Train.’
  3. Define your goals: Write down your race goals and be as specific as possible. This will help you see why it’s important to train through the winter.
  4. Define your objectives: Do you need to commit to swimming four times per week to improve your swim technique? Do you need to bike five times per week in order to raise your FTP? Do you need to add in hill repeats to be stronger on the hills?
  5. How to assess weaknesses? In order to determine your strengths and weaknesses, it’s a good idea to look back at past race results and see where you finished in relation to the field. This is a great starting point to understand where you need to improve.

Bringing it All Together

Once you have done the assessment, now it’s time to put it into action.

Think about your training time along a continuum that spans the fall through the following summer. It’s essentially an Annual Training Plan (ATP). This fall and through the winter provides you with 16-24 weeks to work on getting stronger and addressing your weaknesses. Then you will have 16-24 weeks for race-specific training. During that time you get to work on race-specific paces, dial in your nutrition, adjust your equipment, and address your mental toughness. You are moving through two distinctly different phases of training that have different purposes, but both are important.

Being ready for the race-specific training phase will allow you to maximize your training in this period versus ‘getting it done’ or ‘checking the box.’ Having a strong foundation of fitness so you can be intentional with your race-specific training will allow you to have your best race. 

In conclusion, if you think you have more to achieve, then take a step back and think about where you want to be once your ‘A’ race rolls around next season. How are you going to close that gap? There’s plenty of time to do the work correctly to get ready. Knowing you have set the groundwork during this ‘Training to Train’ period will make the race-specific period go much better and your chances for success on race day will improve significantly.

Coach Mike Ricci is the head coach and founder of D3 Multisport, Inc. He is a USAT Level 3 Elite Coach, a Training Peaks Level II Coach and an Ironman U Coach. You can find out more about his ‘Training to Train’ philosophy here.