Dear Coach: How Should I Approach Winter Training If I Have an Early-Season Race?

While taking a break right now is encouraged, taking too long could wreak havoc with your plans if you're looking to hit the start line early in 2022.

Photo: Getty Images/Tetra images RF

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It is important to understand that growth is impossible without rest. Rest is required for the body to repair—and the end of the racing season is the perfect time to do this. The body needs to rejuvenate, both emotionally and physically. Resting also gives us the time needed to gain perspective on last season, recharge from the demands of training and life, as well as allow the physical system to heal hormonally, muscularly, and mechanically from the demands it was put under. A block of rest is the only route to be able to make performance gains, otherwise we risk injury and burnout. But how long should this rest be, especially if there is a race on the calendar for early the following season?

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The duration of time spent in off-season truly depends on future goals and if improvements want to be made on the prior season. Too much downtime results in a large depletion of physical gains, and so when it comes time to train again, the body is essentially at “ground zero” and can only progress to the point at which it ended the prior season. This can lead to athlete frustration as no gains are being made from season to season—there is no longer-term progression—and the athlete can begin to feel like they’re a “hamster in a wheel” in terms of performance. This is just one of many reasons why it’s important to plan the upcoming season well ahead of time, to allow for an appropriate physical and mental break, but then safely and appropriately start training for the upcoming season. And this becomes all the more important if there is an early-season race on the athlete’s horizon.

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As a general guide, from the day following an athlete’s last competition until they turn their training back on, this break from sport should be between two to three weeks.  This is the time where the athlete completely leaves structured training, doesn’t think about their sport, and switches from being an athlete to more recreationally-minded.  The key to this downtime is not to become a couch potato. Remaining active, maintaining healthy eating habits, and prioritizing sleep is important, but allowing for some more indulgences, and keeping activity free from metrics and expectations is crucial. After this true break, it is important to implement a phase of training that gradually brings the athlete back to some structure but allows for less overall stress and training load (50% less than a normal training load is a good guide). This is a good time to focus on technique and form and start good habits for the upcoming season. This phase can last anything from one to three months, depending on how close the first race is, in order to build back a good base, then speed and load, to prepare for that opening race of the year.

Understanding the mid-season break

When approaching the off-season like this, a mid-season break can be necessary in order to break up the season a little, especially if the first race is in March or earlier.  If done correctly, a mid-season break can bring the athlete back focused and refreshed to end their season strong. It can last anywhere between five to 14 days, and is best taken seven to 14 weeks before the final big block of training for the last “A” race on the schedule. Just like the off-season, this is a chance to ignore structured training, give some time and space to mentally and physically restore where exercise is still happening, but it’s free from metrics and expectation. It is more critical during this shorter break to maintain healthy nutrition and prioritize sleep, as this mid-season break is to allow for restoration and the ability to come back fully charged, not depleted.

Finally, it is important to note that after any break, it is a perfect time to revisit your purpose and goals for the season—and to return to training with a greater commitment than before.

RELATED: The Psychology of Setting Motivating and Satisfying Goals

Tristen Rogers is a USAT Level 2 Coach, Head Coach of the HAT Altitude Team, and owner of HAT House Endurance Camps. You can find her on Instagram @hat_house_coaching

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