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Getting back to training can be the best—or the worst. If you’ve been putting it off, you’re probably already closer to your race date than you’d like, and there’s some nervous urgency around the first week. Will I be ready in time? How will I feel?
If you’ve been taking forced time off—for an injury or an end of season break—there’s probably excitement in the air. It’s like the first week of school: seeing old friends (goggles, bike, shoes) and finding out what everyone (your body) has been up to (Surprising speed, yay! Extreme soreness, boo!).
While the first week can loom large mentally, the way you approach this transition into the season can set you up for success or failure.
“[The first week back] is a time to hit the reset button and do the things properly that you’ve never done properly before,” says coach Gareth Thomas of Los Angeles-based TRIO Performance Labs. “Ask yourself, ‘What training did I do last year, and what could I have done better?’”
For some people, it could be not enough volume—for others it could have been too much intensity. The one constant is that every athlete is coming back a little bit older. “You almost need to forget about past glories,” says Thomas. “Not where you were before, but where you are now.” Thomas suggests anyone who is aging (that’s all of us!) needs to focus increasingly on injury prevention and recovery, and the first week is the best time to do it.
This means getting into a new strength training routine and getting more sleep: “Often people don’t address those issues that they’ve been getting away with for years,” says Thomas, who adds that as the seasons tick by, a little thing that barely bothered an athlete four years ago could develop into something worse in this new season. Also, because flexibility often decreases as we age, things like bike fit need to be re-evaluated in the early stages of the season; an athlete trying to get into the deep aero position of 2016 is a different athlete today.
Thomas recalls a conversation with Tim DeBoom. “Whenever he got a new bike, he would get the bike fit done early—this way he wouldn’t have to change it once he was into the season,” says Thomas. “It gives you more time to tweak it and adapt it before you hit full volume.” Buying new bike or run gear can also be a great way to jumpstart your motivation, and the timing couldn’t be better.
Thomas says the beginning of the season is best for trying out new equipment because the body hasn’t acclimated to the old stuff yet. He still recommends introducing new things slowly into the routine—testing the new against the old to check for improvements or problems.
“It’s a great time to get new run shoes,” says Thomas. “But only if you’re going to do short runs.” And Thomas strongly suggests keeping the training mileage light, but the frequency regular. “You need to get back into a rhythm and get those habits back before you think about adding volume,” says Thomas. “The habit is the thing that people lose the quickest.” Thomas also cautions against overambitious early-season training plans —the number one thing he’s seen in his 23-year coaching career is athletes going too hard too soon.
“Often, athletes will do a workout that’s so big that they can’t do the rest of the week,” says Thomas. This prevents athletes from keeping up the regular early-season frequency that he prescribes. “They don’t realize the next few days are lost because it’s too much,” he adds. Instead, Thomas feels that an athlete should almost feel bored at the beginning of the season.
“In an ideal world, an athlete should feel like they hadn’t done enough at the end of the first week. They shouldn’t feel sore,” he says. “They should be feeling undercooked.” Thomas says the key is starting back very gently, and not letting ego get in the way. “Come back to [the sport] and be very humble—let your body get back to the flow of things,” he says. “Excitement’s really good, but when you put some humility into it, it’s much better.”
For anyone short on excitement, Thomas says the solution is simple. “Most people need a new change of stimulus,” he says. “The best thing for that is new routes: run somewhere new, ride somewhere new. Go somewhere you’ve never gone before.” Thomas’ favorite piece of early-season training equipment is similarly unsexy.
“The number one thing I have athletes do [at the beginning of a season] is begin to keep a training journal, not just download Strava or TrainingPeaks, but actually write down how you felt, how much you slept, what was the quality of sleep and so on,” he suggests. “That should be the new thing you want to do more of this year, and you’ll have a much better chance at the new season.”