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How You Should Approach the Off-Season After a Weird 2020 Non-Season

Winter is typically the perfect time to rest, reset, and then restart your training after a season of racing, but should that plan change after a year like 2020?

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For most athletes in the northern hemisphere, this time of year is usually synonymous with little to no structured workouts and an opportunity to recover—physically and mentally—from a season of training and racing. While some people take just a couple of weeks, others often stretch this period to six or eight weeks to allow for deep recovery and deconditioning, with the theory being that you need to lose fitness and truly rest in order to build back up and reach even greater peaks the following season. But after a year like 2020, with very few races and—at times—limited training opportunities, do the usual off-season rules apply? And if not, how should we structure our winter training?

Exercise physiologist and triathlon coach Alan Couzens said that while many athletes “just want to keep things rolling” into 2021, this could actually be a grave mistake. “Shutting things down without having had the opportunity to race a big race or, in some cases, without a race at all, can feel like an extreme anti-climax, and the temptation is strong to skip the regular off-season this year. In my opinion, that’s the biggest mistake that an athlete could make.”

Stress Is Stress

The reason? Our bodies do not differentiate between training stress and life stress, and so at this point in 2020, it’s entirely possible our nervous systems, although maybe not stressed high-intensity workouts or racing, are worn down from the many demands this year has placed on us. “To paraphrase the immortal Han Selye [the Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist and stress researcher], ‘stress is stress, irrespective of the source,'” Couzens said. “Whether the body is mounting a ‘fight or flight response’ to deal with a hard interval session or in response to the anxiety and anger coming from a persisting pandemic and ever-growing heated political discourse, in many ways, the result is still the same, i.e. the central nervous and hormonal systems get tired of always being ‘on,’ of always mounting a response to a perceived threat and, for that reason, the off-season may be more important this year than ever.”

Former pro-athlete-turned-coach Marilyn Chychota agrees and believes that this year in particular it is important for coaches to really assess what’s best on a case-by-case basis: “It’s really important to consider an athlete’s overall fitness, fatigue, and freshness at this point in the year, and that is going to vary a lot depending on what the athlete’s strategy has been throughout the season,” she said. She explained that for those athletes who have been training consistently and working hard towards short-term goals throughout the year, she would be more inclined to encourage them to take a traditional off-season break, while for those who have not—and especially those thinking of racing earlier in 2021—then now could be the time to get back to work. She added: “Being flexible this year has been key, as well as helping athletes connect to their true passion and roots.”

Photo: Getty Images

How to Approach Your Off-Season Training

Knowing what type of training to do is integral to a successful off-season, with a focus on different activities that keep you moving and enable you to try something new, such as cross-country skiing, mountain biking, or hiking. Given the generally elevated stress that has been a regular part of life in 2020, Couzens also recommends incorporating plenty of yoga into your off-season.

Athletes who are well practiced with yoga tend to be better at controlling stress.

He said: “I am always an advocate of a solid dose of yoga at this time of year. As athletes who operate in one plane and often in a crouched up (aero) position, our mobility tends to not be a strong suit and it gets progressively worse over the course of the season. Yoga offers obvious physical benefits in counteracting this progressive tightening, as well as other hidden benefits to the nervous system in facilitating our parasympathetic ner- vous system to promote relaxation and hormonal recovery. Athletes who are well practiced with yoga tend to also be better at controlling cognitive stress and ‘switching on’ this parasympathetic mode, a skill that can be put to very good use in these trying times.”

In a similar vein, being out in nature as much as possible also comes highly recommended by both Couzens and Chychota, with Couzens naming hiking as the perfect off-season activity for triathletes. “While much of our year is devoted to improving our oxygen delivery systems, it’s often not until we get to the last 10 miles of a race that we remember how important muscular endurance and durability is to this sport,” he said. “Similarly, many athletes reach the point where their cardiovascular fitness exceeds the ‘fitness’ of their ligaments and tendons late in the season leading to injury. Hiking is a great way to establish a strong durability base for the tough season of specific work to come.”

And swimming—the most restorative of triathlon’s three sports—is also a smart point of focus over the winter months, especially given how many weeks most of us were out of the water earlier this year. Triathlon swim coach Gerry Rodrigues advises turning your attention to technique, though, and not making workouts too structured or intense. With his athletes, he has them undergo many weeks of technical work designed to set them up for the volume that’s around the corner the following year. It’s the perfect time to focus on weak points in your stroke that you might not have the time and energy to do when going full gas in-season.

There’s no doubt that 2020 has been a very tricky year to navigate—in absolutely every sense—but with some intelligent planning now, there’s no reason why you can’t come through into 2021 feeling stronger, restored, and ready to make up for this lost season.

Photo: Getty Images

Alan Couzens’ guide to your 2020 off-season

Month 1

Give Your Nervous System A Little TLC
An hour a day of easy movement with a nice dose of yoga and recovery walking or spinning in nature.

Month 2

Re-Establish That Skill Base
Begin adding at least three technique-focused swims to your week (short duration, and with a focus on drill work) along with some run mobility/ drill sets and skill-focused bike work on the mountain bike and/or trainer.

Month 3

Build That Durability For the Big Year Ahead
Gradually begin to increase the volume of your training by adding some strength circuits and some longer-duration hiking into your week. If you live in a snowy part of the world, the strength gains via trudging through the snow are even better.