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Instead of working toward a goal or a key race during the off-season, use the winter months to focus on active recovery.
The off-season is an important time in any triathlete’s training schedule. In fact, some coaches believe it’s just as important, if not more important, than the rest of the year. Generally, it’s a time to de-stress from the racing season, when the typical triathlete’s week consists of 5 a.m. wake-up calls, interval workouts and nap-inducing training.
At the end of the season, most coaches recommend athletes take one to two weeks off completely, with perhaps a little walking here and there just to keep the body moving. But after taking these two weeks off, many coaches believe that one of the worst things a triathlete can do is to immediately get back into regular training.
Instead, most coaches recommend active recovery—training that helps rejuvenate your mind and facilitates physical recovery. In short, active recovery is easy, non-structured training that helps your body recover from the long triathlon season more quickly than if you did nothing. It’s restorative in nature—the increased blood flow you get with easy exercise speeds the healing of achy muscles and joints. Active recovery also helps rejuvenate your mind by removing the pressures of meeting certain times, watts, training hours per week and other expectations normally associated with structured triathlon training.
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“The No. 1 thing is [active recovery] needs to be non-structured,” says Paul Huddle, a top pro in the ’80s and ’90s and current coach for Multisports.com. In terms of deciding what activity to participate in, it should be “stuff that excites somebody or motivates them and is different,” Huddle says. It could be golf, bowling, fishing or whatever you can think of in terms of winter sports (curling, anyone?), Huddle says.
Three-time Ironman world champion Craig Alexander likes to practice his golf game once the season has ended. “I try to get out onto the golf course for a few rounds,” Alexander says. “I’m usually pretty rusty. I go OK for the first five or six holes and then I’m spraying them everywhere for the last few holes.”
Six-time Ironman world champion Mark Allen, who now coaches many elite age-groupers via Mark Allen Online, used to give himself two-and-a-half months of active recovery after the world championship every year. He spent a lot of his time surfing and would usually run four times a week for 30 or 40 minutes. “If you stop running, you lose the integrity of your joints and tendons,” Allen says. “They soften up, so the easy, short running is something I recommend.” Just make sure that the run isn’t the same as a typical in-season training session. It should be something you use to de-stress and just get outside, he says.
To assist with the mental rejuvenation, try other activities that force you to get out into wide-open spaces, such as hiking, cross-country and downhill skiing, or snow shoeing.
For someone who’s new to active recovery, hiking is probably the easiest way to get the off-season rolling, according to Bob Augello, one of Lance Armstrong’s early triathlon coaches. “Hiking is a great place to start because triathletes are notorious for overworking themselves,” he says. “Time is also a limiting factor with hiking. It’s pretty hard to do so much of it that it could become something negative—physically or mentally.” Augello recommends hiking the varied terrain of rolling, steep trails, as this helps increase your eccentric strength, or the strength used in lengthening the muscle as opposed to contracting it.
Whatever activity you choose, make sure your active recovery sessions are easy. “I am a big fan of an easy swim or bike for active recovery,” says Olympian and former Ironman 70.3 world champion Joanna Zeiger. “But, it must be easy! A lot of people go too hard on their easy workouts.”
Once you decide what you’re going to do for active recovery, you must also decide how long you’re going to give yourself a break. This decision depends on how long your season has been and how beat up you are.
“A lower volume, newer athlete really doesn’t need to take a whole lot of time off,” says coach and former Ultraman world champion Gordo Byrn. “So, if you were getting into fitness and you were working toward a sprint triathlon, you could probably keep your program largely intact [during the off-season].”
But for athletes who’ve endured long seasons, it’s OK if they participate in active recovery sessions until the new year begins. “Give yourself permission to really and truly enjoy the holidays,” says coach Huddle, who doesn’t mind if his athletes pack on a few pounds during the break. The added weight can help them come back with more drive than ever before, pushing them to new heights once the season has begun, he says.
In fact, studies have shown that even if you take 30 days completely off, you only lose about 5 percent of your VO2max, coach Augello explains. “It’s worth being greedy about taking time off and doing whatever you want,” he says.
But whatever you do, don’t get greedy with your late season fitness by trying to hold on to it until the new triathlon season begins. “The No. 1 mistake I made in my elite career was not resting after I had achieved a lifetime best in fitness,” coach Byrn says. “You see it a lot in elites. They reach a new level in a late season race and get greedy with performance. ‘I’m going to do just one more Ironman and try to hold the fitness through to an early season race,’ [they’ll say]. This nearly always ends in an extended, unplanned break from training.”
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Allen sounds a similar warning to his athletes. “The biggest mistake that people make in the off-season is feeling like they are going to get a head start on the next year [by training a lot],” he says. “There’s no way to do that. Part of [getting a head start] is to put energy back into your body, which means you stop taxing it.”
After Active Recovery
Once you’ve enjoyed all of the active recovery you feel your body needs, you may find yourself a few weeks or months off from the start of the triathlon season. If so, many coaches recommend that you continue to stay away from structured triathlon training. By doing this, you’re giving yourself a mental break, which means that come October, you’ll still feel mentally fresh as you prepare for your most important races.
Instead of jumping back into long freestyle sets with your local Masters program, try winter triathlon, cyclo-cross, adventure racing or even cross-country running events.
It’s not that you can’t swim, bike or run during the off-season—it’s just that you need to be careful. “If someone feels good and wants to go out and ride for three hours, it’s no problem,” coach Byrn says. “But you want to watch the highly structured workouts.”
Some triathletes choose to concentrate on the triathlon leg they love the most during the off-season, with swimmers ignoring everything but the pool and runners jumping into a few road races or cross-country events, coach Huddle says.
Coach Augello believes mountain biking is one of the best activities to participate in during the off-season. Not only does mountain biking help refresh your mind by getting you out of the city and on to expansive trails, but it also helps you build eccentric strength because you have to support your body weight on the pedals as you spring from one tough spot to the next, something you almost never do during road biking, Augello explains.
Augello and other coaches also recommend strength and flexibility training during the off-season. Activities such as Pilates, yoga, ballet, Crossfit and even just hitting the weights can be great for addressing any imbalances or weaknesses that might have impeded you during the season.
“Most athletes don’t like to try something they’re not good at, but that is where the biggest gains are made,” coach Huddle says.