The Hard Truth About Why You Struggle to Take an Off-Season

We know rest is good. So why are triathletes so bad at it? A hard look at the underlying psychological factors that keep us training - even when we shouldn't.

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After her last 70.3 of the year, Carrie Dettmer planned to take a much-needed off-season. But during a massage to kick off her period of relaxation, she found she couldn’t actually relax. “I’m embarrassed to admit that while I was supposed to be zoning out on the massage table, I picked up my phone and started looking at the messages on my training Slack group,” Dettmer said. It was only a few hours into her so-called “rest” when she found herself ready to pull the trigger on a mid-winter half-iron in Sarasota. “I found out that two people I know were going and suddenly, it seemed like I didn’t need as much rest as I’d planned. In fact, it seemed like too much.” A quick text to her coach to get his opinion set Dettmer straight, but she was shocked to realize how easy it was for her to renege on her off-season plans because of a few minutes of FOMO.

Like Dettmer, many of us come to realize that the hardest part of a yearly training schedule is the section where we’re not supposed to be training at all. Most of us start the off-season with the best intentions, only to end up increasing training volume, adding speed sessions, or feeling pressure to jump into races.

RELATED: Dear Coach: How Important is the Off-Season?

Rest is good. So why are we so bad at it?

Both exercise scientists and coaches agree that taking some time off from hard training and racing every year is necessary to refresh and rejuvenate both body and mind. So why can’t we do it? Is it possible that there are some underlying psychological factors that keep us training even when we shouldn’t?

“Fear, in my experience, is the underbelly. Triathletes wouldn’t necessarily describe themselves as fearful people, but that fear and insecurity makes it hard for them to feel comfortable taking unstructured time off and untethering themselves from Training Peaks or specific workouts,” said Riley Nickols, sport psychologist, USAT coach, and founder of Mind Body Endurance. He says that this fear expresses itself in many ways for an athlete during the off-season, but some of the most common are through fear of missing out (FOMO), body image and weight concerns, and a tendency to over-identify as a triathlete.

The FOMO is real

The combination of social media and public exercise trackers make it easy for us to feel the FOMO. When we notice others still hammering out the hard sessions, anxiety sets in and we start to question if we’re doing the right thing in trying to dial it back. Studies show that FOMO robs us of the ability to feel good about our accomplishments and clouds our judgement, creating both an unavoidable tendency to compare ourselves to others and a sense that we’re coming up short. The outcome is an athlete who is prone to make impulsive or unwise decisions about training that may manage short-term stress, but disregard the logical plans they may have made for the year.

Eating to train (and training to eat)

Have you ever trained a little extra to “work off” an indulgent meal? Have you ever skipped the second helping when you didn’t train as much? While it’s true that energy intake must be proportional to energy output, research shows that turning this into a transactional relationship can cause athletes to make training decisions based on weight and body image, particularly in the off-season.

“There are many factors that contribute to athletic performance, but many triathletes tend to disproportionately elevate the role of body weight and body composition. They truly feel that a certain weight or body composition will unlock performance in some way. Those feelings can intensify in the off-season as athletes are faced with a different training schedule and they feel forced to compensate,” Dr. Nickols said. He adds that attempting to manipulate weight by continuing to train when we shouldn’t or restricting food can very quickly slide into disordered eating or overtraining as athletes restrict their diets, keep piling on the miles, or both.

RELATED: What is Healthy Body Image, Anyway?

I tri, therefore I am

For many of us, participating in triathlons is the culmination of an enormous physical effort, months or years of sacrifice, and long-held dreams coming true. It makes sense that we are proud of our achievements and want to be known as triathletes. However, it does not make sense to think that identifying as a triathlete is the most important aspect of who we are or that we only deserve that title when we are actively training or racing.

“Athletes can find themselves in this rigid identity cycle that seems to reset every day. They begin to over-identify with the sport and only feel that they are a triathlete if they are actually training or racing,” Dr. Nickols said. Research shows that this psychological inflexibility with regard to their identity can lead to poor mental health and burnout. It could be that the amount of time, effort, and energy the average triathlete devotes to training can make it seem like it’s the single most important aspect of who they are, according to Dr. Nickols. “Having this unidimensional idea suggests that the sense of self is underdeveloped in that athlete and needs reinforcing,” he said.

How insecurity fuels the impulse to train

The hard truth is that insecurity is the thread that ties all of these concerns together. If we feel “less than” in terms of our performance, what we look like, or how we view ourselves, it’s likely that we’re going to make poor training decisions in service of those insecurities. The off-season isn’t going to set you back in your progress, irrevocably change your body, or disconnect you from the sport entirely. However, those irrational ideas can seem real and are worth working through.

Dr. Nickols said that it’s important to develop a more expansive sense of self that is not defined by any one thing. What’s the best way to do this? Start paying attention to the non-triathlon parts of your life that you may have been unintentionally neglecting, like family, friends, other interests, and volunteer or church groups. Prioritizing other facets of life will help athletes see that their value isn’t just tied to one thing, helping to develop a more layered sense of self. Dr. Nickols is clear that athletes shouldn’t think that the answer is to substitute our enthusiasm for triathlon with something else. “We are not trying to replace involvement in sport or replace the excitement, we’re just trying to support it by drawing in other parts of who you are.”

RELATED: Mental Health Resources for Triathletes

Real (self) talk for facing an off-season

Is it this? Or is it REALLY this?
I don’t want to miss out on that race that everyone is doing in January. I’m afraid I’ll be slower/not able to keep up in the spring if I take too much time off now.
I don’t really need that much time off. My body feels better when I keep training. I fear weight gain and body composition changes from not training as much. I need to train in the winter to justify holiday eating.
Off season makes me feel disconnected from the sport that I love. I think that being a triathlete is the most important thing about me. Without training, I don’t know who I will be or if I have value.

Becoming aware that it’s our insecurities that are preventing us from taking a full off-season is a great first step, but we may struggle to actually take the steps necessary to reverse course. If we find ourselves unable to take time off despite what science, common sense, and our coaches say, a mental health care practitioner can help. Therapists who are sport-informed can encourage us to push against our assumptions about what will happen if we take rest. “It’s not a quick process, but it needs to be intentional and deliberate since our view of ourselves is quite entrenched. We want athletes to engage in this different kind of challenge, thoughtfully pushing against their barriers in order to generate a feeling of peace, security, and a more complete sense of self.”

Jill Colangelo is a writer and researcher of mental health and ultra endurance sport. She has a BA and ALM in Psychology and is a former triathlete and ultramarathoner.