Enjoying your off-season? Read THIS first.

The alarm clocks shatters your deep sleep.

Through squinting eyes the room looks dark. Very dark. Surely it’s too early to get out of your cosy warm bed on a cold morning to train. Your arm – which has been outside the blankets – is freezing. You think “Screw it. I don’t have a race coming up soon. I don’t need to train today”. So you hit the snooze button, roll over and drift back to sleep.

Welcome to winter – also described as the “off-season”. It’s the time of year when it’s hard to get out of bed and it’s easy to find excuses to stay in it.

For trail runners, it’s our happy time of year – it’s race season! The calendar is packed with events to keep us happy and training throughout winter.

But for many triathletes, it’s traditionally a time of year when you dial back your training – cut, drop or skip sessions – and decide that you won’t be too rigid, serious or structured about your training.

But there’s one big mistake I’ve seen many people make during the “off-season” which often comes back to bite them – in the form of an injury – once the triathlon season rolls around again.

Planning a long course/70.3 race early in the season?
When’s your first key race in the season?
Plagued with early season injuries?

Then this is particularly important for you to consider….

I was at the Australian Institute of Sport last month and heard about a fascinating piece of research that explains why so many triathletes suffer an injury early in the new season (or sometimes when they ramp up their training even before the season starts!). It’s a big mistake that many triathletes make during their off-season which significantly increases your risk of getting injured once you get stuck into the training again. 

The research was about how long it takes you to return to the same training load after you take a break from your training.

Training load is simply a measure of how much stress training puts on your body; how much you train (the volume) and the intensity of that training.

Research is showing that if you spend 2 weeks doing a reduced training load (60% of your normal training load), then you should allow 24 days to return to your previous training load in order to minimise your risk of injury. That’s almost twice as long as the ‘break’ itself!

Try to ramp up the training any faster than this and your risk of injury is incredibly high!

Alarm bells went off in my head when I heard this because many triathletes adopt the completely opposite approach when they get back into training after the off-season.

Do you structure your off-season?

Let’s look at this in the context of a typical triathlon off-season…

Say your plans include the Nepean Triathlon in October and the Western Sydney or Port Macquarie 70.3 races in November (or any races around the same time).

Let’s assume you’ve reduced your training load – cut back the duration / distance of your long runs, the intensity of your wind trainer sessions and dropped your swimming to 1-2 times per week (after all, it’s cold out there!). And that you do this for about 6 weeks from the start of June to mid-July before you start to ramp up your training from mid-July onwards.

Based on this research, it’s going to take you nearly twice as long as your ‘break’ to get back to your normal training load. So for your 6 week ‘break’, you should build up your training slowly over 10 weeks (!) before your body will be able to handle the same training load as before your ‘break’ (which keeping your risk of injury low) – which, in this scenario, takes you to the start of October!

Of course, you could try to get back to your normal training faster but your risk of injured skyrockets!

And if you want to get fitter, stronger and faster than you were before your ‘break’, it’s going to take you even longer!

2 things to bear in mind ~

– Firstly, this research has been carried out looking at the performance of highly trained, experienced national level athletes who would have a huge capacity to absorb training after years of training. If it takes them 1.7x longer to get back to a normal training load, it’s safe to assume that it might take the average MOP or BOP athlete even longer!

– Secondly, even though I’ve used the word ‘break’, it isn’t really. We’re assuming you’re still doing 6 out of 10 sessions each week at the same load (volume and intensity) as before the ‘break’. If you’re doing less training than that during your off-season, it’s going to take you even longer!

How is that early season race looking now?

Unfortunately I see people adopting this approach all the time. People who go into hibernation for most of winter or who have been on a reduced training load since their last goal race in February or March. And then they get to August and think “$hit, I’ve got a race in 3 months time. I’d better get back into the training”. These are generally the first people to be nursing an early season injury – a strained calf, a grumpy achilles or a painful ITB – a few weeks later.

Let’s plan your off-season

Everyone is different and you need to train your way – in a way that suits you year round – so let’s work out your off-season plan now.

Answer these questions ~

– How many weeks of ‘downtime’ are you planning? (Or how many have you already enjoyed?)

– How many weeks will it take you to return to your normal training load? Ttake your answer to #1 and multiply by 1.7.

– How many weeks is it from now until your goal race?

How does the timing line up? Does the answer surprise you?

If you’ve set a goal race for early in the season and you don’t want to struggle with injury, start thinking and planning your downtime now.

Don’t panic; downtime is important

I’m not suggesting that you don’t take any “downtime” over the cooler months. It’s good for your mind and body.

If you need a change of direction to keep things interesting, take up trail running or mountain biking. Focus on your cycling or your hip stability and core (especially if you were injury-plagued last season).  Just don’t fall into the trap of taking too much time off during the off-season and then cramming your training in during August and September. You don’t want to be nursing a strained calf or some other niggle even before the season has started!

My challenge to you is to be strategic about your approach to the off-season; it will pay long term dividends for you later in the year.

So what’s your off-season plan? Leave a comment below and share it.