The Fourth Season: The Off Season
For years I focused my racing around three different parts, none of which were the off season.
Those were building my base in the winter. Then came adding in the faster bits when racing got close in the late spring. And then finally the last part was the big taper down to my main goal race of the year, which was almost always the IRONMAN in Hawaii. Even though every athlete approached those three parts with their own signature, the guts of the training were very similar.
Eventually I realized that there was a fourth season.
It was the off season. It was the time of the year when racing was done and the next season was too far away to start focusing on it. I also saw that what athletes did during this unique period was more varied than any other part of the year.
Here’s what I learned…
Some of my competitors took complete time away from training, gained a lot of weight, lost a lot of strength and basically became couch potatoes for a few weeks or months. Others would take about two weeks easy, then they were back at it putting daily swim, bike and run workouts that looks strikingly just like their normal summer schedules.
There was no resource I could go to and find the answer of how important the off season was or what was the best approach to it. I knew there had to be some blend of rest, recovery and periodic training that could be done in the off season to set someone up for great racing the following year.
Fit in January, Flat by July
So I started my own unofficial research. I watched what happened with the athletes who took a very, very short period without structure. This meant they mostly let the dust collect on their training gear for about two weeks and then starting to sneak back out and onto a regular training regime.
This group was always looking invincible by the first of the year. They would have already logged a good number of solid workouts over the previous eight weeks. And for those of us who didn’t really get back into the rhythm until after the New Year it was brutal the first few weeks training with these folks.
But then the tables would shift. By sometime in late February the scales would balance out. The early trainers who had hoped to get a step up on the new season by starting back in what should have been the off season were already beginning to hit plateaus in their fitness. The rest of us just kept getting fitter. We had the reserve built up from really resting and recovering.
By July the early trainers hit their peak and were already starting to go down the road of getting flat and over trained. Then by October at the IRONMAN World Championships they were never a real threat.
Fat in January, Fat in July
I hate to even use the word “Fat” but I am going to anyway. It’s to represent taking the off season to the opposite extreme of the early trainers. These were the people who did almost nothing for one to two months after their last fall race. They put on a significant amount of body fat. They lost a good amount of lean muscle. The couch potatoes also tended to lose significant flexibility as well as the integrity of their joints, tendons and ligaments. These athletes basically did almost nothing for their entire off season other than be fairly decadent and avoid anything that looked like training.
Indeed they were fresh in the sense that when they started back into training there energy reserves had been given time to build back up. But their training took months to gain momentum.
Most were still behind the curve even by July. Part of it had to do with having a longer haul to get back to peak fitness from where they had slid. Part was because they often ended up getting small injuries that made consistent training tough to put in. Many in this crew did end up having superb performances in the fall. But everything before that was subpar and they knew it.
I still didn’t my answer. The early trainers excelled in the first part of the year. The couch potatoes could take on the world at the end. But there had to be a way to get the best of both. Here’s what I came up with.
Rest Not Rust
Swim, bike and run. Surf, ski and hike. Whatever you do in the off season, “move” but don’t “train”. Getting outside is good for the mind and it keeps the body fresh as long as it’s done with the focus of feeling good rather than gaining fitness. It should be play not punishment.
It can still be on a schedule simply because life tends to be like that anyway. But whatever level it is at should be significantly less than what you would do in the season especially if your fitness was for IRONMAN. Someone who focused on sprint or Olympic distance racing won’t need to cut back as much on a percentage basis from the peak of their volumes.
Doing sports that are cousins of swim, bike and run are great for helping recover as well. Pull out the mountain bike instead of road bike. Go surf instead of swim. Cross country ski instead of biking or running. It’s all good. Just swap your off season sports for the in season counterparts.
With each week that went by in my off season as I “moved” rather than “trained” I could feel myself getting fresher and more rested. If I started to get tired I just cut thing back even further.
Each year was different as far as how much I was just right in the off season. Digging deep a number of times in training and racing could double the amount of easy time I needed from year to year. Also the cumulative fatigue of racing hard years back to back also lengthened the amount of time I needed to get fresh both physically and mentally. About half of my off seasons actually spilled over into the next year. Even though I tried to get back into more normal training after the New Year, sometimes because of still being tired I couldn’t really get everything going again until mid to late February.
An Off Season Big Hairy Adventure
While the call is to dial things back, it’s okay to do a big hairy adventure that is very short lived. What I mean by this is doing something that overextends you physically, but that is a one-off type of thing. That might be an adventure in nature that is demanding but that is one or two days at most. It could be a crazy workout that you and your friends want to do just for the record books that you do once in the off season.
For me my big hairy adventure happened several times at the IRONMAN 70.3 in Pucon, Chile in January. The day after the race we would hike to the top of the Villarica Volcano. It was a glacier covered trek that took at least 8-hours to complete round trip. It was all up, then all down. There was no flat. So it was like an eight-hour Stairmaster session. It was brutal. My legs were completely sore from doing it. But it was an adventure that I loved. And in the end it strengthened me in ways that no amount of swimming, cycling and running could.
Run, Run, Run
In the pursuit of getting rested and fresh again, it’s okay to drop the consistency of your swim and bike workouts way down. Even one to two short ones a week in each of those two sports is plenty. But it is good to keep more consistency going with your running.
The reason is that as we decondition (one of the main goals of the off season), our joints, tendons and ligaments also decondition. They get softer and have less overall strength. The downside of that happening is that when we start back with training the next season, our cardiovascular system will get fit quicker than the joints, tendons and ligaments. That puts someone at risk of injury if they push based on their cardiovascular fitness and don’t wait for these other elements to catch up.
But that only happens at a significant level if there is no stimulation of them to stay strong in the off season. Doing easy short runs consistently will help keep it all intact. In my off season I surfed several days each week (almost no pool swimming). I biked about twice a week for 1-2 hours at most. But I would run usually four to five days each week. They were short runs (25-40 minutes at most).
They were easy runs (never anything close to speedwork). But they were consistent. I did this starting after about three years of racing. Each of those earlier years I got niggling injuries in the first months of the season back training. But once I incorporates running consistently in the off season, that never happened again!
Fun Not Fast
Everything you do in the off season for exercise should feel fun. If it feels like training it’s too much or too fast or both. If you are dreading workout you have planned, cut it down or cut it out completely. You can push through those periods later in the season when it counts. If you absolutely love to swim, bike and run then keep those as your staples. Varying the workout sports only if you love doing the alternates just as much.
Cut out any kind of regular fast speedwork. Yes, it may feel fun to do, but have it be a mini big hairy adventure. A one-off crazy fast session with friends in one thing. Keeping high paced tempo workouts going every week is a roadblock to fully recharging your system.
My off season started the day after IRONMAN each October. It would last until right about the first of the year. In those months the amount I trained was cut down to about a quarter of the total time I would do in the season each week. And I never did a session that felt like I was going out to train.
I would go out and do exercise simply because it felt great to be outside and moving. Sometimes I’d skip a planned session because it was raining and I was dreading getting wet. Other times I’d go out specifically because it was raining and it felt like an adventure to be out in it.
Yes, I did suffer in the first month or so of getting back into training when I went out with the early trainers who had only rested about two weeks.
But after about a month I’d be back in the rhythm again. By June and July I was really on a roll and still ahead of the couch potatoes who I knew would be coming into form by October. And I was finally a few steps up on the guys who had started too early and were showing signs of fatigue from not having enough downtime to really rest and recover.
October was always the real test of the off season. If I did it correctly I’d already raced well through the season so there was less pressure on the final IRONMAN to make or break my season. But I was also able to put in the real hard block of training to get ready for Kona in the last summer. If my off season was right, I would still be building my form and was fresh enough to put in those very long key IRONMAN weeks.
And then of course when it call came together in Hawaii with a race that went beyond my expectations, I knew I’d done it right on the previous year’s fourth season. I also knew I’d just earned another great fourth season the day after the race! Yes, the fourth season is indeed an art form that I share with all my clients at MarkAllenCoaching.com