The New Off-Season Rules
Jené Shaw—Welcome to the off-season! Pat yourself on the back for another solid year and go into the winter with a real plan—but don’t fall into the trap of attempting to carry PR fitness through to spring.
“There’s a fear that you’re never going to get it back,” says Gordo Byrn, co-author of Going Long and head coach of Endurance Corner (Endurancecorner.com). “But you’ve been there before. If you had a breakthrough year, you have to treat yourself to some recovery.” That doesn’t mean you should throw your bike in the garage and spend three months eating nachos on the couch. Now’s the time to shift your focus to overall health and move away from structured training.
No off-season plan is “one size fits all.” What you do during the winter should reflect your goals in the spring. If you’re a mid-pack athlete who’s in the sport to have fun, you can probably have a relatively laid-back winter. But if you’re a competitive age-grouper vying for a Kona spot, you probably can’t afford to stop running until March. “If you have specific goals, you need to measure them out,” says Coach Patrick McCrann of Endurance Nation (Endurancenation.us). “If you need to bike a 5:30, that’s a number you can start working toward. Is it more important to have fun now or are your goals more important?”
The key to a successful off-season is finding the perfect balance between an overly ambitious training plan and, well, getting really lazy. The following rules can help you negotiate that fine balance.
Rule No. 1: Don’t run a marathon in January
You know that big running race you put on your calendar to stay motivated? Take it off. “The off-season can be a great time for a weighted emphasis on one of the three disciplines, but it should always be approached with a focus on becoming a better triathlete,” says coach and Triathlete contributor Matt Dixon of Purple Patch Fitness (Purplepatchfitness.com). “While many people choose to run an off-season marathon to ‘become a better runner,’ this seldom translates to better running performance in a triathlon.” Doing a long-distance event during your prime recovery time is a sure-fire way to wind up injured or burned out. Instead, see Rule No. 2.
Rule No. 2: Focus on short, intense workouts
Instead of long aerobic workouts, McCrann advocates a different approach: Do short runs and bikes that will boost your lactate threshold and power output.
“You can only add so much volume every week to see progress, so we decided to ask people to do something different than what they would normally do in the off-season,” McCrann says. “Volume is easy to add back in and your body processes it very quickly. It’s the high-end fitness that’s not easy, which is why we do it in the winter when you have no other volume considerations. You don’t need to do a four-hour ride, so instead you can do some hard work and recover.”
McCrann calls his off-season plan the OutSeason because it’s one of the most important parts of the year for his busy athletes. The plan is 20 weeks, training only six to eight hours a week (four bikes, three runs, minimal swimming), with Mondays and Fridays off. McCrann says this low volume allows athletes to focus on “being excellent at life”—as in work, family and friends—all while boosting performance in a way that’s difficult during the season. The plan includes lots of VO₂max intervals and Zone 4/Zone 5 efforts aimed at gaining speed.
“The amount of time you’d have to spend riding at 17mph to get physical adaptations would require quitting your job,” McCrann says. “It’s just like lifting weights: If your max is 100 and you want to get to 150, you’re not going to bench 80 all winter.”
Plus, boosting your threshold and power can be a huge confidence builder going into next year, something McCrann refers to as “building a mental six-pack.”
Of the 3000 athletes Endurance Nation has taken through the off-season, they claim an average 10K improvement of 2.5 minutes, half-marathon improvement of 4:46 and 50 percent gain on functional threshold.
Rule No. 3: Gain weight (on purpose)
You may be thinking, “well that’ll happen anyway,” but intentionally putting on 8–12 percent of your body weight can be a huge performance enhancer, says nutrition and performance coach Krista Austin, Ph.D., who has worked with Olympic-level athletes such as Laura Bennett and Meb Keflezighi. If gaining then losing weight sounds easier said than done, don’t worry—using a weighted vest can have the same hypergravity training benefits.
“Triathletes like to sit around at a certain weight and body composition all the time,” Austin says. “But research shows you can in fact put extra weight on and get training adaptations. And you can get that adaptation while not working so hard on your food, which I think psychologically gives people a break.”
Say your racing weight is 140 pounds. During the winter you get up to 150. By training at a heavier weight you’re teaching your body to recruit more motor neurons and muscle fibers, kind of like recruiting more people to work on the assembly line. When your body gets back to 140, the workers have less work to do, so they last longer before they tire. Muscles work the same way. When you lose the 10 pounds, you don’t need as much oxygen and can get more miles to the gallon.
Austin uses this hypergravity method for athletes who can’t train at altitude or with 800m runners or sprint triathletes who don’t benefit from altitude training but need some form of adaptation. She’ll have them add in more calories at a time not normally used for eating, such as an ice cream sundae before bed (seriously). They’ll sit heavier for a couple of months while training at a lower volume and intensity, then she’ll simply have them cut out the excess ice cream when the season rolls around.
Many of Austin’s athletes start to feel benefits from carrying around a few extra pounds. Some will see higher power outputs or will start sleeping better (the “best performance enhancer,” according to Austin), and ultimately wind up competing at a higher weight.
Rule No. 4: Swim. A lot.
When kids learn to swim, what do they do? They swim a lot. Byrn suggests athletes take one week (two if you’re more advanced) and swim every day—you might be surprised at how much you improve with frequency.
“Often the athlete’s weakness, swimming is also the most technical sport and requires the greatest training frequency and volume to make real strides,” Dixon says. “The effort and time needed to make real gains in the swim is tough to do during race season.”
The best time to crank up the swim is in the months when it’s not great for cycling, according to Byrn. “It gives you something else to do, something to be successful at, and you’re not using a lot of mojo to get out or to get on your trainer.”
Although McCrann suggests cutting down on swimming in the winter for time’s sake, he does suggest this for those who have technique limitations (and/or who average 2:00+ per 100 yards): Get a one-on-one lesson with a coach, work on what you learned for four to six weeks, then do another session.
Rule No. 5: Hit the gym–but not for the elliptical
If your goal is just to burn calories, you’re fine to jump on the elliptical machine for some cardio. Just don’t expect it to make you a better runner. The best triathlon training will always be swimming, biking or running. But the most beneficial non-SBR workout? Try more strength training.
Numerous studies have shown that weight lifting can help improve running and cycling economy. A recent study out of Norway showed that eight weeks of strength training improved work efficiency in cyclists by 1.4 percent. And a 2009 study in Brazil found that heavy weight training improved efficiency better than explosive strength training.
“You’ve spent the season breaking down your house; now you have to repair it,” says Bryan Hill, physical therapist and owner of Rehab United in San Diego. “In the winter you can increase lifting volume and intensity and not worry how it’s affecting your training, whereas during the season if you smash yourself at the gym, you’ll pay for it on your next ride.”