Some approach it with disdain while others look forward to it thoroughly. I find a lot of how athletes approach the off-season is dependent on a few factors. First, how well did you race? If you raced well, then the off-season is viewed as a reward for a job well done. If you raced below expectations, then the off-season is a purgatory that leaves you between seasons and you can’t wait to get the hell out of it. Second, how long was your race season? Racing takes a lot of mental and emotional energy, way more than training, so if you raced during most of the calendar or raced often (or both), you’re probably mentally and emotionally crispy on top of any physical staleness you may surely feel. Third, how brutal was your last off-season? Were you socked in with terrible weather and, thus, had to train indoors more than usual, or did you try some new things in training in an attempt to up your game, and those things left you a bit ragged some the Spring. Regardless, at some point each of us turns our attention away from what has been and starts to focus on what will be.
“Off-season” is the accepted terminology, yet it’s not my favorite description of the time spent between racing seasons. “Off-season” intones that it’s time to take it easy. In some cases, this is true. In others, it’s time to focus on foundational hard work that tends to fall by the wayside once the racing season is upon us. To me, the off-season is that short period of time after an athlete’s final race when he/she pulls the ripcord and takes a few weeks of down time – time completely away from the primary sport. No training allowed. Sleep more, be lazy, complete some overdue projects around the house. Any physical activity is deemed fun rather than a workout, because this is the time to recharge the physical, mental and emotional batteries. This is a critical point in time that should last no fewer than 2 weeks and could last as many as 4-6. Be honest with yourself in terms of where your head is at and trust your gut, not your guilt. Your body will let you know when it’s champing at the bit and ready to go at it again. Honor this. Because the whole point is to get away from daily structure and rules and limitations. Be freer!
This time away from training is also a great opportunity to review your previous year’s training plan – What worked well? What kinda worked? What didn’t work at all? What have you learned over the past months that you want to incorporate into your upcoming year’s training and how will you do it? What are your high-level goals for next year and how will those impact your training? As an innovator, this is arguably my favorite time of the year because I get to wipe the slate clean and start building my master plan from scratch.
So, what happens once you’re done with you off-season down time and ready to get back at it? I find “preparation” to be a better catch-all term for that time between racing seasons, because once we start training again, it’s all geared toward preparing for the following racing season, right? You’re no longer taking time off; you may or may not race (for example, a snowshoe race in the mountains as a fun, low-stress diversion from a long ride or run in cold weather); and you’re most definitely working hard (right???). You are absolutely preparing your mind, body and soul for the rigors of the next racing season and also laying the foundation for achieving your goals for the upcoming season.
As I state above, you want to be champing at the bit to start your training again. Don’t force it. If you’re forcing it, your mind is telling you that your body’s not ready yet. Better to extend the down time an extra couple weeks and allow yourself to be in the right frame of mind. Once you start working out again, spend the first 2-4 weeks gradually ramping things up again. Increase workout frequency first, then worry about duration and lastly worry about intensity. This first prep period provides you a perfect opportunity to get back to strength training, too. Especially as we get older and into our Masters years, strength training takes on a more important role in our training regimen.
Lastly, the more time we have between the end of one racing season and the beginning of the next, the more careful we need to be. There’s a difference between being strong in January and being race ready. We want to avoid being race ready during the period of the year with the least amount of daylight. Use the extra prep time to really work on your aerobic engine. Becoming more efficient at L2 (or Zone 2) will serve you well and is foundational to going faster for longer in your races. This doesn’t mean you avoid interval work, but the percentage of your volume spent doing intervals should be lower than when you are trying to sharpen up for actual racing.
Before you know it, we will be into next year and our first races will be right around the corner. Ideal preparation begins with honoring all of your hard work from this year before you start cracking the whip again as you prepare for next year.