Now is often the time of year when athletes begin planning their training time in preparation for next season’s goals. Motivation levels may be running low, with many athletes experiencing mental fatigue after a long season of focused training. Or motivation may be high, as athletes have seen a glimpse of what can be possible next season. However, shortened daylight hours, cold weather, indoor training, holiday family commitments and simply the need to regenerate mental strength demand a reduction in available training hours. These elements require an increased efficiency in our training.
By focusing on your limiters during the off-season you can accrue your highest rate of return for training time invested and set yourself up well for next season. The following are my tips and guidance for setting up your off-season:
Primary Goal: Regenerate Your Attitude and Conserve Mental Strength for the Next Season, ie HAVE FUN!!
In September and October my phone starts ringing with people seaking coaching for races nine to thirteen months away. The first thing I do is to find out where the athlete’s head is. In December, will he put his feet on the floor at 5:30am and say “I am training for an Ironman® in September of next year”?
Folks, that is a very dangerous place to be. If that’s where your head is, you’re at high risk of being in a bell tower by June. All of the tips below are focused on tricking you into thinking you are NOT training for the race you’re actually training for. My method is very simple, fun, and it works:
Insert Cool Events (CE’s) on the calendar.
CE’s should come in two flavors: what you love to do and what you need to do.
Train for these cool events.
Move from CE to CE throughout the year.
Wake up 8-12 weeks out from your goal race, realize that you’re in pretty damn good shape, physically and mentally.
Apply that fitness and fresh head to focused training for your goal race for a relatively short period of time.
Schedule a Professional Bike Fit
Find a good local bike shop with triathlon-specific bike fit knowledge and schedule a fit with them for the month of March. Use this appointment as a goal for to increase your flexibility during the limiter season. Increased flexibility can increase range of motion and comfort on the run. But it can also allow you to assume a more aerodynamic AND comfortable position on the bike, which translates into free speed. Consider pre-paying for the appointment, just as you would a race.
Create Good Eating Habits
In my opinion, the quickest path to improved fitness is through improved body composition. Why focus so much time and energy on building a big engine if you’re going to put that engine in a truck instead of a sports car? Improving body composition is largely a function of creating good eating habits and applying these habits consistently over months and months. This gradual process allows you to lose body fat in a healthy manner, rather than trying to “make race weight” a few weeks before your goal race. Create good eating habits in October and November, and use them to limit the holiday damage, then carry them forward into next season. Please read my training article, Paleo Diet, Modified for Endurance Athletes
Schedule Some Personal Time with Your Local Swim Coach
Improving your swim technique probably offers the greatest return on your training dollar. You may also be a little burned out from a season of Masters swimming and long yardage. Rather than continue to play wall tag with your Masters group, hire that coach to spend a little quality, one-on-one time with you. Have him critique your form and ask him to write up a schedule of technique focused workouts for you do between personal swim coaching appointments. Then perform these workouts as recovery sessions between your more demanding bike and run sessions. Strong swimmers may consider not swimming at all, or only for recovery purposes.
Seek to Add a Social Component to Your Training
In my opinion, the two most valuable training events you can create are a three hour long bike and an hour and a half long run that you execute every week, from now until the end of time. Adding a social component encourages you to make that regular Saturday ride with your buds simply “what you do,” month after month, year after year. I look forward to my weekend workouts the way I used to anticipate $3.25 pitchers at Moe’s and Joe’s in Atlanta. So join a local tri club and meet new people. Train with old friends who’ve been on a different training schedule all year. Check out that running club that meets downtown on Wednesday nights for a run and pizza.
Train Like a Half Marathon Runner
That hour and a half long run is perfect for every flavor of triathlete. If you race Olympics, it will help you build a very solid base for next season. If you’re a Halfer, it’s just at or below your peak long run during the season, enabling you to solidify the base you already have. It’s also short enough to accommodate some half marathon flavor intensity. If you’re an Ironman® athlete, it’s long enough to help you keep your base while short enough to accommodate the tempo running your Ironman® training couldn’t support during the season
For all of these athletes, half marathons are the perfect goal races to help you guide your training. The distance is just long that everyone, Olympic to Ironman, will take it seriously. You’re more likely to get out the door for that hour and a half run with you have a half marathon coming up in two weeks. And it’s short enough that you can race one or two per month and use them as excellent training events. Schedule 5 and 10k’s as training events for your goal half marathons and pretty soon you have a full race calendar of fun training events (and affordable, for a change).
Train Like a 40k Time Trialist
I see a lot of athletes, especially northern, trainer-bound folks, get themselves into trouble during the winter by either trying to hold on to the endurance they built during the season or by trying to get a head start on building the endurance required for their races next season. Go back to my advice to make it fun. Remember that warm weather is a loonnng way away. Recall my advice to conserve your mental energy for later in the season. Accept all this and realize that you just can’t hold on to or build that long bike endurance without placing your mental strength at risk.
However, what you can do is build the cycling component that makes you a stronger, faster cyclist at all intensities: power at lactate threshold. Take a look at the roadies who blow by you on your Saturday ride. Those dudes in the front can crank it, hard, for several minutes at a time yet their longest “long” rides are often 50-60 miles, pedestrian by Ironman® standards. How do they do it? They ride FAST, often.
Its very simple, if you want to ride fast you have to ride fast. Don’t worry about fast + far for now. Plenty of time for building far when it warms up in the spring.
Note: immediately after writing this guidance I had a conversation with a new client, where I repeated this emphasis on high intensity cycling during the off-season. She noted this was counter to the more common guidance to work on “base” during the winter.
Raising your watts at lactate threshold raises your watts at all intensities. “A rising tide floats all boats.”
Base building training and lactate threshold training are not mutually exclusive. They exist along the same range of ways to invest your training time, with LT on the short end and base training on the longer, higher volume end. In a perfect world we would be able to put in large aerobic volume during the off-season. However, REALITY is winter, indoors, family, holidays, and an upcoming 6-9 month training season. Reality dictates that you adopt a training method that is extremely time efficient and does make you faster. Interval training at or near lactate threshold fulfills these requirements.
If you live in a good climate and have the personal schedule to support it, go ahead and keep up that long ride schedule. But I encourage you to do the fun stuff that you were too torqued about during the season to do.
My “Get Faster on the Bike Keys:”
If you want to ride fast, you have to ride fast.
It’s ok to ride too hard. It’s ok to ride too far. It’s ok to ride to hard and too far, as long as you recover afterwards.
You can’t start riding hard and fast too soon. Don’t worry, your body will catch up and you have plenty of time later in the year to do more volume. For now, ride like a kid and enjoy going fast!
Your Limiter Season Plan
Let’s gather all of these ideas into “Big Picture” and weekly guidance:
Go to Active.com and do searches for 5, 10k’s and half marathons in Oct-March in your area. Register for an A priority half marathon, preferably in March. Register for B priority halfs in January and February. Register for C priority 5 and 10k’s to use as training races for these B and A events.
Look into your local cycling resources. Is there a local time trial series that runs through the early winter? A regular group ride that meets on Saturdays or Sundays? Can you yourself offer to lead or create cool rides for your local tri club? Register for a February or March road race or organized century/half century and use this event as motivation through the winter.
Explore your local swimming resources? Is there a well-respected local coach you can meet with? Is this coach offering a group swim clinic?
Swim: 2 sessions per week, as drills/recovery. Stronger swimmers may consider not swimming at all, in the interest of saving time.
Bike: 3 rides per week, as 2 x Functional Threshold (FT, focused on increasing watts at lactate threshold) + 1 x 2.5-3.5hr weekend ride. I prefer group rides and to mix up the terrain, keeping it fresh and fun. My rule is “the shorter I go, the harder I ride.” Very simple.
Run: 3-5 sessions per week as 1 x Long (1:30-2hrs, hilly), 1 x Hilly Tempo, 1-2 x Strides session or a brick . The key is to schedule a run week you can execute consistently, week after week. Let volume be a result of relatively high frequency.
Stretching and Core work: 3-4 x core/wk, stretch nightly. Just make it a habit, dropping to the floor in the evening.
Adopt this Cool Event (CE) perspective on your off-season training and racing.
Pick CE’s that you love to do and need to do.
Schedule fun, time efficient training that leads you from CE to CE.
Address longer term goals through the creation of good habits and by adding a strong social component to your training.