You’ve raced in a triathlon, or several. You have completed your inaugural triathlon season, or perhaps your twentieth. What now?
A triathlete’s offseason is a time to rest, refresh, plan and prepare for the next season. It is a great time to think about fitness, rather than racing.
We consider the offseason to be the time in between your last race of the year and the beginning of your next year’s training plan. While many triathletes are motivated, driven people who have a hard time taking time off, it is important that any triathlete affords themselves a few months of a change of pace before hitting it hard again. Whether your last race was in July or September, using your offseason wisely can not only get your body in the right long-term condition, but can actually serve as a launchpad for next year’s training and racing. Here are a few tips on how to use your offseason.
Step 1: Rest.
Easier said than done for most triathletes, but getting some real rest is important for your muscles and joints. For many endurance events such as marathon and longer triathlons, the recommended time away from working out is as long as two weeks, followed by relatively light workouts after that. The concept of periodization is an important one — it is strategically planning your training calendar so you have various phases of training throughout the months. Part of periodization is getting some rest or lighter work at a good time, and then going into a multi-week base-building period.
Rest, as a related note, is important at all times, not just in the offseason. Studies have proven that an athlete who pushes themselves hard and then rests will gain in performance ability; but those who push themselves hard with little rest may actually begin to see a decline.
If you ended the season with worrisome injuries, more rest is a good idea. This allows many minor injuries to heal themselves, and your muscles and joints to gain the full benefit of your nutrition and stretching. If you have more than minor injuries that developed during your season, this may also be a great time to visit a therapist or masseuse multiple times to accelerate the recovery process. Yoga and dedicated stretching time can also help restore alignment and flexibility.
Step 2: Mix It Up.
Cross training in the fall can be a great way to take advantage of the condition you left yourself in after a season of challenging and
relatively monotone workouts. Even getting varied runs in throughout the season are, after all, runs, which can get relatively routine and give your body the same type of pounding. For the one or two months after the initial rest, we know several top triathletes who begin doing slower, social group road rides, mountain biking, getting a fat bike, hiking, or even playing soccer or other sports in the fall, just in time to enjoy the fall colors in many parts of the country. An occasional swim or run doesn’t hurt, but the key point here is to break the routine of your tri-season workouts. This is also an excellent time to begin to incorporate weight training, especially in colder parts of the country where you may need a reason to get indoors during some days.
Ditch the triathlon watch and worrying about your times, have some fun, don’t worry about your speed or distance, and focus on getting your sweat on and being outdoors. This is the time of year to just enjoy that fact that you are a reasonably-fit person, and can enjoy being active in many different ways.
Step 3: Set Goals.
Taking stock of where you are in your triathlon progression and setting goals for the upcoming season is the next step to undertake in your offseason. Many triathletes we hear from begin with an internal and external approach.
Internally: Inventory your past season’s performance, how pleased you are with various legs of the races you raced, and your injury status. You may realize that you want to dramatically improve your swim times, or lose 10 lbs to be faster on the bike, or that you had a nagging IT band injury that you need to address prior to hard training again. Making improvements in your desired growth areas can then become part of your goals for the next season. Don’t forget to set a goal for how to take action on each objective. To become a better swimmer, perhaps you need to sign up for a local masters swim group. To get rid of the IT band issue, perhaps you need to set a series of appointments with a rehab therapist.
Externally: This is the fun part. Look ahead at a race calendar from a site such as a local tri club website. Compare the race dates with your desired training sequence, your personal schedule, and any ‘A’ races you want to take part in. Space races apart in a cadence that works for your body — some like to have a cluster of four shorter, local races during eight weeks of peaking and then be done, while others might prefer one or two ‘A’ races over the entire summer, with plenty of build-up before hand. Other brave souls might circle an Ironman on their calendar and then train for that with singular focus. Be sure to factor in likely vacations or work commitments — it is no fun being in peak training mode right when you are trying to tour Europe with your family. Whatever works for you, be intentional about your races so your training plan has definition and a point to it.
Step 4: Base.
After several weeks of resting your body, breaking your ruts, and enjoying cross training, it is time to begin your basing again. For those who follow the Periodization Training approach, base training is really the first step in any athlete’s training plan, but we consider it to be the “shoulder season” between the true offseason and the focused training plan.
Base training is characterized by low-intensity but consistent training that allows your body to establish both a cardiovascular and muscular base prior to adding intensity and distance. While base training includes elements of running, biking and swimming, at lower intensities, it also incorporates strong elements of strength training and stretching as well. Base training is important for the body but also for the mind — getting into a routine of structured workouts will help give you the mental toughness to carry through on your training plan later in the season. For us, with our first triathlons in early June, base training usually begins in December and takes us through mid-February, when we begin to focus on a progressive training plan.
When we are basing, we like to do multiple-sport workouts in each session. Maybe we will do yoga followed by a run, or a bike ride followed by some brief HIIT. Make sure you are working the core, as it often does not get worked as much during the more intense bike-run-swim training season. If we are using a triathlon watch at all during this phase, or watching our power meter output, the focus is much more on consistency and steadiness, not any type of attempt to set power or speed records.
Step 5: Find a Plan.
Once your body (or the calendar) tells you that the base period is over, it is time to find a training plan again. Look for one that caters to your specific goals,
fitness level, and distances. Maybe you want one that closely resembles the plan you did last year, only trying to up your game by 10%. Or maybe you decided this is the year to try something completely different — a new distance, or graduate from the “beginner” plan to the “intermediate” one.
The good news is that there are ample free and paid training plans out there today. Find one that you think you can stick with, and follow it.
If you need to crank up your intensity while there is snow on the ground in your area, consider investing in a smart bike trainer and app setup. This can be a way to get high-quality workouts on your own bike, just riding in the comfort and safety of your home. It’s not cheap, but a smart training can give you a great and precise workouts, early in the season. Apps like Zwift, Sufferfest, and others will enable you to have some level of purpose to your indoor rides.
Step 6: Check Your Gear
Remember the minor squeak that you heard on your bike all season, or the goggles that were fogging up on each swim? Offseason can be a great time to do both maintenance and a gear inventory. Doing gear maintenance when you don’t have an urgent ride or race looming can be downright fun and even a little relaxing.
Offseason might also be a good time to get some discounted triathlon or cycling gear as manufacturers are closing out their old models. Old models usually work pretty darn well, so there is no shame in stocking up on them. When the season is closer, there is a good chance that the gear will be more expensive. The other thing to do is to make sure everything you own is in good working order. Maybe you tore your wetsuit during you last race? Fix it. Perhaps your bike helmet could use some adjustment. And we think that offseason is an excellent time to change out your bike tires so that you can start the season riding good, reliable rubber instead of a tire that is about to puncture.
In conclusion, use your offseason to recover from your prior racing season but also to prepare for the following one. Offseason doesn’t mean to lose all structure and discipline — quite the opposite. It is about consciously breaking free from the ruts and routines you have and replacing them with new ones that will help you roll into the next season with renewed health, goals, and conditioning.