For many athletes, fall is the harbinger of the off season. The end of racing season is approached by athletes in many different ways. With so many races spread throughout the entire year, it’s easy to become a 12-month racer and delay the “end of the season” to the next year. Everybody’s physiology is different, but everyone needs some type of down-time to recharge before it’s time to ramp up the training for the next season.
All athletes need an off-season
For athletes, a specific down-time is important physiologically and psychologically. Physiologically, “repeated physical stress of intensive training and competitive races among endurance athletes is associated with elevated cortisol exposure over prolonged periods of time.” Why is this a problem? Cortisol is a stress hormone produced by the adrenal gland and is involved in the regulation of bodily functions, such as metabolism. High levels of cortisol, however, are associated with diminished cognitive function, immune deficiency, higher risk for metabolic disease, and increased abdominal fat.
Professional triathlete Lauren Goss counts among her many victories IRONMAN 70.3 Ecuador and IRONMAN 70.3 St. Croix. Lauren approaches the off-season by initially taking 10 days completely off, then she spends time with her family to “eat whatever I want, drink whatever I want, TRY not to feel guilty and just know that soon enough I will be back into a training routine. From there I take four to five weeks to just do whatever I want with no structure.”While hard, consistent training with planned recovery is the best method for success, short bouts of overtraining probably won’t have negative long-term repercussions. However, “chronic overtraining is what leads to serious health problems, including adrenal insufficiency.” Periods of restoration can help stave off these dire consequences, which is why taking the off-season seriously cannot be overstated.
Lauren actually experimented with a shorter off-season earlier this year. Rather than starting her race season in March (her usual start month), she raced IRONMAN 70.3 Panama in January. “I learned that starting that early is tough to do,” she concluded.
Time for fun
In addition to restoring bodily equilibrium, the off-season is a time to relax your training schedule and just have fun. Endurance training is rigorous and requires forgoing activities that could be detrimental to the next workout or upcoming race. In the off-season, however, nothing is off-limits. As Lauren told me, “We make so many sacrifices during the season, so it is important to get the fun in when you can.”
Chris Leiferman, a pro triathlete who had a breakout year by winning IRONMAN Mt. Tremblant, took an unorthodox approach to the end of 2015 when he took all of November off for his wedding and honeymoon. “This was rare and I have never done that… It was slow going starting my season but I feel this [taking a long break] helped a lot mid- to late-season,” he said. Sometimes drastic changes to a regular plan can lead to unimagined success, so keep your mind open to being flexible with your off-season schedule.
It’s also worth noting that when Chris does train during the off-season, he reduces the intensity. Mainly, he “hates having to get back into swim shape after getting out of swim shape, so I just continue to swim, but I try to make it fun and swim with masters groups primarily.”
Get strong(er) with off-season training
A lot of athletes end their seasons with an injury, pre-injury, muscle imbalances or all of the above. Down-time with reduced training alone will not entirely resolve these issues. A structured strength and conditioning program is one way to combat injuries and muscle imbalances.
Chris explains, “[In the off-season] I focus on strength and technique work.” Spending time working on strength has myriad benefits, including reducing injury risk. Athletes can improve their strength from 3-19% with a 12-week off-season strength and conditioning program. In addition and perhaps more importantly, an athlete’s perception of their strength increased significantly, as did their feelings of self-worth and sport competence, as a result of completing their S&C program. And, of course, positive perceptions of ourselves go a long way toward achieving success.
Functional training, which features coordinated, full-body movements like lunges with a reach or a single-leg squat (pistol), is all the rage these days. An off-season seven-week training program focused on functional movements “significantly improved scores on the FMS (functional movement screening test). In addition, the off-season training program significantly increased the percentage of players who scored above the previously determined injury threshold score and also significantly improved the percentage of players who were free of asymmetry.” Who doesn’t want to start the next season with better symmetry and a lowered risk of injury?
Age-group athlete Julie Zdziarski believes that strength training will bridge the gap between her lower back pain and achieving her racing goals next year. “After completing an adventurous season of trail running and high altitude triathlon training and racing, I am focusing my off-season on strength training and increased flexibility. I have resigned myself to weekly strength training beginning NOW. It is my new experiment,” she said.
Race another sport or distance
When I was competing as a professional triathlete, every off-season I picked a half marathon in a warm climate (usually California) to take a break from the cold winters in Boulder and to test myself in an event that was not my norm. My absolute favorite cold-weather half marathon escape was the San Dieguito Half Marathon, a San Diego gem that harkens back to the good ‘ol days of low-key grassroots races.
Running races gave me an opportunity to race in a situation without the pressure to podium, the worries about my fitness, and the hassles of traveling with my bike. Plus, I was able to test myself differently with a race focused solely on running, as opposed to my usual running experience of running after swimming and biking.
I usually did not run those off-season races with any specific time objective since my training was reduced at that time. My goals were more practical, geared toward playing with different pacing strategies, experimenting with nutrition, and most importantly, having fun racing in an environment different from what I was accustomed. Honestly, I just loved racing and too long a break from it gave me wanderlust.
My off-season running experiences shaped my views as a coach; I encourage all of my athletes to run races over the winter to help them stay motivated.
Chris also competes in off-season running races. “It’s fun and a good test. It’s nice to do a ‘non-triathlon’ race because the stress is nonexistent and you get a good deal of fitness from it,” he explains. Lauren’s favorite off-season running race is the Charleston Turkey Trot, which she competes in every year. She believes that running races “teach you how you suffer mentally and they are a good way to stay sharp in the winter.”
Enjoy other sports
The off-season is also the perfect time to engage in other sports. Winter sports are bountiful, and surely there is one to suit your needs, including obvious choices like skiing and snowboarding.
If you are like me and you cannot bear the cold that comes with those sports, there is snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Snowshoeing is my preferred sport, as there is no learning curve; if you can walk, you can snowshoe! And, if I do happen to fall, I am close to the ground and the surface is plush snow.
Not from an area with winter activities? No worries. Mountain biking and trail running are perfect ways to keep busy and hone your bike handling skills and agility.
In theory, it would be nice to have peak fitness forever. The reality, though, is that the body cannot maintain high levels of training without eventually breaking down. In order to make future gains, steps back are imperative. One such step back is to rejuvenate with a proper off-season focused on fun, improving strength, participating in novel races, and trying new sports.
 Skoluda, N., Dettenborn, L., Stalder, T., & Kirschbaum, C. (2012). Elevated hair cortisol concentrations in endurance athletes. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 37(5), 611-617.
 Brooks, K. A., & Carter, J. G. (2013). Overtraining, exercise, and adrenal insufficiency. Journal of novel physiotherapies, 3(125).
 Jones, M. T., Matthews, T. D., Murray, M., Van Raalte, J., & Jensen, B. E. (2010). Psychological correlates of performance in female athletes during a 12-week off-season strength and conditioning program. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(3), 619-628.
 Kiesel, K., Plisky, P., & Butler, R. (2011). Functional movement test scores improve following a standardized off‐season intervention program in professional football players. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 21(2), 287-292.
Joanna Zeiger, MS, PhD, raced as a professional triathlete from 1998-2010. She placed fourth in the triathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and won the 2008 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships. She is a seven-time Olympic trials qualifier in three sports — marathon, triathlon and swimming. Joanna still pursues her passion for sports as a top Masters runner. Through her company, Race Ready Coaching, Joanna trains endurance athletes to reach their personal best and instills in them the importance of having fun even when they are training hard. When she is not coaching or training for running events, Joanna works as a consultant in the field of biostatistics. Joanna’s book The Champion Mindset: An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness will be published in February 2017 by St. Martin’s Press.