How Your Biggest Gains Can Be Found In The Off Season
By Matt Hanson, EdD
“Off” is a Misnomer
As a coach, I’ve noticed a trend that goes on repeat year after year. Athletes tend to reach out 4-5 months prior to their first big race of the season and continue working with the coach through the fall when their final race is complete, but then they disconnect for the winter months. While I certainly understand the need to check out from the daily grind for a period of time at the end of the season, I really think this is a difficult approach to take if you are looking for the best possible performance.
Taking a 3 month break from structured training each year can really be a missed opportunity, because the biggest gains are always found in the off season. Again, I completely understand the need to reduce some volume and free up some time that a demanding in-season training schedule can take; however, this is a time where you can really work with your coach to focus on your limiters and address what might be keeping you from bridging the gap to your competition. Even working out regularly, but without guidance, might leave a fair amount on the table. A well structured program with regular communication with your coach can lead to some massive off season gains that will pay dividends in the race season.
My Experience as a Coach
The truth of the matter is that you need a block of time to prepare for the demands of your race. For long-course racing, this is at least 3-4 months leading into a high priority race (assuming you are starting with some level of aerobic fitness). During this block of time, my goal as a coach is to try to structure the training specifically based around the challenges the course will throw at the athlete.
A well structured program with regular communication with your coach can lead to some massive off season gains that will pay dividends in the race season.
Hill training on the run for a hilly course, a lot of strength work in the pool for a choppy ocean swim, a lot of long, steady intervals in aero on the bike for a flat course, etc. etc. I’m also trying to help dial in the nutrition plan, prep for the weather conditions, and make sure the athlete is comfortable with all of the friction points, such as transitions, in the race. Perhaps most importantly, this is the time where I try to prep the athlete to hold a higher percentage of their current thresholds on race day.
This is a lot to tackle in a relatively short period of time. One of the things not included in that list is spending a significant block of time actually raising your threshold numbers. In my opinion, the off season is the best possible time to do a single sport focus where you can really emphasize either raising the ceiling on your limiter or even trying to make your strength a bigger strength.
My Experience as an Athlete
When I first started as a pro triathlete, I was terrible in the water relative to my competition. I would get dropped immediately off the line, then spend the entire bike and run trying to claw my way back to the mix in races. I was also relatively average on the bike in comparison to the guys I was racing.
To address this, I developed a schedule that prioritized a different discipline each month. I’d take a few weeks of down time at the beginning of December when I finished racing for the year, then a few weeks getting my legs back under me. Then, I spent January of 2014, 2015, and 2016 swimming 10 times per week. I was doing some aerobic riding and running, but really put a focus on developing my swim. I’d then go into February doing some top-end VO2 work to raise my FTP on the bike. In March, I’d go into the specific prep for IMTX where I’d try to then adjust the training to hold a higher percentage of the new threshold levels in my races.
Each year after doing the single sport focus during the “off-season,” I would bridge the gap more and more. For the 2014 season, I would struggle to stay in the main chase pack in the water, then would struggle the first 30 mins on the bike because I was overextending myself to hold the pack. In 2015, I was comfortable sitting in the chase pack and was able to bridge the gap up to the lead group on the bike in a few races. By 2016, I was leading the chase group in the water in most of the races I competed in. I most definitely saw big gains by structuring training to focus on these limiters during the periods of the year where there was no racing.
Conclusion: Start Right to End Better
Having someone who understands how to develop an athlete can also help you know if you are trying to do too much during the off season. The goals you have as an athlete should really dictate what your off season looks like.
If your goals center around finishing, feeling good about your performances, working out for general health, etc. (all great things!), then taking a more relaxed approach to the off season is certainly warranted. However, if your goals center around performance, time/placement goals, or being more and more competitive within your sport, then your off season structure needs to reflect that. If you’re trying to bring your competition to a higher level next season, make sure you are starting that journey out on the right foot and setting a higher foundation this off season!