Off-Season?

Having an “off-season” is a misguided concept. It would be ill-advised to allow yourself an “off-season,” or to suggest that one even exists.

I know, you’re probably thinking, “But I’m tired! I deserve a break! I did xxxxxxxxx miles this last year, and my body needs some rest!” And you’re right, you do deserve a break, and your body does need some rest, but let’s face it: Overtraining is what got you here.

Pairing these two concepts seems like a silly thing to do, they’re diametrically opposed, right? For one you do way too much, and the other you do absolutely nothing. For one you feel accomplished, and the other you feel guilty. The trouble is, those feelings are assigned in reverse.

Before I dive in and make you upset, here’s my one sentence summary of this post and this time of year: This is the time of year that winners are made.

Assume for a moment that in a season of overtraining you might feel accomplished. You hit a ridiculous number of miles, did a workout or two (or more!) every day for some crazy period of time. This is generally accompanied by a feeling of accomplishment (and often exhaustion) after the overtraining has ceased. But let’s go back to the beginning and look at the driving force behind the overtraining: guilt.

“I didn’t do enough last year and missed my PR, I’m going to really nail it this year and suffer to the max to make myself better.” Or, “I haven’t done anything for a while, and I want to get back into shape. I’m going to go hit it super hard and get healthy and active again.”

Sound familiar? In just a few short years in triathlon, I have heard these things so often it’s nauseating. It’s ok to want to get back into shape, or to work harder to get to that elusive PR, but the answer is never, I repeat NEVER overtraining.

So now you want an “off-season” to relax, eat all the shitty food you’ve been avoiding, have a few (or more) beers and put on some winter weight. You feel a little guilty, but figure it’ll be ok once you start training again in February. Or March. Maybe April…

The fact is that this is driven by a feeling of accomplishment. “I carried my body so far last year and hit a huge PR! I deserve a break!” I listed this crap above, so if you need a refresher, scroll up. But, suffice it to say, your exhaustion is caused by overtraining.

The key is this: rest can be just as important as a workout. If you don’t have a rest day (maybe two, depending on your plan) in your weekly training plan, make one. My coach takes care of me, and understands this concept. Overtraining without rest causes your body to be broken down, and makes you susceptible to illness, injury, and mental burn-out. It can lead you to think, “I’ve really accomplished a lot, I deserve a break.” Then when you take that extended break, you’re left feeling guilty because you haven’t been training, and launch back into overtraining.

Break the vicious cycle!! Don’t let these waxing and waning feelings take over your training. Here are a few tips to know when you might be doing too much:

  1. Listen to your body. If you have a hacking cough, running nose, and are running a fever, maybe going for that 10-mile run outdoors in below-freezing temps and a snow storm isn’t the best idea. Your body needs recovery time to get over an illness, and depleting it of energy is not a good way to encourage recovery. (If you feel like you still need to do something, maybe take a walk on a treadmill, or a light spin on an exercise bike.) Conversely, sometimes what your body needs to kick the illness is the exercise! Learn the cues of your body and know when you need to sweat the sickness out, and when it might not be the best idea. Only you can answer this question.
  2. Listen to your brain. If you’ve been up since 4 am with a crying infant, worked all day on a stressful project, cooked dinner, cleaned the house, ran a meeting in your community, and get home at 9 pm to see you still have a 120-minute trainer session and start to cry, maybe don’t do the trainer session. If you’re mentally drained and the thought of moving one more inch is enough to produce tears, take a rest night. It won’t do much good to do the workout without focusing on it. Conversely, sometimes you need to break through that mental barrier and do the workout anyway. There can be a lot to gain by pushing through, being mentally tough, and doing the workout even when you don’t want to.
  3. Look at your training schedule/log. If you’re like me, you track a lot of data. A LOT of data. You know your macros, your caloric intake, how many calories you burned in your workout, the TSS of your workout, your average heart rate, your power output, blah, blah, blah… The point is, you can readily look at your history and see how many days in a row you’ve worked out over the last few weeks. If you’ve done an intense workout every day for the last 10 days, maybe take a day off. It will do your body and your mind some good to have a little space to breathe. Conversely, it’s important to note the difference in intensity between your workouts. If your last 7 days have been easy days, skipping another easy workout, or that one high intensity workout of the week, could work to your detriment.
  4. When in doubt, check with your coach. I know, this one has a prerequisite, and further qualifiers. I am fortunate enough to have text message privileges with my coach, and he often texts back in a very short amount of time. If I’m having a hard time telling whether I should push through and do the workout or ease up and take a day off, I know I can rely on my coach to help make the decision, even if it’s not what I want to hear. To the same point, don’t bug your coach all the time. If you find yourself trying to decide whether or not to do the workout every week, you probably need to reevaluate more than whether or not you should be doing the workout. This should be a fairly rare occurrence.

The fact is, what most people call the “off-season,” is a significant season of opportunity. It provides the margin that makes itself abundantly apparent on race day. This time frame separates winners from those who didn’t quite make the podium. Now is the time to lose the weight you think you ought to lose, now is the time to increase your FTP, now is the time to improve your swimming/running/cycling form, now is the time to lift more weights, get more flexible, become more mindful. This is prime base building season.

So, it’s all (as usual) up to you. You know you better than anyone else. Only you can check the boxes on whether or not you should work out, whether or not you want to work out, or whether or not you’re in it to win it.

For me, my goals require me to dig in during this time and make improvements. I will engage in suffering all winter and spring so that I am faster in the summer. What are you going to do?

Later on…

A Moment About Suffering

I had the opportunity to answer a question on NYE that I don’t get asked much, but that I contemplate when training: How do you put yourself through all of that pain?

The answer really boils down to two main components:

  1. The suffering lets me know I’m alive
  2. The suffering teaches me about myself and who I am

Suffering is such an odd concept to embrace, because humans are hard wired to avoid it at all costs. We learn at a young age that if it brings pain, we shouldn’t do it. We don’t go back to the stove to see if we can leave our hand on the burner a little longer this time; We don’t touch the stove again! We seek what is comfortable, and so far humans have done a pretty good job at that. We have huge cities, great technology, and we’re pushing that concept further and further every year (OrderUp, InstaCart, Uber anyone?).

So what is it that drives athletes to endure suffering, to abuse our bodies and push the limits of what we can take? The answer will not be the same for every athlete you ask, and I can only give you my answer.

My answer is that I find it cathartic. I find that it is in my best interest to cast myself into the fire to see how, what, and who I am on the other side. There is something about knowing and being known by suffering that allows a person such great freedom.

There comes a point in a race (if you’re running it right in my opinion) where you begin to hear a voice questioning you, why you are doing this and if it’s worth it. You must be prepared to either ignore that voice, tell it to STFU, or answer the questions. If you haven’t prepared, or you give the wrong answer, your day ends there. If you haven’t been there, and practiced your response, it’s extremely difficult to give the right response on race day.

And that’s the often-overlooked value of the training. Aside from just the obvious physical benefits, which are totally a necessary part of what I do, the mental toughness is something learned from pushing yourself to the limit week in and week out. Unless and until you get down and wallow around in the suffering, roll and revel in it, find out who you are in the midst of it and learn how you react to it, you will be unprepared for race day.

When I get into that suffering, when I’m down in the trench wondering if I should call it quits, if what I’m doing is worth it, I know that I have a choice. And making the choice to continue to suffer and to push my body, that’s when I know I’m truly alive. I’m feeling, but I still have a choice. It sucks, but it’s because I choose the suck. It’s hard, but it’s because that’s how I make it. I am directing this moment, and only I say when it’s enough, not the suffering.

I have learned that my body is capable of so, so much more than what I think it is. I have learned that I can endure more than I think I can; That when my body tells me it’s ready to stop, I know better. I have found a new strength, a second, third, sometimes fourth wind. I’ve found the strength to pick the pace up when I thought I could barely walk. I am so much more than the suffering, I just need it to get me to go there.

I wish my response on NYE were this eloquent, this well-thought out. I think I said something more like, “You learn to deal with it and love it.” I got some crazy looks for that one, but fortunately everyone moved on pretty quickly. But to those of you who are familiar with this game, you know what I’m talking about.

For those who are new to triathlon in particular, welcome! Don’t worry, I know everything I said above sounds terrible, but really, you do learn to love it, crave it even. You’ll get there. Start small. Search for it in your training, and know that when you feel it you’re making a break through. When you push through it, you’ve made an accomplishment. Eventually, you’ll know enough about your body to find it and love it, too.