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…

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