“Resuming training too early is much like pulling an onion out of the garden and realizing it is not yet fully grown. One cannot put it back in and expect more growth!”
- Peter Coe (Coach of middle distance legend Sebastian Coe)
The opening picture for today’s post was put together by one of the athletes that I work with at the end of his season for 2008. I think it pretty eloquently describes how many of us feel at the end of a tough season. I know I’m certainly ready for a break after my own 2008 A-Race, Ironman Arizona. Before I get into the ‘whys’ and the ‘hows’ of planning an appropriate off season, a quick summary race report of my AZ experience:
AZ was without doubt the physically easiest and mentally hardest Ironman that I have completed to date. Let me elaborate:
Swim: Great swim, was as lazy and efficient as I could be, stayed right on the buoy line and jumped from feet to feet. After the initial obligatory chaos of a mass swim start, took advantage of the many folks swimming way harder than they should have in the first 1500m or so. Stayed on their feet until they flamed out and then jumped across to the next fastest swimmer. Don’t think I could have swam any easier. Was surprised to see 1:05 on my stopwatch as I was running along the dock. Felt much slower. Was equally surprised to see an average heart rate of 147 for the swim. Never ceases to amaze me how high the heart rate is on the swim despite feeling very easy. I’m sure the feeling like you’re in a boxing ring with 1500 other people for the first 10mins has something to do with it. I’m a lover, not a fighter :-)
Bike: Quite windy on the uphill section of the course, with a ripping tailwind on the downhill back to town. Plan was steady on the way out, easy on the way back. Good amount of coasting @ 48km/h+ on the way back. First lap everything according to plan. Drank 2x500 cal bottles of Infinit and was feeling very good. That said, lots of folks were ripping by me, obviously working. I was taking it easy, using the legal draft wherever possible to conserve energy. Had a couple of big guys sitting up into the wind. Was very sad to wave them goodbye :-)
Second lap things started to go wrong. I broke the cardinal rule of IM racing and tried something that I hadn’t rehearsed: 2x gel flasks with chocolate gel. I have used the chocolate gel before and the flasks but never together. Word to the wise – the chocolate is not easily squeezed through a gel flask. Didn’t stop me trying though. Probably sucked down 9/10 air, 1/10 gel in my attempts. That plus riding into a hot, dry wind and I had the makings of a huge air bubble in my gut. Good news is it cleared, bad news is it took 10hrs to do so! Managed to get 600cal of tangerine gel down + a bunch of water before I was bloated beyond all belief. Last lap of the bike was not comfortable. Slowed way down (HR under 125) and sipped water as my buddy Dr. J advises but it was too late. So, I was 8hrs in with ~1800 calories in me (planned on having 4000 by the time I got off the bike). Knew at that point that it was going to be an interesting ‘run’.
Run: Was soooo happy to just get off the bike and with my 30mi of very easy riding, still had a little energy in the tank. Got back on the plan – first lap of the run easy 6:00-6:15k pace (HR under 140). Still feeling great as I ran through the crowds to begin lap 2. Plan was to push it up to steady 5:30-5:45/km pace (HR 140-150). Knew I was in trouble when HR started going down. Tried to get calories – coke, gel etc but stomach was still shut down and more bloated than ever. Started to walk and become resigned to the fact that it’s going to be a long day. It took 5+ miles of slow walking/staggering before stomach cleared and I could start taking calories. Made up for lost time. Couldn’t stomach fluids at that point so hit up the pretzels and choc chip cookies hard! Energy levels started coming back so got back to running. Feet started to hurt a bit by that point (started looking for grass wherever possible), but other than that, felt really strong and ran through to the finish: 13:22. Disappointed about the time, but happy that despite one of my most challenging days to date, my inner monologue kept coming back to one word: Finish.
And, as I crossed the line, and hit up the burger joint, thus began my off-season and the topic for this post :-)
The off-season or transitional period is probably the least understood training phase of the annual plan. Athletes vary widely in their interpretation of what the purpose of the off season is, and indeed if an off-season is needed at all. The “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” mentality is all too prevelant among the type A Ironman world. It is my opinion that this is a grave mistake and a mistake that can fundamentally limit the expression of your long term athletic potential.
I am not the first to come to this conclusion. Bondarchuk, one of the leading experts in periodization has studied factors leading to long term athletic stagnation in elite athletes (1995) and, the #1 predicting factor that he came up with was athletes who either a) fail to take an off-season or b) athletes who continue specific training during their off-season. So, without further ado, let’s get into the nitty gritty.
First of all, what is the purpose of the off-season?
Simply, the purpose of the off-season is to shed ALL of the fatigue accumulated in the preceding season so that the athlete is starting from a blank slate at the start of the next preparation period. If you hold onto just 20% of your fatigue from the previous season, the cumulative effect means that after 5 years you’ll be starting the next season as fatigued as you were at your peak training volume 5 years ago. This is going to significantly compromise your ability to tolerate the extra training load that you want to do that season and ultimately lead to a plateau in your long term performance.
It should be noted that while studies have shown a significant correlation between performance fatigue and hormonal markers of over-reaching/over-training, less of a correlation has been exhibited between subjective ratings of fatigue and performance indicated fatigue. In other words, while you may feel ‘good to go’ and ready to start the next season, it is the lingering fatigue that you don’t feel that will ultimately limit your performance.
How long should the off-season last?
For an ‘average’ athlete training at 100 TSS/d, upon cessation of training, fatigue will decay rapidly for the first 2 weeks (hence the taper length implications) and will then continue to decay albeit at a slower rate for the next 2+ months (see figure below). On the other hand, fitness decays at a much slower rate. In fact, it will take most fit athletes 1 year of no training before they have lost all of the fitness that they achieved with training. Intelligent athletes can exploit this difference in decay rates between fitness and fatigue.
For an average athlete, at ~60 days post race they will have less than 1% of fatigue remaining from the season. Yet, they will still be retaining 17% of their fitness from the preceding season. Zero fatigue plus some fitness is a great deal for an athlete looking to undertake an all time high training load in the following season.
If some is good, is more better? Like all aspects of training planning, timing is everything. If our hypothetical athlete waits another month to start his preparation for the next season, fitness will decline to only 7% of starting levels. Therefore, it is certainly possible to extend the off-season for too long.
On the flip-side, for those athletes looking to shorten the off-season, and get a jump on next season, it is worthwhile remembering that training performed more than 5 months before your target event has very little performance impact (Morton, 1991). Save your mojo for when it counts.
Are these recommendations true for all?
Short answer is no. In general, the better trained the individual, the longer the off-season needs to be.
Completely novice athletes can shed fatigue very quickly. In a study by Busso (1991) untrained individuals shed all fatigue within 2 weeks after a 14 week training program. On the other hand, in a study of Olympic level swimmers by Hellard (2005) some fatigue was shown to remain up to 6 months after a swimming season. In other words, even for the elite, the gap between fitness and fatigue narrows each and every season. When fitness and fatigue reach the point that they are decaying at similar rates, performance is maxed out. For this reason, individuals with very fast fatigue decay rates have a great advantage. Or, put another way, athletes should do all that is possible to speed recovery at all times. In this sense, health and performance overlap.
So what should I do during the off-season?
1. Not very much.
Keep in mind that your #1 objective is to shed (not create) fatigue. Taper studies offer some recommendations in this regard. In most studies volume drops of 60-90% have elicited the greatest improvements in performance, presumably due to the greatest rate of fatigue shed (Costill et al. 1985). IOW, 10-40% of your in-season volume offers the best short term fatigue vs. fitness compromise.
With a couple of exceptions (see below) any exercise that you do should fall under the category of ‘active recovery’, i.e. you should feel more invigorated after the session than before it: A walk in the forest, an easy spin on the mountain bike, renting a canoe for a couple of hours. Think ‘feel good’ and ‘fun’.
2. General Training
At this point in the season, the more removed from the specifics of your event, the better. As mentioned above, after the non-existence of an off-season, the next greatest predictor of training stagnation in Bondarchuk’s study was starting specific training too early in the season. Just how general? You can come along to my girlfriend’s aquarobics class and ask me. That’s where I’ll be this Sunday :-)
3. Speed/skill and flexibility training.
Of course, when we talk about “fitness decay” we’re using a general term to describe a number of physiological components. In reality, each one of these has a different fatigue decay and fitness re-acquisition rate. A couple of particular physiological attributes differ markedly enough that they demand specific attention during the transition period.
First of all, flexibility can decline 100% within 4 days of training cessation (Maglischo, 1990). While it can be re-acquired at a good rate, the off season is the perfect time to make in-roads in this quality. IOW, do some yoga classes.
Additionally, skill, speed and power are three related qualities that can diminish rapidly and take a lot of time to reacquire (Hsu and Hsu, 1999).
The transitional period offers a great opportunity to give some weight to some of these fast decaying physiological qualities that we may neglect during the inseason but with semi-specific training means, e.g. ball sports provide a good agility and basic speed challenge to us ‘linear athletes’ who do most of our movements at one speed in one plane. Likewise, circuit routines that incorporate basic speed and agility via tools such as agility ladders, slideboards, plyo-boxes etc are a good inclusion to keep you busy and prevent basic skill, speed and power decline during the off-season.