It’s getting to that time of year, in the Northern Hemisphere at least, when the triathlon ‘events’ list starts to look as sparse as the toilet paper in a porta potty on race morning; snow/rain and other such precipitous delights feature in the forecasts; your clothing has the words ‘long’, ‘warmer’, ‘fleece lined’ in the name and the lycra you have worn every day for the past year has started to reveal cracks that shouldn’t be made public. Yes, it’s autumn, or ‘fall’ for those North America readers.
For many athletes this means only one thing – ‘having it off’. Any wife/husband/partner reading this might jump for joy at these three (rarely used in the life of an exhausted triathlete) words. But the celebrations may be short lived. For I am talking not about nocturnal gymnastics, but about the so called ‘off season’. The period after your last race when triathlon goes from being the axis around which your life spins, to having a back seat in day to day life. But why is this break so important and what advice would I give athletes about how to use this precious time so that they can lay strong foundations for the next year?
Computer geeks tell me that, plugged in for long enough, eventually your laptop battery will wear out. Our bodies and minds are the same. We need to be unplugged in order to come back firing on all cylinders. The key to the off season is to recharge, not only your physical, but also your mental batteries – leaving you invigorated, motivated and ready to give 100% to the next racing season. The first question I am often asked is how long this ‘off season’ should last. I take around 4-6 weeks after Kona as my ‘downtime’ period. But it is really up to the individual. So much depends on your training volume, level of fitness, injury status, and your state of mind. Often the greater an athlete’s fitness at the end of our season, the more damage they can do by coming back too quickly. I would divide the 4-6 weeks into three stages – first ‘unplugged’; then ‘a little bit of what you fancy does you good’ and finally ‘turning it back on’.
Embark on the first stage by celebrating the season’s finale. You would have had good, bad and downright ugly days – but I there will have been huge highs too, not just in terms of results, but also memories of the great times you have had with friends, travelling to new places and learning new lessons along the way. So take time to reflect on the past year with a glass of wine and a juicy burger, truly celebrate what you have achieved and toast the opportunity to ‘have it off’.
The next step – while it is fresh in your (now sober) mind – is to look back at your season, assess the highs and lows, and be subjective about evaluating your strengths and weaknesses, both in training and in racing. This can be done with friends and coaches, but honesty is vital. Make notes, and use this evaluation as the basis of your training for the next season, and beyond. Then put the log book away (with any item of lycra clothing that reveals a hint of flesh) in a place where it can gather dust.
The key to the first and second stage is to drastically reduce the volume and intensity of training that you do. I take 2 weeks completely off and instead engage in non sporting activities with family and friends. Trips to the theatre, music concerts, meals at restaurants, lazy spa days, marathon ‘Top Gun’ watching sessions. Anything that doesn’t involve sporting attire, and is a world away from my monkish, ‘bedtime by 9pm’ existence. I might even lose a slipper and turn into a pumpkin.
As much as you might have enjoyed becoming a couch loving potato, once this initial ‘total rejuvenation’ period is over its time to embark on the ‘a little bit of what you fancy does you good’ stage. Do a something physical at least every other day. But spice it up. Yes, going for curries is one way of adding much needed spicy heat to your life, but another equally fine option is to engage in sporting activities that don’t centre on swim/bike/run. Variety is the key here. Maybe try a new sport. Lawn bowls, tiddly winks, yoga, skiing, table tennis, rock climbing, belly dancing, bog snorkelling – anything that will invigorate you, elevate your heart rate a little bit and get the aerobic system firing again (engaging in the implied activity in this column’s title may also do this). Team sports are a good antidote to the sometimes solitary nature of triathlon training. Dragon boat racing could be fun.
After a few weeks of spicy variety you might a) realise that you much prefer bog snorkelling or b) be experiencing triathlon withdrawal symptoms. There is no harm in reintroducing swim/bike/run activities. Just keep it fun, unstructured and low in intensity. You don’t have to get up for the 5.30am masters swim practice. Have a lie in and stick to floating around with the ‘practically dead people’ in the slow lane of your public pool. Try different strokes. The lifeguards are on hand should you drown attempting 25m butterfly. Take the dog for a walk. Poop-a-scooping adds that extra bit of flexibility work. Go running. But leave the all singing, all dancing, wrist computer at home.
Indulge in different foods (and beverages). Don’t pile on the pounds, but a bit of weight gain and a small ‘muffin top’ will give you a bit of extra padding for the winter months and give you fuel to feed off when the training ramps up. Now is also the time to look at your equipment and make any changes – have you always wanted to try a bigger chain ring or a different brand of pedal? Is your bike set up causing you problems? The off/early season is the time to look at this.
So after the second stage is over, now’s the time to ease your way back into training. Dig that dusty log book out and look at your strengths and weaknesses. Make sure you invest time in working on the latter, seeking help and advice if you need it. Focus on building up your aerobic base, and leave the super duper hard intervals for after the New Year celebrations. This means being patient and resisting the urge to have smash fests with friends. Coffee and cake stop rides are the backbone of any early season schedule. Ensure you dedicate time to a good but initially gentle, strength and conditioning programme which will give you a solid structural foundation for the months ahead. The beer-to-mouth exercises of the first stage should have given you sufficient practice to perform a great bicep curl.
Then as December/January roll around again, the snow melts and your sofa has been replaced by your friend the stationary bike take your 2012 events list and sign yourself up for the next challenge. The off season will be over before you know it so enjoy ‘having it off’ – and i’ll see you all at the World Bog Snorkelling Championships!