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Training Tips for the Off-Season: The Do’s and Don’ts of Winter Conditioning

For many of us, the toughest time of the season is between October and March. As the weather gets worse, the races end, and the days get shorter motivation starts to wane and workouts tend to lack the focus and specificity that they do during the rest of the year.

Following is a list of tried and true tips and common mistakes made by athletes of all levels. Learning how to deal best with the off-season can not only keep your winter more interesting but actually make you faster, stronger, and more fit when the spring finally rolls around again!

The Big Do’s:

  1. Evaluate weaknesses and develop a plan to correct them - it’s really hard to correct weaknesses during the course of the season, especially ones that may have been ingrained over many years. In the off-season, however, your attention can turn much more to drill sessions as the amount of “hard” training will definitely decline. Whether swim, bike, run, strength or flexibility develop a plan to re-train your body with better mechanics, adherence, or habits and by the time the big training comes around again you’ll have developed better protocols for speed and success.
  1. Plan race schedule and prioritize events – there are really two choices for your race season, one to have a plan and one is be set on random. You no doubt have friends that race everything, sign up last minute for races, and go through the season never really knowing what is next. In designing a training plan, that is very hard to prepare for. There is no definitive build, taper, recovery. There is no definitive goal for when to peak or for what your target distance might be.  Contrast that with a well-planned race schedule and the season takes form with “training” races (maybe single sport like road races or time trials), key races that require a bigger taper, and an identifiable start and end to the season. Having a plan will help to define your training plan, keep you goal motivated, and allow for mental break-ups to the season.
  1. Maintain some “speed work” in your schedule. Speed work is hard and, for a lot of folks, not fun. Many see it as a necessary evil during the season to keep their splits improving and then quickly drop it after the last race. Truth is, speed training should be done all year long, and for all three sports. Keeping the muscles firing quickly on a regular basis will help to stay sharp during the off-season. You don’t want to have to re-train everything when the spring comes. Whether it’s 400’s on the track, hard hill repeats on the bike, or sprints in the pool, keep some speed work alive during the off-season and get a hard session in for each sport at least every 7-10 days.
  1. Keep your coach year round – a good coach will keep all of these tips organized for you. You pay your coach not only for motivation but to stay on top of research, design great workouts, and balance out your program so you stay healthy, get faster, and enjoy your sport. The off-season is really about the best time to have a coach as the emphasis on training balance and proper mechanics is super important. The off-season is the time to fix problems and get your base fitness dialed in so that when spring comes you are ready to push hard instead of work to get back into shape first.  

The Big Don’ts:

  1. Do not take extended time off – when the season ends, everyone needs a little break. This is totally normal and to be expected. However, extended time off, more than 10-14 days, really starts to negatively impact your fitness, strength, and flexibility. There is nothing wrong with cutting back on volume and intensity, it is actually recommended, but the big breaks in training will not pay off. They just make it that much harder to get back going again.
  1. Do not continue to eat like you are training hard and racing harder – during the season, you may be training as much as 15-20 hours per week. This expends a huge amount of calories and the nutritional demands are quite high. When the off-season hits and the volume drops, you need to adjust your calorie intake to match the new workout regimen. Weight fluctuations during the off-season of 5 pounds or so make sense, but when they start to hit 10-15 pounds, you’re putting your body under a ton of stress and also making your job tougher when it comes time for heavy training again.
  1. Do not ignore any aspect of your program, whether it’s a strength or weakness – let’s say you’re a runner. When tri season ends, the natural tendency may be to revert back to being a runner. It is easier, you are better at it, and it might be more accessible. This is especially true if you consider yourself “bad” at the other sports. However, this is the best time of the year to put the extra time into your “bad” sports to help bring them up to speed for the following season. You don’t want to sacrifice the strengths you already have, but you certainly want to close the gaps between your strengths and weaknesses. Keep your program balanced, and at times even tilted towards your weaknesses, and you’ll be much happier (and faster) come next season.
  1. Do not ignore the weight room – when many people think of strength training they conjure up images of bodybuilding or Olympic lifting. These modalities have nothing to do with strength training for endurance athletes, but that doesn’t mean endurance athletes shouldn’t hit the weight room. Strength training should be functional and should serve to not only improve performance but also decrease risk of injury. Focus on exercises that involve multiple joints and rely on stabilization while performing the exercise. Strength training should happen 2-3 times a week and with the right combination of exercises should last 25-35 minutes and be tacked on at the end of a cardio workout so you’re nice and warmed up when you start.