As the racing season comes to a close and there aren’t any more races to do, a lot of athletes wonder what they should be doing as the off season starts. It’s a good question, because what you do now can set you up for a good season in the coming year or set you up to have unnecessary obstacles in your next year racing efforts. Here are some basic thoughts on what should be on your mind as you head into the winter months.
Don’t get hurt.
As is always the case, one of your top priorities should be to make sure that you don’t hurt yourself by training too hard, too much or in an unbalanced fashion that will set you up for future injury. So, what should we do about that? Well, one of the first things most riders find useful is to take a bit of a break from hard training at the beginning of the off-season. This could be time spent totally off, or just time spent at a reduced volume and intensity. Generally 2-4 weeks is good, but your experience, goals, non-sporting obligations etc. can all factor into how much time you take off or easy. Taking some time off or easy should help your body be refreshed and allow any lingering aches to hopefully subside.
Along these lines, as a preventative measure, it’s probably ideal to engage in some general conditioning oriented cross-training, strength training and some body work (flexibility work, massage, etc.). During the season, sometimes it’s harder to fit these things in or it directly competes for your time and energy. Most people don’t cross train or lift weights often or at all during the racing season, because it will make them sore or compete with more competition-specific workouts. But, those things can help recalibrate muscle or flexibility imbalances that can develop, increase bone density, increase flexibility, and generally help make you more injury resistant.
It’s also nice to add another activity or two to your routine, so that you have an alternative type of training you can rely on when the weather is bad or your motivation is low and you are looking to change up your normal training for a day or two. As long as you don’t jump into it too quickly, some cross training and general strength and flexibility training can go a long way to enhance your overall conditioning. So, definitely consider doing some running, rowing, weight-training, core-work, swimming, kayaking, or anything else along those lines that you enjoy.
Get some focus. Set some goals.
It’s easy to train, but it’s a bit harder to figure out how to train the best way that you can. One requisite for optimal training is knowing the end goal of your training.
A lot of people will have specific races they want to target, whereas some people will have specific metrics they’re shooting for (e.g. a certain time or wattage on a certain hill-climb or time-trial course, or x-number of watts for their sprint, or even just finishing a race or event that previously was beyond them). In November, it might not be necessary to figure out exactly what time you want on your favorite climb or what races you want to focus on, but you should at least have an idea so that you can start to formulate a strategy to meet your goals. If you already know exactly what you want to do in the coming year or years, then that’s great. If you don’t, it can be good to at least come up with a general idea that can be refined and narrowed in focus as you think about what’s important to you to try to accomplish.
As you get closer to the racing season and your goal races, your workouts will increase in focus, so your goals should be at least as focused as the focus of your workouts. Workouts in November will be more general, but it helps to have an idea of what you’re working towards. Workouts in March should be dialed-in, when you’re focusing on a race in April, for example.
Improve your diet.
A lot of people think of the winter as a time when the holidays loom and the days get shorter, so a lot of endurance athletes are concerned about the possibility of training less, maybe eating more, and possibly putting on a bit of extra body weight. Well, the holidays themselves and the family obligations that go along with them may make things difficult at times, but on the whole, this time of year can be good for diet and weight management. There are a few good reasons that I think this way…
This time of year is good, because you don’t have to worry about racing. Namely, you don’t have to worry about eating to be fully recovered for race-day, you don’t have to wake up early to get to the races, you don’t have to reduce your training volume around the time of the race, and then worry about spending your whole day traveling to and from the race… Basically, when you’re not racing you have more free time to train (i.e. not taper for and drive to races), you can get a little extra sleep sometimes (not wake up early for races), and you can focus on improving your diet quality instead of quantity (you don’t have to eat tons of carbohydrates to be fueled for racing and high-intensity training, and you should ideally have more time to shop for and prepare healthy foods).
Try this: instead of bread, rice and pasta, just replace some of the processed carbohydrates you would eat during the season with vegetables every chance you can get or as much as you can stand. You’ll be way better off, because you’ll get tons of extra nutrition, be more satisfied, and reduce calories all at the same time. And, when you need carbohydrate for harder training, consider switching to sweet potatoes and yams, because they’re much more nutrient dense and cause less volatile changes in blood sugar than the endurance sport standards (i.e. bread, rice and pasta).
Also, during the off-season, your training can be more steady and should ideally include some basic cross-training. When you don’t have those big spikes in intensity and/or volume, and when you cross-train, you’ll be making your whole body more metabolically active and even stimulating some small-scale muscle growth… all of this can help make you generally healthier, keep your appetite more steady and in check, and keep your body composition in a good place.
Hopefully, even if you’re taking things seriously to a greater or lesser extent, you can still have fun. Being serious and having fun don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but they can sometimes be at odds a bit. But, doing some cross training, racing cyclocross for fun, doing some running or weight training, riding hard when you feel like it and not because you have a workout sometimes can all be fun. It’s good to focus on the fun aspects of sport and fitness, so that you don’t get burnt out on training.
There’s no point in spending October through January training hard and following a workout plan to the T, as they say, if you get sick of training and start to burn out by February or March, when the racing season is actually just beginning… So, try not to stress if the rain comes and your long ride becomes a short trainer ride or a run and some gym work. Try not to be bothered if you have family obligations that keep you away from your training on Thanksgiving weekend… Try to focus on having a good overall approach with steady training and balance. Get the miles and the workouts when you can and do what you can when the weather or your schedule is challenging. As long as you’re having fun and keeping your training pretty steady while being focused on sound aerobic fitness and general conditioning, you’ll be well on your way to making your goals.