This article is meant to give you a few things to think about as you take a break from competition or heavy training during the fall and winter months. Of course there are other specific things that athletes may do during the off season, but these are a handful of the key ones that every athlete should do in order to make the most of their training and racing…
1. Take a break.
Taking a break is good. Mental and physical recovery are a key part of our success as athletes and people. For many people the mental break that they take at the end of a season is more valuable than the physical, but both are key. Take as much time away from structured training as you need, and maybe more. There’s no rush to get back to training. If you enjoy training, then enjoy it, but always pay attention to how well you’re recovering from day to day and week to week so that you’re sure that you’re progressing and not just burning yourself out.
2. Analyze how you did last year.
Take a look at where you made the most progress and what your best performances were. Also look at any areas where you know that you didn’t perform as well as you could have. If you race, look at your racing highlights and think back on how those came about. Was your training exceptionally good leading up to those races? Did you do anything different? Think about what things allowed those performances to happen, both with respect to your fitness as well as your racing tactics. Also take a look back on what didn’t go well for you. Did you neglect your sprint? Or not invest enough time in developing your endurance and high-aerobic power? Did you have back pain late in races because you didn’t spend enough time working on your core throughout the year? Often the things that don’t go well are the things that we don’t want to think about so much, but those are often the areas where the smallest changes or the least amount of effort can yield the biggest improvements for us.
Look back and make an honest assessment of how your year was, both the good and the bad, and use that to help you plan for the future. I would definitely encourage you to look at any real world data that you have to do this. If you have a power meter on your bike, look at your peak power curve this year versus the last few years. Look at your peak power throughout the year. Look at your climbing times. Look at your year on Strava or Training Peaks and see how much time you actually spent training throughout the year. Look at how long your longest rides were each week throughout the year. Often we have an idea in mind of what we think our training was like, but when we look back at it, it’s sometimes surprising how our idea actually stacks up against real world data.
And, definitely consider asking a friend to look over your year for any insights that they might have as an outsider looking in on your training and racing. Or, you could reach out to a coach. Whether or not you are thinking about developing a full-time coaching relationship with someone, there are coaches out there that are happy to do consulting work where they might charge you a one-time fee to just look over your year, some of your training data, ask you about your experiences, and give you feedback that can be very helpful for making adjustments in the future. Even if a coach doesn’t plan all of your workouts for you, just having them tell you some actionable advice can sometimes make a big difference.
3. Set some goals.
What do you want to work on for the coming year? You don’t necessarily need to nail things down in too much detail right away, but you should at least start thinking about it early. Even if you just know the general direction of where you want to go and what you want to work on, then you can start laying a foundation during the winter to get ready for that next year. If you already know that you have very clear cut goals, like winning a state or national championship, or finishing in the top 10 at a specific race, or doing your first century or half-ironman, then that’s great because it helps make things clearer what you will need to focus on for next year. But, keep in mind, goal setting can be challenging. You want to have goals that are challenging so they’ll be rewarding, but you also need them to be realistic so that you don’t set yourself up for a feeling of failure even if you make a lot of good progress in the right direction but didn’t achieve the specific, but unrealistically lofty goal. Sometimes you may have very specific goals, like setting specific PRs, or you may have a specific direction like getting better at sprinting and finishing strong in races or becoming a punchier climber or improving the run leg of your triathlon. Any of these can be good goals as long as they can help provide a specific vision for how to approach the coming year and as long as they can help you plan and carry out your training.
4. Make a plan.
If you have a goal or direction that you want to work towards, then it will only become really useful to you once you also start to make some sort of strategy for how you will try to reach that goal. You will want to start making a plan for how to move towards achieving your goals. This may be a matter of planning workouts, but it may also mean looking at adjusting your schedule so that you can get in enough training time. Or maybe you need to get a gym memberships or some weights for home so that you can do the kind of work that you think will help you reach your goals. Whatever it is, keep in mind where you’re at now and where you want to go.
Think about what you’ve done in training and what you think you will need to do to achieve your goal, and start mapping that out. Even just an outline of workouts and a progression of training volume can be helpful. Or, you may want to go into detail and map out all of the interval workouts that you want to do over the next year. Different degrees of specificity and structure can work for different athletes, depending on their personality, their schedule, their goals, and what will work for them. As long as you have enough direction to keep you on task, it can work out. Not everyone is the same in this regard. But, again, keep things realistic. Don’t go crazy and overestimate what you think you’ll be able to do, whether it’s training intensity or total volume, it has to be realistic.
Your plan should be flexible enough to accommodate any changes in your schedule or you should be able to adjust it if you progress more quickly or slowly than you expect. Or you may get sick or the weather is terrible and lose a week here or there. A smart approach to training will recognize that these things can happen. We shouldn’t get too stressed about these kinds of things, but rather just look at how we’ll address them as they come up. Maybe you’re lucky and everything goes perfectly, but usually there’s at least one or two minor interruptions that we have to deal with, but that’s okay.
And keep in mind, a plan is basically a tool that can help you to do what you need to do to accomplish your goals. You may want to consider what other tools you could benefit from. This could be as simple as getting a heart rate monitor or a power meter to help you more objectively assess your training and see how it’s going. Or maybe you want to hire a coach who can provide experience and an outside perspective on your training. Many people, even experienced athletes, are often not very objective when they look at their own training and often underestimate or overestimate how much or how hard they should be training by a good margin, and often people don’t get nearly what they could out of their training just because they don’t have that perspective.
Also consider other aspects of your life when you’re thinking about next year. Sometimes some of the biggest opportunities we have for improvement aren’t in training. If you could just get 8 hours of sleep every night, or if you could just clean up your diet and eat more vegetables, that may make a big difference for you. What you do in training is very important, but all of the things that we do that affect our health and recovery outside of training are just as important.
Also consider if there’s any gear that could help you keep better track of your training. Sometimes one or two tools can help you stay on track and get more out of your body. Power meters, heart rate monitors, and GPS computers are all very useful and are the most obvious choices for equipment that can help you monitor your progress and stay on task during training sessions. Don’t worry if you’re on a budget. You can get a lot out of your training without a power meter, for example. But these days, even just a GPS computer and a heart rate monitor that you use with Strava can be a huge asset to you. And, definitely consider if you’d like to work with a coach to try to get more out of your training or at least to consult with to see if your training plans are reasonable and should help you achieve your goals.
And, as you make your plans, whether they’re very specific or you just start outlining right now, definitely reconsider your goals. If you have enough time and resources that you think you should be able to reach your goals with enough focus and smart work, then great. If you think that you don’t realistically have the time or other resources necessary to reach your goals, then consider the two against each other and see if you need to make adjustments to your work schedule to allow you to train enough or sleep enough. Or, realize that you have too much going on that maybe you should adjust your expectations to be more in line with your ability to train and recover.
5. Just have fun.
When you’re taking a break from hard training, enjoy doing things that you might not get to do very much during the season. Enjoy some good food. Go for a hike or watch a movie that you wanted to see last summer or read a book. Enjoy the downtime. And, enjoy planning for the coming year. Don’t rush into it and start pressuring yourself to train too hard too early, but enjoy the prospect of reaching new goals next year. And, when you get back into training, have fun with it. Find some good training partners and enjoy the process.