5 Things You Should Do During the Off Season

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.

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Start Getting Ready for Next Season

There’s a lot that goes into a successful season, whether you’re a competitive cyclist, runner, or triathlete, or if you have fitness goals or events that you want to train for. For most people Fall is the time of year that they consider taking some time off or at least time away from structured, hard training. Except for cyclocross racers, most people are starting to look ahead several months to their next goals, and will do well to take some time to look back on their past seasons and plan for the next one.

I’m planning on putting together a few articles and videos that cover some of the key things that you will want to do or want to plan for during this time. To start, it’s almost always a good idea for athletes to take some time away from very difficult training to allow themselves some time to rest both physically and mentally. Usually, as training time goes down, this may free up time to address any issues that may be hard to address during the season. For many people who have had minor aches and pains, you may check in with a physical therapist to come up with a strength and flexibility routine to prevent those issues. You may look at changing your bike fit or your shoes. You may start to invest more time in strengthening your core, legs, and shoulders so that you’re a stronger athlete and less prone to injury in the future.

Sandy and Sean Pescadero 1-2

That last piece is one thing that I wanted to address right now. No matter where you’re at in your training or planning for the coming year, if you aren’t racing or doing any goal events right now and have a little while before you do, then you should definitely consider investing some time into strengthening your core and even your whole body. Spending just 15 minutes or so, maybe 3 times a week at home with a yoga mat and a pair of dumbbells, or going to the gym a few times a week can do a lot to get you ready for the increased training volume that you may be planning.

First and foremost, doing core work can help increase your comfort and power doing most any sporting activity. If you increase your strength there, then you’ll generally have a stronger platform for everything else. So, definitely consider doing a series of planks, push-ups, crunches, or other things along those lines a few times a week or every other day. You’ll be happy that you did.

Personally, I’ll usually aim to do 3-4 circuits of push-ups, suspended front planks, side planks, back-extensions, mountain-climbers, and maybe some bent-over rows and/or dumbbell curls for good measure. Here’s a brief video that expands on this a little…

Beyond just doing a basic core routine, it can be very good to also do some leg-strengthening work. If you have access to a gym, then doing things like squats, dead-lifts, trap-bar dead-lifts, leg presses, leg extensions, or hamstring curls can all be great. I’ll never do all of those things in one session, but I may mix it up and do slightly different exercises from week to week. At any given session, I’ll usually try to do 3-5 movements and do a handful of sets of each.

If you’re at home, then you can do a lot even with minimal equipment or even just doing some body-weight exercises. If you plan to make strength work a regular part of your routine, then I’d suggest getting one or even two pairs of dumbbells and a box or bench. This way you can transition from body weight exercises to weighted ones. Focus on squats, lunges, box step-ups, calf raises, and maybe some plyometric type work, like squat jumps, box jumps, or straight-leg hops for your calves. I’ve done this kind of routine with good results over the years and am convinced that you don’t necessarily need a gym membership to get in a very good strength workout. The gym may offer you more options, but you can do a lot at home on a minimal budget.

To tie it all together, this is my basic routine and one that I’d suggest trying or using as a model for constructing a routine that works well for you. I’ll often start with body weight to warm up and then use my weights to make it more of a workout. I have a pair of 25# and 35# dumbbells, but you should try different weights out to see what will work for you.

about 3 sets
push-ups
suspended front plank, often with mountain climber movements (knee to chest)
side planks
back-extensions
dumbbell curls
bent-over dumbbell rows

then I’ll transition to legs:
squats
lunges
box step-ups
calf raises and/or hops

Clearly this is nothing fancy. The whole thing may take just 15 minutes if I’m in a hurry and only do two sets of everything. Or, if I have more time and motivation, then I’ll do 3 or 4 sets, and it may take as long as 20-25 minutes, but really, it’s not that time consuming. I think that sometimes this is the best use of a short period of time if all you have available is a half-hour in the morning before a full day at work or with family. Or if you’re on the road and just have a hotel gym and a full day of other work or family activities.

I’d encourage you to try adding this kind of basic routine into your winter schedule just 2 or 3 times per week and see what it does for you over the first 4 to 5 weeks. I’m sure you’ll feel good about the time and energy you spent doing this, and will probably want to continue.

Good luck and keep moving.

How to CRUSH the Diablo Challenge!

Every year for a while now, the Diablo Challenge has been held at the end of the racing season, usually the first weekend of October. It’s a mass start unofficial race up Mt. Diablo starting at the Athenian School at the bottom of South Gate Road and goes all the way to the summit of Diablo. It’s a fun event and has been used to raise money for the Save Mount Diablo organization.

Many people just do it for fun and to support the charity that aims to preserve lands around Mount Diablo. Some also do it for the challenge of racing up the long 11 mile climb up about 3,100 feet of elevation. It’s a great climb, and one of my all-time favorite places to train and test my fitness. I’ve ridden it hard dozens of times and it’s always great.

I’ve won the Challenge a few times and have some fast times up the climb, even taking into account the fact that the Tour of California has finished there a few times. My best time from South Gate to the Summit still ranks in the top 10 on Strava. Not too long ago, Phil Gaimon tried to set a fast time and was a little faster, but didn’t get a chance to get all the way to the summit, since there was some snow at the top and the road was closed for a few weeks at that time.

2017-10-06.png

In any case, I have some experience on the climb and know what it takes to ride it fast. I wanted to put out a few thoughts on pacing and basic strategies to try to help you if you’re trying to go out and train on the mountain, if you’re using it as a test of fitness and want to do your best efforts there, or if you’re doing the Diablo Challenge. Personally, I’d recommend doing Diablo at least a few times a month if you live in the East Bay and want to be a strong climber, road racer, or time trialist. Even if you’re not a racer but want to be strong for group rides, Gran Fondos, or a big bike tour, it’s hard to beat Diablo for high aerobic training in the Bay Area.

So, here are a few thoughts on riding the mountain:

Power: If you have a power meter, hopefully you have a good what your peak power curve is like and a reasonably good idea of how long it will take to complete the climb. You can use that information to target your peak power for the climb. So, let’s say that you are trying to break an hour, you’ve ridden it in training recently and have done the climb in 1:01 or 1:02 at about 250w, then you could probably aim to do the climb at 250w or maybe even 255w. If you are fresh and motivated, then you can usually squeeze out a few extra watts compared to an average training ride. Sometimes you can surprise yourself and do an extra 10 or 15w more than your recent training sessions, but this is not usually the case, so you shouldn’t count on it. If you head out at 260-270w for the first 10m, even though this may feel easy at the time, it’s usually not the best idea and in all likelihood you will slow down later.

Mt Diablo from Vollmer Peak-2

The climb is a little steeper on the second half (about 7% grade) than the first half (about 5%), and you’re going slower. So, if you go out too hard, it doesn’t help you as much in the first half as the same amount of extra power would help you in the second half of the climb. So, try to keep it steady, or if you can, maybe try to do a negative split with a few extra watts on the top half than on the bottom.

Throughout the climb, there are a number of short steeper pitches and a number of brief periods of shallower grades. Use the shallow bits to try to recover, drop your power just a few watts and catch your breath. Use the steep bits to pick up a couple of seconds here and there. Throughout the climb, an optimal strategy will include a few dozen small fluctuations above and below your threshold of up to 5-10%. Below, I’m posting a screen shot that shows those spikes in power as well as some major dips. You can see my HR drift downward throughout those periods of easier riding. That extra reserve of cardiac output helps you to feel much more comfortable and gives you the ability to attack the steeper portions of the climb with a little extra power.

Heart Rate: Heart rate is incredibly helpful for longer threshold efforts. I find it very useful for pacing long training efforts, hill climbs, and time trials. Your heart rate does vary fairly significantly from day to day and week to week depending on how well recovered you are, how much glycogen you have in your legs, whether or not you have had caffeine, and how excited or focused you are. But, if you pay attention to your HR numbers on a regular basis, you can usually tell very well what your HR values will be on your ride today and you can adjust your expectations up or down a few bpm accordingly. Any time you’re racing you can usually expect to see slightly higher HR numbers than in training, because you are ideally a little fresher and more motivated than on a normal training ride.

Diablo Peak from half way-2

Allow yourself several minutes at the start of the climb to let your HR drift slowly upwards. You don’t want to see peak HR numbers within the first 5 or even 10 minutes. If you’re maxed out early on, then it’s hard to recover and still maintain high power throughout the climb. For people who aren’t used to training with power, they are often surprised to see that their power is slowly but steadily dropping even though their HR is remaining constant on a long climbing effort like Diablo. Try to avoid this. Ideally you see a sharp rise for the first few minutes, then a slow rise for another few, but then it should plateau and just inch upwards another couple of beats per minute [bpm] towards the later portions of the climb.

For me, I may expect a hard TT effort up Diablo to have an average HR around 160-165. I know from experience what power is reasonable (about 400-410w when I’m in good shape) and I know what it feels like. I’ll take into account all three of those inputs in gauging my efforts (i.e. HR, power, and perceived effort). Always listen to your body. So, if you look at this particular effort of mine, you can see that I averaged 162 bpm and 415w, but you’ll notice that I never saw my HR at 162 until several minutes into the climb and only briefly. After the first 10m to the Pay Station, you can see that my power dropped and my HR followed when I rode through Rock City. I think that recovery is crucial. During the Diablo Challenge, you can often get a draft if you can find a few riders to rotate with at that point. Past Rick City and the helipad right below the junction, you can see that my HR started to hover in the low 160s. Finally in the last 1/3 of the climb, my HR finally remained in the upper 160s until the end of the climb. I averaged 166 bpm from the Junction to the Summit for this particular effort. But, you’ll also notice that I did 420w for the first half of the climb and only 410w for the second half of the climb. I think that I could have gone a few seconds faster if I had paced it a little more evenly.

2017-10-06 (2)

You’ll notice that even late in the climb near the final ascent up the wall to the Summit, I tried to get a few moments of recovery before hammering up the last few hundred meters up “the wall.” Even just getting my HR down 3-4 bpm for a few moments allowed me to relax, focus, and dig deep up the last portion of the climb.

Clearly, I’m a bit of an outlier, but it’s always very useful to look at peak performances to see what a perfect or near perfect performance looks like. Whether you’re trying to ride faster than last year, trying to break an hour for the first time, or trying to win the race, it can help to look at the pacing of the top one or two performances that you see on Strava leaderboards. Usually the KOM on any competitive segment is a pretty ideal pacing strategy.

Coyote on Diablo-2

Perceived effort: Perceived effort is not something that is often discussed in training or sports performance articles, but it’s very important. I always pay close attention to how I’m feeling when I’m training and racing. I’ll definitely also be looking at what my HR and power numbers look like, but I consider them all to be valuable pieces of data that inform my pacing, racing, and training decisions. Even though you can’t put a precise numerical value on this, it’s good to listen to your body.

Along with HR, I would suggest going into the Challenge or any time trial type effort, whether in training or racing, with a specific expectation of how hard it will feel ahead of time. I would pace it so that you don’t feel like you are at your limit for the first 1/4 or 1/3 of the climb. After you get settled into your pace, you should feel like you’re inching towards your limit, but until the last 1/3 of the effort you shouldn’t feel like you’re at your limit.

Hydration and food: I would recommend having a bottle of mix with you while you ride any long climb at a hard pace. Keeping your mouth and throat wet helps your breathing to feel more comfortable and may provide a marginal advantage in its own right, because your lungs need to be wet/humid to do their job. But, mostly it’s good to stay comfortable and not feel lousy with a dry, cotton mouth. It’s also good to take in a few carbohydrate calories during a long hard effort like this. You can actually absorb and use some calories, but you won’t become glycogen depleted over the course of a single 11 mile climb. Still, blood glucose is an important fuel source during hard efforts like that. And, studies have shown that putting sweet things in your mouth (like drink mix) is performance enhancing.

Because the climb is short enough that you can’t run out of glycogen by the time you reach the top, you don’t need to worry about taking in a lot of calories during the climb. But still, some people may benefit from having an emergency gel that they may consider taking while they ride through Rock City. Or you could take a few chews. Really, I think that for most people it should be ideal to just have on bottle of mix for the ride and that should be sufficient.

Warm up: In order to perform your best at any kind of intense effort you need to have a good warm-up. The more intense the effort, the more thorough your warm up needs to be. For less intense efforts or longer events, you don’t need as much of a warm up. Professional racers have good habits here because it’s very important to them and their livelihood basically depends on their race-day performance.

Before time trials, mountain bike or cross races, or intense road races that start with a hard climb or something like that you’ll usually see longer and more intense warm-ups. For longer events that won’t start very intensely, you’ll often see athletes doing more relaxed warm-ups just to get loose.

For something like the Diablo Challenge, I’d allow at least 15-20m to ride at a comfortable pace and then another 10-15 to do a few moderate efforts. Start easy and slowly ramp up until you’re riding at a decent clip a little below your threshold. As you feel more warmed up and ready to go, consider doing a few short efforts above your threshold. Finally, in the last 10m before your event, you may want to stomp on the pedals for a few 3/4 effort sprints for maybe 8-15 seconds at 150% of your threshold power. This way your aerobic systems are all warmed up, but also your nervous system is ready to engage your muscles at a high level and your muscles will be better prepared to clear high quantities of lactate. Some athletes find that they even want to do 1 or 2 short VO2 max intervals that are long enough to make their legs start to hurt. When your legs start to ache or burn it’s generally a sign that you’re doing a moderate to high amount of anaerobic metabolism and feeling just a little bit of that before racing intensely can make your legs feel more comfortable once the race or time trial starts.

Again, listen to your body and do what helps you to feel ready to ride hard. That’s all you need, but you can’t do your best if you aren’t fully warmed up.

This might look something like this:

15-20m starting 50% of threshold and slowly increasing to 90% of threshold

2-3×1-2m at 105-110% of threshold

2-3 short powerful accelerations (8-15s at roughly 130-160% of threshold)

5-10m easy spinning before lining up for the event