Things not to do in the off-season.

Don’t keep the same workout routine, volume, and intensity. If you kept doing a similar routine of hard workouts and recovery days, similar loads of volume and intensity, then you could probably stay reasonably fit all of the time. Again, as mentioned above, if you did that, you might open yourself up to increased long-term risk of injury by overworking some muscles, joints, and connective tissue while under-utilizing others. But there’s more than that. If you’re always keeping a moderate stress on your body, you can adapt and progress for a while, but eventually you’ll plateau and see the same fitness achieved on an ongoing basis. If you want to see higher peaks in your fitness, then you need to consider toning things down, giving your body a little extra rest, and then have a stretch of progressive training that will hopefully culminate in a higher level of fitness than what you’d otherwise achieve. So, most athletes find good success taking the off-season months to slowly build up a bigger, broader foundation of strength, endurance, and aerobic efficiency, so that they can add on an extra bit of maximal aerobic capacity and anaerobic capacity work, finally reaching their best potential for that point in time.

Don’t keep the same dietary habits or put on too much extra body weight.¬†Inevitably, if you’re engaged in heavy training and abruptly stop, then it may take days or even a few weeks for your appetite to adjust to the lower energy demands placed on your body. That’s fine; don’t worry about it. But, try to do what you can to mitigate the damage. Don’t shut down your training but keep eating 3000 or 4000 calories a day like you might have been doing when engaged in heavy training. Try to establish good eating habits that will provide a lot of nutrition without encouraging your body to put on extra weight. If you’re not doing high-intensity workouts and races, then you don’t need high-octane fuel sources (i.e. refined carbohydrates and sugars). If you’re not engaged in a high volume of training, then you don’t need nearly as many calories to keep your body happy and healthy. You don’t need to worry about digesting food quickly before your next workout or race, so you don’t need to ever worry about avoiding lower density foods with higher fiber content. So, consider cutting back on the refined carbohydrates you might want for intense workouts and races, in favor of fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, legumes, some meat, and maybe some dairy. Definitely look for ways to eat as many vegetables as you can, while also keeping additives to a minimum. It’s one thing to have a great salad, it’s another one to have an extra 500 calories of croutons and salad dressing on top. Always remember, you’re never going to put on extra weight by eating too many vegetables, but they are generally the ones most universally associated with increased longevity and reduction in risk for various health problems, so you might as well spend most of your time grocery shopping in the produce section.

Don’t worry. Don’t worry about losing fitness when you tone things down or take a break. Don’t worry if you put on a couple of pounds. Don’t worry if you get busy and take more days off than you planned or expected. 6 months from now, in all likelihood, it won’t matter. It will matter if you get worried and keep training straight through the off-season, never take it easy, and never shy away from high-intensity workouts, because you might end up stale physically or mentally, perhaps burnt out or even hurt. Try not to focus on things that you might consider negative, and instead try to be positive and look for ways that you can move towards your goals even if you’re not actively pursuing a hard training routine. When you’re not out training as much and you’re taking extra days off, consider doing a few minutes of core work to strengthen the part of your body you might neglect a little bit when you’re competing more regularly. Look for areas of your diet where you could improve things. Do a bit of cross training to get a mental break from your sport and to enjoy playing around with others. Or engage in other hobbies you have. After all, the athletic adventures we seek out are supposed to be fun, provide an outlet for our drives to be competitive and to better ourselves, and they should be rewarding, so as much as we want to do well, succeed at achieving our goals, and maybe beat some of our competition, we don’t ever need it to add stress or concern to our mental lives.

Don’t do too much LSD. Doing higher volume training sessions and keeping those sessions at a steady, moderate intensity can be great for building up aerobic endurance and efficiency preserving glycogen stores and increasing your fat-burning capacity. But doing long training sessions at a really low intensity, or doing long stretches of training only at a steady pace will not help you out. You should never do only long-slow distance training. For one thing, for a competitive athlete who’s been engaged in an endurance sport for more than a year or two, there is little fitness to be gained from doing truly slow training in any volume. This is a little less of a concern for runners, because running tends to encourage athletes to operate at intensities closer to their threshold pace most of the time (say, 80-100% of their threshold pace). If you’re a runner whose half-marathon pace is 7 min/mile (about 1:32 pacing), then it’s likely that a lot of your general endurance running is done somewhere around 7:40-8:20 min/mile pace (80-90% of half-marathon pace). For cycling there is much more of a propensity for athletes to have a much bigger range of intensity at different times. For a lot of cyclists, their average wattage for one of their long rides might be as low as 50-65% of their threshold wattage, which is relatively low. But at the same time, during that ride, they may have a few dozen relatively modest efforts of 30s to 2-3m up to or above their threshold wattage. Such is the nature of cycling, where it’s very natural for a lot of cyclists to ease into an easy pace and then kick a little bit harder on every little rise or headwind section without paying much attention to the big differences in intensity. And even more extreme, cyclists necessarily coast into stop signs, traffic lights, and down hills, so it’s not uncommon for a rider to coast 10, 15, even 20% of the time. In general, these two phenomena can be viewed as a good thing, because it naturally helps cyclists to develop strength and anaerobic fitness if they’re routinely doing short hard efforts up hills and after stops, but it also means that they may have to focus more if they’re trying to get in an efficient endurance boosting ride.

Don’t do only your sport of choice. Whatever your chosen sport is, you don’t want to train by only ever doing that singular activity. Of course, if you’re a cyclist, cycling will be the most specific activity that you can do to improve your race-readiness. Likewise, if you’re a runner, running will get your fitness dialed in for the events you’re getting ready for. But, when you’re months away from competing, you need to make sure that you’re building your overall fitness, strength, and working to keep a balanced, flexible body and prevent injury. If you only do one sport all of the time, then you’ll almost certainly be developing some muscles while neglecting others, creating imbalances that may or may not create functional inefficiencies down the line or even injury. Consider mixing it up, building a better balanced musculature, increasing flexibility, and stressing your body in ways that you don’t normally, keeping it stronger all-around.

Don’t do too much intensity. Even though hard efforts are a necessary and integral part of developing race-readiness, and improving fitness generally, it’s good to cycle through periods of higher and lower intensity training. That’s definitely not to say that hard efforts will be absent from off-season training, it just shouldn’t be the focus. Presumably, for most endurance athletes, leading into and during a competitive season, training will include heavy doses of high-end aerobic and anaerobic workouts. These stress your body a lot and push it to maximize the potential that you’ve built up over the previous months that you’ve been building up foundational fitness. All of those miles of steady and high-endurance training, all of those tempo and threshold efforts, the strength training and cross training you may have done during the pre-season and early-season months, will all culminate after a few months of hard training in your best race-ready fitness and performances. If you spend your off-season skipping strength, endurance, and aerobic workouts in favor of maximal aerobic-capacity workouts, anaerobic workouts, hard race-rides, etc. then you’re not getting the most long term benefit to your fitness that you could. Basically, there’s only so much time that you have to train and a finite capacity that your body has to absorb workouts and grow stronger from them, so you want to build the biggest foundation of strength, endurance, and aerobic efficiency that you can during the off-season, so that when you pile on top end fitness later, you’ll reach a higher peak. If you do too much high intensity work instead of foundational work, then you may see more fitness early on, but only see it deteriorate or stay flat throughout the season rather than reach a new high-point for you.

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How do I train when I can’t train? Part 1

As a lot of people know, at the end of this 2013 racing season I had the misfortune of crashing out of the Tour of Utah with some relatively serious injuries. Basically, I got knocked out when I went down, I fractured two vertebrae at the base of my neck (cracking one and breaking a piece off of another), sprained my right shoulder and left wrist, fractured my right arm, and scraped up my face, neck and shoulder. Now I have some scarring on my cheek, eyebrow, and neck that will probably always be there, a bump on the back of my neck where I have an extra piece of bone that broke off of my spine, and some physical therapy exercises to get my shoulder back in the right shape. At the end of the day, no big deal.

So, what have I been doing this last month since the accident? Clearly I can’t ride my bike. How can I train or try to make progress towards my goals when I’m injured like this?

ATOC tt

Summary (for those who don’t want to read much):
modify my diet (eat more like I would if I wasn’t an endurance athlete)
train on the trainer a moderate amount, 4-5 times a week, ~30m each time, with a few hard efforts
ease into cross training
do some strength building aerobic rides once back on the road

Well, for the first two weeks, there’s nothing I could do that was physically active. I was supposed to be wearing a cervical collar (a neck brace) and taking it easy. The most that I could do was to just walk around and do normal everyday stuff at home and at work. No hiking, no running, and definitely no biking. But, that definitely doesn’t mean I can’t make progress towards my goals. In this case, the main priority was to recover, with a secondary goal of not putting on weight when my training volume went from 15-20 hours a week down to zero. So, I tried to take it easy and gave myself as much time to sleep as my body wanted to take. During that time, I was sleeping anywhere from 9 to 11 hours a night. Usually it was a pretty normal 8-9 hours, but for the first two weeks, I definitely slept 10 or 11 hours every 2 or 3 nights, and considering the fact that I had a low level concussion was probably a good thing.

For my diet, trying not to gain weight and provide lots of good nutrition for healing bones, mending connective tissue, and making sure my brain was functioning properly meant that I focused on trying to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, some nuts, a bit of fish and meat, some yogurt, oatmeal for breakfast most days, some eggs, and otherwise, just a lot less calories and almost zero refined carbohydrates. What on earth would I need high-octane carbohydrate fuel for? I definitely didn’t need it for training hard or racing, and if I had bread, pasta, and rice on a regular basis, I’d probably be producing insulin in higher amounts and storing more body fat than I would prefer to do. Going from very active to zero activity, some weight gain is inevitable, but I could try to minimize it… I tend to think of it this way: you always need a good balance of healthy nutrition with fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, maybe fish, meat, eggs, and perhaps fermented dairy, but then on top of that, you need extra fuel at a level that’s on par with your level of activity. So, if you’re not training, you just need good nutrition. If you’re training hard, racing, or what have you, then you need the same nutrition, but then you just add on extra calories and carbohydrate. Or, in the other direction, if you’re not training, then you can try to just limit the extra calories and carbohydrate that you aren’t using for training and racing.

After about 2 weeks, I was able to take my neck brace off, get on my indoor trainer, and even go running when my neck and shoulder felt good enough for it. Riding outside was against the rules for risk of falling, but just getting on the trainer was good. About this time, I was also considering some of the dietary changes I’ve tried over the last several years of racing as well as some of the research I’ve come across, and had decided, mostly for fun as an experiment, to try a reduced carbohydrate diet (similar to a Paleo type diet) for at least a few weeks as I started riding the trainer again and eventually got back on the road. At this point, my training consisted of 20-45m rides that were usually just pretty steady with a few hard efforts to get my HR up and my legs burning fuel at a high rate, even if only for a few minutes. Even if it’s short, riding a few times per week is way better for your fitness than not riding at all. Likewise, doing just a few hard efforts for some of that time will be much better than just riding steady. So, even though I wasn’t making any actual progress in my fitness, I was able to significantly diminish the detraining I experienced during this month away from the road.

While I was at it, trying a different diet as a fun experiment, I was interested to see how, if at all, my training would be affected by the change, especially as I got back out on the road. The aim for the lower carbohydrate diet would be to encourage my body to produce more aerobic enzymes while training in a glycogen depleted or partially depleted state, because some studies show that training while glycogen depleted is more effective for producing aerobic enzymes than training while fully glycogen loaded. Basically, I would hope to have better endurance as a result, even though training at a minimal volume. (The other side of this principle is that if you want to train your anaerobic energy systems and do very high-intensity efforts, you can do them with any diet, but you will be able to do more if you have more glycogen to burn during those high-intensity, anaerobic efforts. For this reason, I’m thinking I may experiment with cycling macronutrients in my diet this winter while doing blocks of endurance/aerobic training and higher intensity training. We’ll see, but I think it should prove interesting.)

Once I was able, I also wanted to start building up some running fitness in my legs by just doing a few shorter runs each week to put my bones under some running stress, so that more running later is less likely to result in a stress fracture or anything like that. That’s not to say that I or any other cyclist would necessarily be at risk for this, but it’s a distinct possibility, so I figure it’s smarter to hedge my bets and ease into it. Likewise, I used to be able to run 50, 60, or more miles per week on a regular basis, with long runs and intense intervals, and never really get that sore from it. Sure, I would be a bit stiff after a long run or a tough interval workout, but nothing that would inhibit my ability to run the next day. Currently, after riding and racing my bike almost exclusively for the last several years, just doing a 4 mile easy run ends up making me sore for at least 3 or 4 days. So, for various reasons, I’ve decided that my top cross training priority this off season is to get my legs to be more resilient when it comes to running, and to get to a point where I can run regularly without major soreness. To this end, I’ve been doing easy runs of 3-6 miles with some dynamic stretching and strengthening drills (lunges, bounding, etc.) and have done more foam rolling and light stretching after my runs than normal. Again, even though I’m not making huge progress in my aerobic fitness, at least I’m making good progress towards my goal of running regularly and with minimal soreness and discomfort. Ideally, I’ll be able to do longer runs and hard running workouts this winter.

Lastly, for at least my first few weeks out on the road, I’ll focus on doing steady to high-endurance riding with some tempo/threshold type efforts to just regain my strength and general power on the bike. I know that being off of the road for a month or more, and just riding the trainer for a bit in the meantime, there will be a lot of strength that will have to come back just to generate the kind of torque on the pedals that you usually do on the road. That will come back quickly, I’m sure, because among other things, your nervous system is usually one of the faster adapting systems in your body. But, at least for the first few weeks, the main goal will just be steady and high-aerobic work to regain a general baseline of strength and fitness.

How should I eat to maximize endurance?

What’s for breakfast today? Green tea and oats with raisins, some ground almonds, and molasses.

oatmeal and tea

This is a good question. It’s an issue where people have taken a lot of different approaches, and people offer a lot of different advice. Still, there are some nutrition strategies that are better than others.

If you were never going to change your nutrition strategy and were always going to follow the same basic approach to all of your workouts, then I’d probably do something like the following:

– have a snack or light meal 1-3h before working out
– start eating ~1h into your workout, 150-350 kcal/hr depending on body size and workout intensity
– drink ~1 bottle per hour while working out (depending on weather and workout intensity)
– eat a solid meal with carbohydrate and protein right after your workout (carb: protein ratio between 3:1 and 5:1, calories around 400-1000, depending on intensity and volume)
– every day, eat a good balance of moderate to high carbohydrates (depending on training volume and intensity), moderate protein and moderate fat

That should be a pretty reliable approach. You’ll be able to work out effectively, reduce any short-term immune system suppression that might result from harder, longer workouts, and you’ll be able to recover fairly well and work out effectively again soon.

In the short term, probably the most effective way to enhance endurance is to consume copious amounts of carbohydrate. That is, day to day, you’ll feel the best of you’re well fueled. It’s the fuel that’s quicker to digest and easier to burn, so it’s what will make any given ride or series of rides better. And, if you’re a professional athlete with all of the time in the world to train, you will probably have enough volume of training that you need to consume a lot of carbohydrate daily to meet your energy demands. And, you will have ample endurance because no matter what you’re doing in your training, if you’re working out 20-25 hours per week, you’ll have good endurance.

But, if you’re trying to put a little thought into modifying your nutrition to try to improve your endurance or ability to perform in general, then there are things you could sometimes do to get a little more out of your body, maybe once or twice a month to try to stress your fat-burning capabilities a little bit extra. Especially if you’re a working professional who doubles as a part-time endurance athlete, it’s always worth exploring ways that you can modify or optimize your training, nutrition, or recovery routine to try to make the most of the limited training schedule you have. Some ideas follow:

– reduce your carbohydrate intake from high to moderate levels during a 2-3 day stretch of moderate to high volume training (assuming that you do not plan high intensity workouts on anything other than the first day), because each new day that you start workouts slightly depleted will force your body to become more efficient with the fuel it has

– do a long ride with 2/3 of the normal calorie intake (so you become slightly more depleted and force your body to rely more on fat during the later portions of the ride)

– do a long ride where you only start eating 90-120 minutes into the ride (again, so you become a bit more depleted and rely on fat more during the later stages of the ride)

– go out for a 2-3 hour easy endurance ride with half the normal food the day after a hard workout

– have a relatively low carbohydrate breakfast before your morning ride (the reduced carbohydrate intake will encourage your body to use a higher proportion of fat during your workout)

Just like modifying your training routine from time to time or doubling up on workouts, you can do similar things with your nutrition. Consider trying different approaches out and make note of how they affect your day-to-day sensations at the time, and how they affect your performance and sensations 3-6 weeks after introducing the new protocol into your schedule. Again, on the whole, a moderate to high carbohydrate diet will help your overall fitness by enabling you to have the moderate to high intensity workouts that you need for optimal fitness, but to enhance the lower-intensity, endurance end of your fitness, some small changes added on occasion can make a difference.

Again, on the whole, I’m not an advocate of having a giant plate of rice or pasta at every other meal, but there seems to be good evidence that on the whole, a moderate to high carbohydrate diet is what you need to have solid fitness as an endurance athlete. 90% of the time, try to make sure that you are getting enough carbohydrate to recover well and perform workouts strongly. But, consider doing a workout every other week, or a 2-3 day block of training every 3-4 weeks, where you experiment with a lower carbohydrate protocol to see if it enhances your endurance and fuel efficiency.