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.

Basic Thoughts on Nutrition

As an athlete and coach, I’m clearly interested in all things training related. What workouts should I do? When should I do these workouts? How many rest days should I take? All of these are key questions that most every athlete will consider when looking to work towards some goal.

What should I eat, when, and how much? These questions may well be just as important as those regarding how to train. To address the topic briefly, here are some basic guidelines that I think are healthy and should help you train and perform well, which are guidelines that I generally try to follow with my diet. As an aside, if you looked around at other dietary guidelines and asked me to compare my approach to others’ or to say what’s similar, I’d say that my thoughts on diet are probably most closely aligned with Tim Ferris’ “slow-carb diet” and Cordain/Friel’s “Paleo Diet for Athletes.” I do include fruits in moderation, which Ferriss does not. I also include legumes, which the Paleo diet does not include. I’ll include oats and other grains some of the time, but neither diet really advocates for that.

Eat vegetables and legumes in abundance. You can never add unhealthy or performance hindering body weight from eating too many vegetables. You’ll get the highest ratio of nutrition to calories that you can. With legumes (beans and lentils) you can add fiber, protein, minerals, and slowly digested carbohydrate to your diet. Eating a ton of this stuff will likely keep you healthy, lean, help repair muscles, feed healthy gut flora, help give you energy for workouts, and likely reduce your risk of most every disease out there. It’s probably impossible to eat too many vegetables or legumes, so go ahead and include them however you can enjoy them. The only caution would be about how they’re prepared, so just be careful to keep extra ingredients limited (e.g. oil or butter with salad or vegetables, cheese with beans, etc.). Potatoes are considered a starch here for our purposes, not a vegetable, though it clearly also falls into that category.

Eat fruits and nuts in moderation. Fruits and nuts are both great sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and energy (in the form of carbohydrate and fat, respectively). Fruits also have the added bonus of providing a lot of water, helping make them good recovery foods (carbohydrate and water, both good for recovery). Nuts are good sources of protein, minerals, and arguably healthy fats. The challenge for each of these is the high fructose content of the fruit, which in general would be a bad thing, but when it’s packaged in its natural casing (i.e. whole fruit), fructose is probably fine for you in moderation. Likewise, nuts are good for you, but high in calories, so you just don’t want to consume too many of them. With that in mind, I’d say it’s probably fine to have both daily, but just keep it moderate.

Animal proteins are fine in moderation. Skip it if you’re vegan or vegetarian, and you’ll be fine too. Meat, eggs, and/or dairy can be a great source of protein, iron, some vitamins, and fat that can be used as fuel. There’s definitely some question about whether animal protein is ultimately all that good for athletic performance. Really it’s not at all necessary, but animal products may be helpful because they are a great source of protein that’s relatively easily assimilated, and have basically just the right stuff for adapting to hard training. The question about meat and dairy is more of a public health question regarding how much meat is safe to eat, what kind of meat is safe to eat, and whether dairy is safe to eat. Some people argue strongly against hormone and antibiotic fed meats, so in an ideal world, it’s probably good to avoid if you can. Dairy is strange because of the high insulin production that follows its consumption. That alone makes me question whether or when you might want it. Also, some people argue that high intake of dairy protein encourages the growth of cancer cells. I’ll admit that I really like yogurt, and eat it regularly, but otherwise, generally avoid milk products altogether, for the reasons above. Fish may have mercury and maybe other things you wouldn’t want to consume, but some fish has healthy fats, and they all have great protein, so it’s again debatable if or how much is going to be okay or good to eat. Lastly, there’s the fact that vegetarians tend to weigh less. Ultimately, I’ve gone back and forth over time about whether there seems to be sufficient justification to eat animal food products and about how much may be safe to eat, but where I stand now is that it’s probably fine in moderation, especially if you limit or avoid dairy and choose natural meats (grass-fed, free-range and non-farmed fish).

Include unrefined starches in proportion to high-intensity training or racing. The more you ride, lift weights, run, or otherwise workout, the more you’re going to need calories to fuel your activity, and the more intensely you do those things, the more carbohydrate you’ll use up. At lower intensities, you burn mostly fat, so replacing used up glycogen stores is much less crucial. If you eat a lot of carbohydrate, whether it’s sugars or starches, refined or not, it’s going to encourage your body to release insulin into your bloodstream and store glycogen and fat, which is fine at the right times, but not good if it’s a chronic condition in your body all of the time, because it will limit fat-burning and encourage undesirable and potentially unhealthy fat storage. Anyway, all that to say, consume extra carbohydrate in proportion to the high-intensity work that you do in your training, but limit it when you’re not doing as much. I think that potatoes are fine, but they’re pretty quickly digested and absorbed, so I’ll keep them reserved for after hard workouts or during stage races. Sweet potatoes and yams are great, because they have a some extra nutrients in them compared to white potatoes, but more importantly, they’re much more slowly digested and absorbed, so they cause less of a swing in your blood sugar and insulin levels. Likewise, I’m a big fan of oats, because they’re slowly digested, have more fiber and protein compared to some grains, and are gluten free (which some people like). I’m not a big fan of bread, pasta, rice, or related flour-based products. They are refined and shoot glucose into your bloodstream way more quickly. Personally, I avoid refined, flour-based products and rice almost all of the time, but again, will use them sometimes in hard training or during stage races.

Research on training versus diet: Everyone wants to get stronger, faster, better, etc. so everyone can justify doing studies on what kind of performance effects strength training, endurance training, interval training, etc will have on your performance, whether it’s power, endurance, speed over distance, etc. Somehow it seems that research related to diet is a little more one-sided, because most research on diet seems to be focused on public health and whether too many hamburgers will kill you or too many donuts will give you diabetes. With respect to performance, a lot of research is done with athletes to see how they perform if they drink nothing, drink water, or drink a sports drink. Some research is done to see if caffeine in your sports drink helps you out, or even if swishing-and-spitting a sports drink or caffeine drink helps you perform better (it does on both counts). It seems like most of this research is done to see acutely if performance is enhanced that day with that protocol, but I whenever I come across interesting studies on nutrition and sports, it’s usually not done on how long-term diet changes help or hinder performance.

So, all that being said, I think that there could be more real research done to answer the questions of what diet is best for performance in the long run, and whether that diet will be constant, or like your training, will vary significantly. I would argue that the latter is likely to be the case, that just as your training changes from day to day, week to week, and throughout the season, that if you change your diet along with your training, that you’ll likely be able to be healthier and perform better in the long run.

Does drinking a sports drink help you perform today? Yes; research clearly supports this idea. Does training with a sports drink every day help your VO2 or threshold power? Does it help your endurance? Does it hinder your endurance by hindering your body’s reliance on fat as a fuel source? Does it make sense to do endurance training with less carbohydrate and more intense threshold, aerobic capacity, and anaerobic capacity training with more carbohydrate? These questions are more interesting, but are harder to study, and likely will make a notable difference in the long run. Maybe it’s worth sacrificing a few watts on Saturday’s long ride by having less carbohydrate going into it, so that your body will have better endurance and perform better in the long run. Or maybe it’s not worth doing that, because you’ll still burn just as much fat, but have a better high-end aerobic workout on that ride. Maybe it will help you 3 months down the line to modify your diet like that, or maybe it won’t. I imagine that it probably would, the challenge is in the details and how to exactly implement that kind of change.

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.