Neither approach yields the best results. For physical and psychological reasons, it's beneficial to take an off-season break from your normal training, regardless of your sport. Doing so gives your body a chance to rest and recover on a deep level, while getting away from your sport for a few weeks helps renew your passion for it. Together, these benefits will allow you to perform at a higher level than you would without a break.
There's more than one way to take a break, however. Sure, doing little or no training during this time will give your body a rest and your mind a chance to reenergize. But it will also cause you to lose fitness, prolonging the process of climbing back to competitive shape in the spring and increasing your chances of getting injured if you rush it.
A better way to take an off-season break is with cross-training. Participating in fun activities outside of your main sport brings a refreshing sense of play back into working out. In addition, certain cross-training activities can help you lay a solid fitness foundation for your return to normal training.
This off-season, try mixing it up with our six-week cross-training program. By the time springtime rolls around, you'll be physically and psychologically ready to raise the bar in your sports performance.
Your Fitness Foundation
Different sports require different varieties of fitness, but there's a fitness foundation that most sports share. It has three components, and your off-season cross-training program should focus on the following:
Core stability. Stability in the joints at the core of the body -- the hips, pelvis and lower spine -- is critical for performance and injury prevention in most sports. When the muscles responsible for stabilizing these joints are weak, or when you lack the ability to properly activate these muscles, your core joints become unstable, resulting in inefficient movements and overuse injuries.
For example, in runners, weakness in the hip abductors (the muscles on the outside of the hip) causes instability in the hips and pelvis, which can contribute to common running injuries including knee pain.
You can strengthen and enhance your ability to properly activate your core stabilizing muscles through such activities as circuit strength training, Pilates and yoga.
Aerobic capacity. In virtually every sport your muscles must have a strong aerobic capacity -- that is, you must be able to use oxygen at a high rate. The more oxygen your muscles can use, the harder they can work, and the longer they can sustain hard work. This is most obvious in endurance sports such as mountain biking and running, but it's also the case in other sports such as surfing and rock climbing.
Developing your aerobic capacity is probably a major focus of your normal training. The goal of your off-season cross-training is to prevent the loss of aerobic capacity even while you take a break from your normal training activities. All this requires is that you perform some alternative quality cardio workouts. If you're a cyclist, try running. If you're a swimmer, try cross-country skiing.
Dynamic flexibility. There are two basic types of flexibility: passive flexibility and dynamic flexibility. Passive flexibility is the sort that gymnasts and contortionists have in spades: extreme joint range of motion. Most athletes need only average passive flexibility.
Dynamic flexibility, on the other hand, is something every athlete needs. Dynamic flexibility is the ability to relax certain non-working muscles when you perform a sport movement so the muscles don't resist the movement. For example, when running, you need to be able to relax your gluteus muscles as the opposing muscles -- the hip flexors -- work to swing your leg forward.
The best way to enhance your dynamic flexibility is by doing dynamic stretches -- sport-specific movements that involve moving a joint through its full range of motion. For example, giant lunges are a great dynamic stretching exercise for runners, and like many dynamic stretches, it also doubles as a strength exercise.