Getting it Right
So, what should you do? Here are a few tips for setting yourself up with the right balance of recovery without losing too much fitness.
1. Rest then assess. Take three weeks rest and recovery with only a minimum of easy training (up to a maximum of 30 to 60 minutes per day) after your last race of the year. Simply do light exercise that still moves the blood through your body with the focus of having total enjoyment.
If you plan an hour jog, but at 20 minutes your body is saying "enough," then in the off-season it truly is enough. By doing this, you will allow full recovery that only really begins after about two to three weeks of very low-intensity workouts.
2. Train without training. During the year you swim, bike and run with focus. Part of a good off-season requires taking a mental break from the standard routine. Begin your off-season training with workouts that don't feel like workouts. Try mountain biking, trail hiking, cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, rock climbing or anything else that uses the heart and muscles but is not about miles or training time to put in your log book. If you must swim, bike and run, start with a volume that is at most one-quarter to one-half of what you do mid-season.
3. Keep running . . . a little. You can take a complete break from the bike and the pool and still come back strong next year. However, it's important to do a small amount of maintenance work for the run. If you take complete time off of running, when you begin your training again the joints and tendons could be subject to a higher chance of injury. But try to just run as your body tells you. Don't have a definitive plan or goal of the amount of time you will run. If you feel good, go a little longer. If you feel tired, cut the run short.
4. Stay flexible. The off-season is one of the best times to work on general flexibility. Without your body having to deal with the miles of training, you can effectively apply the benefits of flexibility work. When you start back with a structured program, you will be more flexible and your body will be adapted to the rigors of flexibility work at the start of your training season.
5. Let your mind relax. One to three months away from a structured training schedule will not only recharge your body but will also recharge the motivation stores in your mind. Skipping workouts or cutting back is not being lazy. It is being wise. Take time to listen to your body, take more breaks, naps, sleep more at night and cut out the workouts. Be flexible when deciding what to do for exercise.
6. Eat now for next year. We all tend to scarf down the junk food the first weeks after the last big race. All the things that you denied yourself in the pursuit of excellence come calling your name, and most of us succumb. Splurging a little bit is fine, but do your best to cut the food slide before it adds too much evidence around the midsection.
Body composition is only one reason to eat well in the off-season. A second is that it can take weeks to several months to stock up the reserves of nutrients that are depleted over the season. It can also take that long to heal the tissues and build up the reserves of components in your hormonal systems that help you race well, think clearly and have emotional stability. Balance the splurge with an even larger amount of healthy foods.
7. Do a race. Find a fun race every three to six weeks. This is your get out of jail free card. Go into it with no speed work, and give it everything you have. This will keep a huge amount of your overall fitness intact yet still allow you to recover. Make sure you have not been sick in the two weeks leading up to your fun race, and monitor your health in the two weeks post-race. If you do come down with something in that timeframe, it is your immune system indicating a need to keep the training knob turned to low.
8. Sleep, sleep and sleep some more. There is nothing like several weeks with full nights of sleep to charge the body up and rebalance the hormone and energy systems. Think of catching up on sleep just like you would losing weight. Make it a long-term project. One healthy well-proportioned meal won't melt away months of overindulging at the dinner table. One or two nights of good rest won't make up for months of cutting the ZZZs short.
9. Remember your support crew. Just about everyone has a group of family and friends that was left on the chopping block when it came to carving out time to train. Thank them—more than once. Do something with them they enjoy—more than once. Hang up the training shoes and hang out with them—more than once. After a while they'll get tired of you and want you out of the house again anyway.