The Fourth Season: A 12-step Program for Ramping Down

You may be raring to go, but jumping back into training too early isn't a good idea.

A triathlon season has four parts. The first three are pretty clear. It starts with the base period, usually in winter and early spring. Long, steady aerobic miles and weight training lay the foundation in the base period. The second is the anaerobic or speed phase, which lasts about one-quarter to one-third of the time you spend on your base. You add intervals to the endurance and strength of your aerobic training base and receive high-output speed and endurance in return. Next comes the taper. A well-executed taper down from peak training volume lasts around four weeks from start to finish.

Now, for the fourth phase. This is one of the most critical yet least understood parts of training: It's the off-season, when you allow your body to fully charge up and recover. It's the balance to the energy output of the other three phases. To many, the off-season translates into taking two weeks easy after the final race of the season and then jumping back into a structured training program in hopes of getting a head start and a foot up on their competitors.

However, our bodies don't work best this way, and a good off-season can last up to three months. If this sounds impossible, then go train, but don't expect any significant gains next season. But if you want to get faster, have more endurance and do better in your races next season, read on.

Moving Forward

Most of you are nearing the end or have already ended your main training for the year. What you do now will have a profound effect on what happens in the future. The off-season is not a time to discontinue workouts altogether. Activity is essential, but structure is not. Intensity, speed and regiment at this time of year will get you a rap on the knuckles, as both body and mind get depleted from months of big workouts. You'll get the list of Do's to choose from in a moment. But first we need to cover the three big Don'ts.

1. Don't start back too soon. Just about everyone goes into the fall and early winter months motivated to train. The drive to train can come from two opposing forces. One happens when you had the great successes in your racing this past year, which makes you even more excited for what could be achieved in the following season.

With success as your motivator, you can be on a great race high that masks the need to cut back on training. However, to accomplish the two most important goals of the off-season, which are to recover and regroup, downtime is essential. An early jump into a big training program is a guarantee for a mid-season burnout next year.

The second reason for wanting to dive back into training can come from disappointment, especially if it happened at your season finale. Using disappointment and frustration as a motivator can put your name on the Early Start mistake list with just as much ease as if you were overly zealous. But once again, emotions (disappointment, frustration) are masking the body's need to shut down for a while and just chill out, take a breather, relax and recover.

2. Don't become one with your couch. Taking a break from structured training is not a carte blanche invitation to become a sloth. This can result in excess weight gain, lethargy and having a huge mental block against getting back into the swing of training. This is the opposite of the Early Starter but can have a similarly negative effect on what happens next season. We'll talk in a moment about what activity means during the off-season, but safe to say it doesn't mean mastering the remote control for your television.

3. Don't sneak biggies. When most triathletes feel their fitness begins to slide they want to sneak a big workout in just to maintain things. It may be an unscheduled long ride on the bike, a quick speed session or a workout that turns into a race with their buddies. This can be a good thing as long as it's not a regular part of your schedule. Otherwise, it becomes training, and training turns the off-season into a muddled version of the regular season, which turns the regular season into a muddled version of the off-season.

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