Each year following Labor Day, triathletes across North America suddenly become non-triathletes for a while. This is understandable and healthy.
They've been training hard for months on end, putting off other commitments and priorities, maintaining strict self-discipline on many fronts, and devoting a lot of brain space to their chosen sport. They need a break.
However, not all breaks are equally productive. Many triathletes allow themselves to get too far away from the sport for too long, and fail to do simple things requiring little time or energy that would greatly bolster their chances of experiencing success the following summer.
A better way to approach the beginning of the offseason is to push triathlon to the back of your mind rather than out of mind altogether. This way, you'll get the break you need, but at the same time you won't miss opportunities that only this period affords to set yourself up for a great next season.
This balanced way of greeting the offseason should include five strategies, which I present here in logical sequence.
1. Go Cold Turkey for Two Weeks
Taking time away from all forms of exercise is not bad, but this time should be planned no less than your in-season training is planned, because smart rest is no less beneficial than smart training.
Why two weeks? Because this is just enough time to make you restless and eager to sweat again, yet not so long that you lose excessive fitness. While it takes a bit of discipline to exercise consistently through the holiday season and the heart of winter, there's simply no better way to generate long-term improvement in endurance sports than by practicing year-round consistency.
2. Enjoy Some Alternate Activities
Having said this, let me now say that even when you return from exercise from your total break, the exercise you do can constitute a break from the normal triathlon routine.
The early portion of the offseason is a great time to mess around in some alternative fitness activities such as cross-country skiing, ice hockey, basketball, strength training, step aerobics...whatever! Take an unstructured approach for several weeks and just do what you feel.
3. Reflect on Last Season's Training and Results
As you perform these unstructured workouts, take advantage of the thinking time they afford and play the past season through your head. Which races were successful? Which ones were less successful? Which aspects of your training seemed to work or not work?
Use these musings to generate some ideas about the elements of your preparation that you wish to repeat in the coming season and those you'd like to change. Even if you feel your past season was an unmitigated triumph start to finish, if you think long and hard enough, you'll realize there are a couple of new things you might try in the quest for even better results.
4. Think About Next Season's Goals and Training
Next, begin to formulate a list of goals for the coming season. Think about specific races you might wish to compete in, performance marks you might wish to achieve, and so forth. If you have a major goal, such as competing in an Ironman or half-Ironman, you may even want to go ahead and register for the event, if possible. The most popular triathlons are selling out earlier and earlier these days, and making a firm commitment well in advance has a powerful motivating effect.
Choose two or three peak races where you wish to perform at your best, and plot them in a training calendar. Then take some time to plot the training cycles that will lead you to such form for these races. Use a training program or philosophy from a trusted book author, magazine, coach, peer, or Internet resource as a template, but be sure to customize it. You don't need to get too detailed; just schedule key workouts for each week in each discipline and a target weekly volume (in hours and minutes).
5. Get a Bike Overhaul
You've put your bike through hell during the past few months. Now is the perfect time to take it into your regular bike shop for a complete tune-up. Replace all the worn parts (your mechanic will let you know which ones are on their last legs) and make any upgrades you've been planning and can afford.
Do choose your mechanic carefully, though, as there are many out there who take little pride in their work and/or lack the knowledge needed to work effectively on high-performance bikes. Go where other competitive triathletes and cyclists go.
Active Expert Matt Fitzgerald is the author of several books on triathlon and running, including Brain Training for Runners, Runner's World Performance Nutrition for Runners (Rodale, 2005) and Triathlete Magazine's Essential Week-by-Week Training Guide (Warner, 2006).