Monday, December 5, 2011

What Is...The IRONMAN Athlete's "Off-Season"??

"Off Season". What in the world does that mean anymore for an Ironman triathlete? Is there such a thing as an "off-season" nowadays... or does one phase of your training blend into the next so it seems like there is just one continuous in-season?  Confusing, right? Well, I'm going to confuse you a little more as well as hopefully give you some clarity at the same time.

First, I believe in having an off-season of some variety.  We're not machines, even though many triathletes think they are.  Exercise is stressful on the body. In fact, one of my favorite definitions of exercise is that it is "controlled injury".  Exercise for Ironman competition and you're injuring the crap out of yourself each and every day per that definition! And if you continue to do it week after week year-round, you'll traumatize your tissues to the extent that they'll break down and you WILL get hurt.  From the perspective of avoiding classic overuse injury alone, you need a break... but there's more to it than that.

Next, let's talk performance.  Wouldn't it be nice to be in Ironman shape year-round? You know what I mean... the kind of conditioning where you can bike 100 miles as if it's like rolling down the boardwalk on your cruiser on a summer day or run 20 miles as if it's like a walk in the park.  The more you train, the better you feel.  You're tan, shaved down, focused, lean and vascular and you can eat practically everything you want.  And you know you're in GREAT IM shape when your mom tells you that you're too lean and wants to feed you sandwiches and ice cream. Being in Ironman shape is a special kind of "drug", but if we truly want to improve year after year, we need to get off of that "Ironman High" for awhile every year and allow the body (and mind) to rest in order to take fitness to the next level.  If not... we overtrain and hit that dreaded plateau.

The Iron plateau.  Train smart for Ironman racing for anywhere from 3-5 years, complete around 5 Ironman events and you'll see what I'm referring to.  The first 2-3 races you do, lopping off 5-10% on your overall time is not uncommon as your body adapts rapidly to your training and you begin to near your genetic potential. Around the 5th Ironman, many people will start to see where they 'live' in the field and improvements come in very small, incremental gains...if at all sometimes.  If you try to stay Ironman-fit year round, you'll hit that plateau faster and find it more difficult to break through.  Remember... if you keep doing what you're doing, you'll keep getting the same result.

So, do you need an off-season?  Well, yes... but some of you need a longer off-season than others do... and it all depends on your goals, your training experience and your time spent training.  We are all an experiment of one and respond differently to training.   Let's take look at two "typical" Ironman triathletes as case studies:

Athlete "A":  This athlete is fairly typical as an age grouper in that they are in in the 35-45 yr. old range and have been doing triathlons for 2-4 years. They train around 8-10 hours per week most of the time, practicing each sport anywhere from 2-3 times per week. During the build-up weeks to Ironman, they'll boost training volume to 15-18 hrs per week with the bulk of their workload happening during longer workouts on the weekends. Weekdays include work and other family activities, so they tend to have 1-2 hours / day, split between early morning sessions and perhaps one at lunch or one after work. One day off a week is dedicated to recovery and getting other stuff done.

Athlete "B":  This athlete is either a younger athlete or is someone 35+ who makes training and triathlon a life priority and carves out 15 - 25 hours a week to train, year-round.  Some peak weeks even approach the "Pro Level" of  30+ hours in a week.  Lots of time and energy is spent on training and recovery to eek every last bit of performance out of their bodies.  Triathlon consumes most, if not all, of their spare time.

Do you 'fit', even remotely, into either group??  

Athlete 'A' , in my philosophy, should have a very short off-season if they wish to see improvement next season.  After their last key race of the season, a short break of a couple weeks should transition back into a focused regimen of technique work and base building because fitness (due to age and lack of 'base'/miles in the legs) is lost quickly and is hard to get back.   Since overall training volumes are fairly low week after week, they need to get their workloads up in that 8-10 hrs / week range soon after their 'break' and resume building fitness as they head into the new season.  Furthermore, more intense training should be included in their program to make up for a lack of overall volume.  (* See below for another consideration.)  Consistency, with daily training in small doses, is key.

Athlete 'B' is facing a different regimen.  They are likely nearing their performance potential with the huge workloads they do, so simply pounding themselves with more volume during the off-season is counter productive as they risk overtraining, injury and plateauing. After their last big race and a break of 4-8 weeks to decompress, in which they remain in good shape with low volume sport specific training and other random "fun" activities (i.e. 'exercising', not 'training'), they need to gradually ramp workloads back up, rebuild aerobic base, focus on technique, flexibility and strength development and then, after 6-10 weeks, resume their higher volume focus for aerobic endurance development.

So, in the "old days" it was not uncommon to see athletes completely hang up their bike and their running shoes during the off-season, relax like kings and queens and gain 5-15 lbs. (been there, done that!).  Nowadays, especially for the Age group Ironman athlete over the age of 35, it's more important than ever to focus on staying fit (not Ironman fit!) during the off-season but while changing focus slightly to working on weaknesses, technique, flexibility training and strength development.   It'll be good for your head, and your body.

Train smart this winter and decompress from your long season of training and racing with a short break. If you fit the profile of athlete A, get back on the horse sooner than later... and if you fit the profile of athlete B, rest a little more so as to take a step up to the next level.  If you need any help in determining your off-season training needs, shoot me an email or a message on my Spinervals Facebook page and I'll be happy to offer you some ideas.

Best wishes,

- Coach Troy
Official Coach of IRONMAN
Head Tri Coach for LIFE TIME FITNESS,

* TIP:  I have found that a single sport focus during the off-season can pay dividends long after a more balanced approach to multisport training is resumed.  Using the bike for example, try a 4-6 week block of focused bike training including plenty of threshold and power based training, combined with aerobic base and aerobic endurance work.  Afterwards, allow for 1-2 weeks of transitioning to a more balanced swim/bike/run approach and you might be amazed at how much stronger you are on the bike for the rest of the season!  If you're interested in being your own guinea pig and giving it a shot, join over 500 athletes doing the free Spinervals 32 Day Challenge.  

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  1. Good call. I always like to pick up indoor soccer and cross fit/x-camp classes in the off season to work on different areas that don't get their due attention in season.

  2. Very good info...and helpful for me to read. I fall into the B category and just took about 8 weeks off after a crazy season of high training hours. I thought something was wrong with me that I needed so much time off (well, mostly time off--ran the MCM during that time--but still..). I’m feeling a lot better now that I’m rested and ready to go. Definitely out of my best shape...but I’ll get it back... :)

  3. Pschall, you'll get it back quickly so no worries. Gradually build volume and focus on technique development, especially if you are fairly new to multisport training. Furthermore, don't neglect strength work and flexibility training as part of your overall regimen... it's all important! Good luck and train smart.