The overarching purpose of the off-season for every triathlete is to set oneself up for success in the next triathlon season. Failing to recuperate in the winter is just one of several ways in which age groupers miss opportunities to fulfill this purpose. There are no fewer than five things you can do during the off-season that will aid your performance in next season’s triathlons: Take a break, do alternative sports or fitness activities, get stronger, work on your weakest triathlon discipline and get leaner.
Step 1: Take a break.
It’s imperative that you start your off-season with a total break from structured training. Even if triathlon were the only thing you cared about in life, such a break would be the best thing you could do after a peak race to get ready for your next peak race. But, of course, you do care about more than triathlon, and starting your off-season with a break from the old swim-bike-run routine gives you a chance to put more time and energy into other things such as socializing, keeping house, reading, going to the movies, sleeping in, whatever. The best proof that a training break is the right first step of a beneficial off-season is the fact that virtually all professional triathletes do it. A more typical off-season break for a professional triathlete is two weeks, and this is a good standard for most age groupers as well. Fourteen days is just enough time for the body to achieve the hormonal recovery that is needed after a triathlon season and is usually just long enough to restore a hunger to train also. Yet it’s not so long that it will result in an unnecessarily large loss of fitness. If you take much more than two weeks off, you will struggle to get back to full fitness in time for your first race of the next season. Your two-week break from triathlon training need not be a total break from exercise, but it can be. If you fear going stir-crazy, you can always go for a hike. But if you, like many triathletes, have a tendency to do too much, don’t fool yourself into thinking that a two-hour mountain-bike ride undertaken four days after your peak triathlon counts as a “break.”
Step 2: Do something different.
The second step of the off-season agenda: enjoying alternative forms of exercise. Some triathletes like to replace swimming, cycling and running completely with one or more alternative activities for a period of time in the winter. Some of the great San Diego triathletes of the 1980s did little else besides surfing between Ironman in October and the new year. For those living in northern climates, replacing some or all triathlon workouts with winter sports activities such as cross-country skiing, downhill skiing and snowshoeing keeps fitness high while recharging the mind. What you do and how much you do for fitness outside of the triathlon disciplines after your training break is a personal decision. It is recommend that you at least dabble in something, because variety is fun. But one thing you want to avoid is neglecting one or more of the disciplines for so long that you lose any hope of improving upon it next season.
Step 3: Get stronger.
In the winter, when triathletes are (or should be) swimming, cycling and running less, they have more time to strength train. It is important to make use of that time this off-season, specifically by working hard to increase your raw strength in your major muscle groups, creating a reserve of power that will carry you through the rest of the year with a modicum of maintenance work. Winter is not the time to prioritize correcting imbalances with PT exercises that target neglected and hard-to-find muscles. It’s the time to move some heavy loads with classic strength-building movements. The strength-building phase of your off-season training plan can begin immediately after your break, or it can wait until you complete a period of focus on alternative cardio activities.
Step 4: Shore up a weakness.
All too often age groupers deal with their weakness by avoiding it. This is understandable because it’s usually more fun to train in one’s strongest discipline than in one’s weakest. But it’s not a very good way to improve in the sport. Within the training cycle, it’s best to put an equal amount of effort into all three disciplines regardless of which is your weakest. Triathletes who place too much emphasis on their weak discipline tend to lose some of the advantage of their strong discipline. During the off-season, however, it is acceptable and even advisable to focus on shoring up one’s greatest weakness for a period of time. The best way to do this is simply to practice it daily. Nothing makes a person a stronger swimmer, cyclist or runner than swimming, cycling or running every day, or almost every day. You don’t have to think about it or even work terribly hard (most of the time). Just do it. Sure, you can do some challenging high-intensity workouts and some technique drills—these things will help. But it is the off-season, remember. If you work too hard in even one discipline you risk burning out before you even get to your first race of the new season.
Step 5: Get leaner.
In the sport of cycling, it’s common to wedge a short weight-loss period between the end of the off-season and the start of the next training cycle’s base building. The practice is less common in triathlon, but it shouldn’t be. While heavy training itself may induce weight loss, the fastest way to lose weight is to maintain a sizable caloric deficit. Such deficits tend to sabotage heavy training, so they are not appropriate within the training cycle, but just before the cycle begins is an ideal time to shed excess body fat by deliberately taking in less energy than your body uses. A good start would be to aim for a daily energy deficit of 200 to 400 calories for the last four to eight weeks before you formally begin your base training. You can enhance fat loss during this period while also preparing for base training by adding fat-burning workouts to your training schedule. These are long rides and runs of moderate intensity in which you consume no carbs in order to maximize fat burning.