Monday, November 17, 2014

Into The Off-Season ...

A week after running the Savannah RnR Marathon I find myself in an uncomfortable position - the off season. When I was a younger and less experienced triathlete I didn't think that an off-season was necessary. It didn't make sense to me at the time that taking a specific chunk of time off at the end of a year and resting the body could make you faster next year. I learned my lesson the hard way and after 3 years of not taking any real break I was burned out and completely unmotivated to continue training. In the long run this turned out to be a good thing because it forced me into an off-season and I actually had my best season of racing coming off of it! Funny how that works!

Now, I can totally appreciate and understand the importance of taking time off. First of all, it's allowing me to fully recover from the marathon. The only thing I did last week was ride my bike once for 40 minutes! I'm pretty sure most endurance athletes would be horrified if they only did one 40-minute easy workout over the duration of 7 days. BUT, I know it was good for me and I know that not working out for 6 days will not affect my racing one iota next year. Second, taking some time to relax is going to allow me to do a few other things I usually don't do, like fully indulge in the festivities of my dad's 60th birthday next weekend. Third, by the time I'm done with this break, I will be bursting at the seams with motivation to start training again. To tell you the truth I already want to start training again, but I'm forcing myself to take 2 more full weeks off, where the only working out I do is whatever I feel like doing, certainly nothing overly strenuous. Then in December I plan to start a big focus on (surprise, surprise), the bike!

In case you still don't think an off-season is for you, this article by Jeff Smith of TOPS Athletics (with a few quotes from me in the nutrition section) sums up the benefits nicely and just might may help you change your mind.

After months and months of hard training and racing, the body and the mind of the triathlete need more than just a week of rest and recovery. When following the principles of annual periodization, just as every training week has a rest day, and every training cycle, or block, has a rest week, every year should have an “off-season” for the body to recharge. This is the time to focus on rest & recovery, treating those nagging overuse injuries, developing muscular strength and a balanced body to enhance performance and prevent injury, and optimal whole foods nutrition to restore energy levels and achieve optimal body composition.

Most pro triathletes will incorporate a 12-week off-season mesocycle into their annual training plan. The first two weeks of this off-season period are literally spent resting. Two weeks is adequate time to reestablish normal hormonal homeostasis after a season of hard training & competition. Two weeks is enough time to make the triathlete begin to miss the structure of their training and begin to feel that mental charge to want to begin training again, but it’s not long enough to suffer any quantifiable loss in fitness. This is an excellent opportunity to focus on reconnecting with family, friends, reading, sleeping in, or simply walking the dog.

It’s no secret that triathletes are some of the most driven & focused individuals you’ll ever meet. It’s quite common for the competitive triathlete to train & compete through nagging aches & pains, which are often symptoms of the development of overuse injuries. If you are one of the ones who “trained through the pain”, then during the off-season, you MUST address these symptoms to determine the underlying cause and correct the issues. This includes anything from plantar fasciitis to patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner’s knee) to IT Band friction syndrome to hip pain to lower back pain to rotator cuff tendonitis (swimmer’s shoulder). Have a Sports Med professional, ie Athletic Trainer or Physical Therapist, conduct an Initial Evaluation to diagnose the root cause of the issues and develop a treatment plan to resolve these issues before beginning your pre-season training cycle. If you ignore these signs & symptoms, it’s not a matter of if, but when you will develop a debilitating, chronic overuse injury or sustain a serious, acute, season ending injury.

Developing and maintaining optimal muscular strength is a critical component of enhancing performance and preventing injury in the triathlete. This does not mean heavy barbell squats like an NFL running back or heavy barbell bench presses like WWF wrestler. It means following an appropriate, sport-specific, Strength & Conditioning program for off-season triathletes designed by a professional, ie Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). Laws of physics dictate that Power = Force x Velocity, but in the case of the triathlete, Power:Weight ratio is critical for optimal performance. This said, the competitive triathlete must maintain a lean & efficient physique while maximizing the mechanical strength of their skeletal muscle in order to maximize power output. This is achieved through the appropriate selection of sport-specific exercises, loads, rep & set schemes, rest periods, and weekly frequency. The professional Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialists will work as critical members of your coaching team with your Endurance Coaches and your Athletic Trainers or Physical Therapists to help keep you on the continuum of care during the off-season from injury treatment & rehabilitation to corrective exercise & strengthening to “return to play” status.

Considering the fact that many competitive triathletes have families & careers, between their personal & professional lives and the time demands imposed by training, optimal nutrition is often neglected. The off-season is the window of opportunity to step away from the gels and carb/electrolyte sports beverages and chews and focus on clean, whole foods nutrition. This is the perfect time for the triathlete to focus on body composition goals targeted towards that optimal Power:Weight ratio. “Many athletes talk about ‘getting to race weight’ during the season. The truth is, the bulk of weight loss should be accomplished during the off season when the athlete’s body is not under the same rigorous training/racing demands as in-season.” As mentioned above, the first 2 weeks of rest in the off-season allow the body ample time to return to normal hormonal balance, but optimal whole foods nutrition & hydration is key to this process. The appropriate quantities & ratios of macronutrients (carbs, fats, & proteins) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, & water) are also critical to support the body’s efforts in reducing inflammation and repairing damaged tissues resulting from overuse injuries. Adequate caloric & nutrient intake will also restore the body to optimal energy levels. “Endurance athletes benefit from foods that (1) improve the state of the cardiovascular system to enhance blood flow to working muscles, (2) that provide antioxidants and phytochemicals to speed recovery between workouts, and (3) are high in nutrient density such that they are satisfying without contributing excess calories & fat to the diet that could prevent an athlete from reaching an optimal body fat percent and racing weight.” Undergoing a Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) test and a Nutrient Analysis is a good place to start in developing an off-season whole foods nutrition plan.

For the competitive triathlete, the off-season is as critical of a period of time as your peak training blocks during your in-season training. It’s the time for your mind & body to rest & recharge, for you to treat the causes of those nagging aches & pains that you pushed through during training & competition, the time to focus on muscular strength & balance, and your opportunity to restore your body’s hormonal & immune system balance through optimal whole foods nutrition. So, as we approach the end of the competitive season, make sure to discuss your off-season goals and plans with your endurance coach to set yourself up for success in next season’s training & competition!

Jeff Smith, MS, CSCS, EIM1

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