For many, the offseason is a time to kick back, reflect on the past season, hang up the equipment for several weeks (or months), and cheat a little bit on the diet. And the reality is, for a set period of time, that perspective is warranted and necessary. Mountains of hard work and sacrifice have been put in over the course of the year, and the body (and mind) simply cannot handle that level of focus and stress without taking a break to rest and recover. However, for a large portion of athletes, that period of time lingers much longer than it probably should.
Truthfully, I don’t even like the term “offseason.” The term implies a need to step away completely from your pursuit. It almost provides a built-in excuse to ignore all of the gains that you have made over the previous season and simply work your way back into things at a later date. Depending on your particular objectives, that concept may be fine. But if you truly have a desire to maximize your potential and to achieve a breakthrough in your abilities, then your approach needs to change from one of “offseason” to one of “preseason.”
The preseason provides an opportunity for growth outside of the traditional structure of the season, when the dates of races typically dictate the program. Several months with no race in sight allows you to take the time to refine and improve all aspects of your approach and performance. It is THE time to plant the foundation for success in the upcoming year.
So how do you do it? Of course, there are many ways to approach and structure this period of time based on your specific objectives, and everyone will find what works best for them. But here are a few tips for getting the most out of your preseason:
1. Take some rest. As I mentioned above, in order to maximize your upcoming season, there has to be some time to allow your body and mind to recover. The demands of the season are extremely taxing on the body, and trying to maintain that level of focus and fitness will only lead to a decline in health, increased risk of injury, and illness. To put it another way, in order to get tremendously fit, you have to lose fitness.
This rest period does not mean you have to spend 3-4 weeks doing absolutely nothing, though throwing in several days with absolutely no activity is highly beneficial. Instead, incorporate activities that are not part of your regular schedule during the season. Are you a runner who focused on a marathon during the season? Consider cross-country skiing, hiking or even simply taking a walk. Do you compete in triathlon? Check out mountain-biking, rowing or, if weather permits, surfing. Changing up the stimulus not only works different muscles, it also eliminates the boredom of repetitive activity and keeps the mind fresh.
An added bonus of rest time? More time with friends and family. In all likelihood, your family sacrificed a lot of time with you during the weeks of heavy and disciplined training. This is the time to return the favor. Be available, go out and attend social events, and spend some time being a “normal” person. Not only will you have fun, but showing your thanks to friends and family for allowing you to chase your pursuit will only bring them more into your corner in subsequent seasons.
2. Develop a plan. The offseason is a fine balance between getting the proper amount of rest to return the body to full health and building the requisite level of aerobic base to build upon once the more intense training begins. After all, speed and power can only be utilized on race day if a strong foundation of aerobic endurance exists. To achieve such a balance — that is, getting the right amount of rest and the right amount of base training — requires a specific and disciplined plan.
So take some time to plot out a plan the creates a solid consistency in training while at the same time allowing for a full day off (or even two, depending on the week), and stick to it regardless of whether you feel like you can tackle more. If you’ve taken your rest period correctly, you will have more energy and motivation. However, save that energy for when it actually will be needed and simply be consistent in your approach. Consistency is king at this time of year.
3. Incorporate strength training. Your ability to showcase your performance on race day is entirely dependent on your ability to show up on that day healthy and injury free. A proper strength training program to address areas of weakness, imbalance and lack of mobilization is paramount to not only keep injury at bay but also to develop the structural foundation to handle the rigors of everyday training.
Incorporating a new (or simply improved) strength training routine at a time when your endurance training is not as rigorous allows you to address some key limiters in the gym. Your strength training program should focus on total-body functional strength, incorporating compound movements that engage a large number of muscles along the kinetic chain (such as squats, deadlifts, and pull ups) while, at the same time, working smaller stabilizing muscles that are often subject to overuse injuries. Also consider meeting with a knowledgeable strength and conditioning coach for a full functional assessment. A second set of eyes can objectively evaluate where your highest risk for injury may exist.
4. Improve your diet. When the overall training volume and demands are lower, the time is ripe and optimal to make substantial changes to your diet. Take some time to evaluate your overall nutrition plan. Do you snack too much on processed foods? Is the timing of your food consumption optimal? Do you rely too heavily on refined carbohydrates? Are you consuming enough fruits and vegetables? How about essential fats?
Many times, it is very difficult to begin to implement new dietary habits when your body is simply craving as much fuel as possible during times of heavy training. Instead, develop these habits at a time of lower training volume so that the foundation is in place prior to the increased training demand.
Using some (or all) of the steps outlined above will allow you and your body to be fresh, fit and prepared to make big gains as next season rolls around, and you will have increased confidence knowing that you’re already a step ahead of your competitors.
The preseason has a very fine line of flexibility and sacrifice, but with some focus and planning you can enjoy the holidays while, at the same time, becoming a much better athlete.