Endurance Athletes: The 2 Phases of Perfect Off-Season Prep

Capitalize on your off-season to lay the groundwork for a great season ahead.

I want your next season to be your very best, and I’m sure you do too. Capitalizing on your off-season lays the groundwork for a great season ahead. The off-season, or as I prefer to call it, the transition phase, is a time ripe with opportunity for long-term gains and consistent PRs. Who doesn’t want that?

Making the most of this time begins with adopting the right mental framework. This is why I prefer to talk in the terms of two phases:

  1. The transition phase
  2. The preparation phase

Discussing the off-season in these terms better prepares your mind for this time of year and helps you remain focused amid holiday distractions. Let’s take a look at each phase.

The Transition Phase

There comes a time every year where you are D.O.N.E., done. Your big events are in the books. Mentally and physically you are toast. You’re simply ready for a break. When you get to this point, it’s time to recharge and head into the transition phase.

What this phase looks like varies greatly from person to person. Typically you will step away from any specific training of any kind. You can be active if you want to, but there is no structure or obligation to do so.

How long your transition period lasts depends on a lot of things. I recommend somewhere between 1-6 weeks of time off, but the exact amount of time you need depends on:

  • Past training volume
  • Your personality
  • How well you manage stress
  • Family obligations

Ultimately you need to experiment to find your sweet spot. Personally, I try to stick to about 2-3 weeks. By the way, don’t forget to spend some time with your family during this period. They probably miss you.

The Preparation Phase

My favorite time of year comes next – the preparation phase. This is where the magic happens. Once your mind and body are back in the game, you can lay the foundation for a top-notch season.

A good training plan always moves from less specific to more specific as the season progresses. For example, if you’re training for an obstacle race, you’d move from building base mileage to workouts that incorporate obstacles or simulate race day scenarios.

The fun part of this phase is figuring out how to best prepare for the more specific workouts down the pipe. Here are a few suggestions.

#1: Keep it in Perspective – Have Fun

This bit of advice is the most crucial. You may be moving into more focused training, but remember to keep it in perspective. Most of us aren’t making a living doing this, so we might as well enjoy it, right? Have your key, non-negotiable workouts in place, keep your total training volume in check, but be flexible and relax, too. The sacrifices of race season will come all too soon.

#2: Address Injuries, Weaknesses, and Imbalances

The average endurance athlete is prone to overuse injuries. To some degree, it’s the nature of the beast. When you regularly exercise in a linear fashion (think just forward motion) your body makes specific compensations, which help you get better at your sport – temporarily. These compensations can also cause you to develop muscle imbalances and loss of mobility if you don’t stay on top of them. Left unchecked, they will lead to bigger injuries. For this reason, I advocate year-round strength and mobility sessions that focus on your weak areas.

The preparation period is the perfect time to evaluate any nagging issues you had throughout the past season. Fix these issues now so you don’t have to deal with them mid-season. I recommend working with a good coach or physical therapist to dig in and figure out the best plan of action. Be sure to ask these professionals for a plan to use during your preparation phase. A balanced, durable athlete will continue to improve year upon year.

#3: Establish or Redefine Your Limiters

The off-season is also a great time to have an honest look at what is holding you back, and adjust your focus accordingly. For example, let’s say you are a triathlete who raced well all season. In the past, you worked hard to get your bike up to snuff. This year, you look at your results and notice that the swim was consistently keeping you off the podium.

“The preparation period is the perfect time to evaluate any nagging issues you had throughout the past season. Fix these issues now so you don’t have to deal with them mid-season.”

Dig into that. Are your swim mechanics your limiter? Is it swim fitness? Do you lack speed? Endurance? Figure it out. Put your limiters on paper. Then focus on them, with a trusted friend or a coach if required. Once you’ve done that, test and retest throughout the preparation period as you strive to improve on these elements.

#4: Build Your Engine

There are two main training components that impact the success of your in-season training. Working on these components in the off-season helps you build a good engine later.

  • Endurance: Working on endurance is like laying a firm foundation. The more you develop your aerobic system, the more efficiently you process energy. The more efficiently you process energy, the faster you can go before going anaerobic. Plus, you will recover faster and get more from your higher intensity workouts. A good base sets you up for all this. Spend time on it during your preparation phase.
  • Threshold Output: There are many ways to skin the cat, but raising your output at lactic threshold gives you more work capacity to play with at the end of the day. For example, aerobic efforts are typically performed within a specific range (percentage) of your lactic threshold intensity. The higher your threshold, the higher your aerobic output will be. Work it good.

#5: Adjust Your Nutrition

Don’t try to maintain your race weight throughout transition and preparation. Gain some weight and take some stress off your body. It is often difficult to push the envelope of improving performance while cutting calories. That’s not to say it’s impossible – just difficult.

At the same time, don’t go too crazy. I’d recommend you stay within 2-4 percent of your peak race composition. Extra pounds take hard work to get off. Do yourself a favor and don’t make it harder than it has to be if you can help it.

Ready to crush your off-season? Good. Get after it.

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