Training:  The “Off Season”

Mark Snowise, MD


This is the first installment of our series of “Training” articles that will be posted monthly on this web site.  We plan to have at least one article a month that focuses on different aspects of training and racing.  As we are supposedly in the off season, I thought this would be a great place to start.


I write, “off season”, with quotes as many of us don’t really take any type of time off after the racing season.  Why is this important, and do you really need to take time off?


The off season sets the stage for the entire year of training to follow, but “off season” does not need to equate with getting out of shape.  Taking 1 month at the end of the season where you do not focus on training is great for the body and the mind.  Yes, you will loose some fitness but in the long run this loss will be regained very quickly.  As most of you know, training for a race, be it a sprint or an ironman, places a significant amount of stress on the body and the mind.


Life in general puts forth many stressors that we do not necessarily take into account when assessing our training stress.  What many of us forget is that the stress from work, family and training all adds up.  Staying mentally focused all year round poses a huge strain on the psyche that will eventually catch up to you if you are not allowing your mind to take a mental break from training.  For some of us this may mean sitting on the sofa watching your favorite TV show instead of training.  This may mean sleeping in instead of dragging your behind out of bed at 5:30AM to go swimming or running.   This may mean leaving you watch and heart rate monitor at home, and going for a run or bike simply to enjoy the foliage.  This may mean allowing yourself to have more than 1 beer a week or indulge in your favorite dessert.  It is imperative to allow yourself a mental break from training every year.  If you do this you will be ready to get back into the training with a clear head and the mental reserves to stay motivated throughout the season.   How much time is enough?  Usually a month is pretty good but some of us may need more time to reset.  We will come back to this during the regular season as well as it is important to include mental and physical recovery periods into your training cycle.


From a physical recovery standpoint the “off season” is a must.  As stated above, this does not need to equate with getting out of shape, but your body needs a break after the season.  Training causes micro-injuries (very small injuries) to the muscles and tendons in our body.   As triathletes we are somewhat protected as we are competing in three sports that use different muscle/tendon groups, but we are also at increased risk of injury as our training volumes are sometimes very high.  Throughout the training season we should be taking a recovery week every 4 weeks but this does not allow our bodies to recover completely within the rigors of the racing season.  If these micro-injuries continue to accumulate we reach the point where we present with an injury that will likely take us out of training and racing.   The goal of an “off season” is to allow your body to recover completely.  


Again, this does not mean you have to stop exercising, but decreasing the volume, intensity and changing the type of activity can give your body the needed time to rejuvenate itself.  Usually I recommend taking a month off from training.  For the first few weeks I have people do nothing at all except maybe hike or walk.  After this I recommend doing some activity but making sure to take at least 1-2 days off a week.  I like the activities to be different from the training year and encourage people to focus on cross training with yoga, hiking, skiing, etc.   Realize that you will loose some fitness but this will come back very quickly once you start to train again.


After a month recovery I usually recommend returning to some form of training/exercise but this is structured very differently from the racing season.   I break up the “off season”/pre season into blocks, and my first block is usually a swim focused block.  During this phase, which can be from 8-12 weeks, the only training goal is to get 3-4 swim sessions a week.  The rest is gravy.  This allows for a few things to happen.  First, swimming is low impact and will allow continued recovery from running and biking.  Second, by only focusing on one activity you are still giving your body a well needed break both physically and mentally.  This helps keep the training volume on the low end but also slowly starts to rebuild fitness.  Finally, swimming is usually the weakest link for most of us and is usually the first thing cut when the running and biking loads get very high.  This period allows you to focus on technique and gradually build confidence in the water and improve times.   Typically I will encourage 1-2 days of running but still recommend keeping the mileage low.  You can bike if you want but this is not a bad time to get a break from the bike as there will be plenty of time later in to build the bike mileage.  During this phase it is also helpful to get back into your weight training program if you have one.  (This will be another topic as it is such an important part of training that is most often neglected.)  Cross training with skiing and skating is also a good change that will maintain/build fitness.  Hopefully buy the end of this phase, typically 8-12 weeks, you will be ready to start building back up for the racing season.  We will talk more about building into the season in our next few articles.


Finally, don’t forget about your nutrition.  Your caloric intake will definitely be lower during the off season than while you are in the peak of your training.  It’s OK to take that month off from watching your diet but if you gain too much weight during the off season it is too difficult to get that weight off at the start of the season.  Some simple things to remember: alcohol has a lot of empty calories (There really is a ham sandwich in every beer), control portion sizes, try to get a small amount of protein with all meals and snacks, and try to eat a colorful plate (preferably not decorated with frosting).


So, if you made it to the end of this article, congratulations!  Lets try to sum things up into some take home messages to give you a successful off season.


1)     Take the time to mentally and physically recover

2)     Take at least 2 weeks off from all exercise

3)     Cross train

4)     Build back up slowly

5)     Start with a swim block for the first 8-12 weeks back training

6)     Try to run 1-2 days a week consistently

7)     Don’t forget about your nutrition


Until next month, train smart, recover well and look forward to a healthy and productive new year.