The thing that almost everyone is wondering this time of year is “What should I do now?” The vast majority of athletes will have their primary competitive seasons from May to September and likely have ambitions of being even better in the future. Professional athletes may take several weeks or more off from training at this time of year, but is that something that you really need to worry about as an amateur? How can you expect to get better if you take so much time off?
These types of questions and varied opinions on best practices can make the off-season one of the most confusing times for many athletes. Like most things, there isn’t one single answer that is universally applicable to all situations. Below, we’ll look at three example athletes and how their approaches to an off-season training routine might vary based on their needs and histories.
Athlete 1: Trains less than 6 hours per week, often with a fair amount of intensity, but travels often for business and pleasure. In this case, the cumulative training load is probably not high enough to require any type of formal rest. The athlete has not overloaded the body enough to necessitate a week of recovery, let alone a month. The important thing for this type of athlete is to keep the training fresh to avoid mental fatigue and stay engaged in workouts. This athlete should continue a steady diet of exercise to help keep fitness from regressing since trips will come up often enough to offer opportunities to recover from training stress.
Athlete 2: Trains 6 to 10 hours per week, is very disciplined and consistent, generally has a good training/work/family balance. As above, this athlete may not have created a huge amount of training load that would really require a complete rest, but if the athlete remained very focused throughout the year, he/she would likely benefit from less structure and routine for a time. A rest period over 1 or 2 weeks certainly won’t hurt this individual in the long term and will allow for a reinvigorated training comeback, physically and mentally. Downtimes can often be scheduled to coincide with holidays, when sticking to a training routine is more difficult anyway. This type of athlete can benefit from structured training that addresses specific weaknesses, as well as changing the focus of efforts slightly for a few months. For instance, many athletes enjoy the change of pace that cyclocross riding brings, while others like to rebuild their functional fitness at this time of year.
Athlete 3: Trains 10 to 15 or more hours per week, with a long weekly ride of 4+ hours. This athlete is still training much less than a professional athlete, but one of the major differences here is that pros train because it is their job, while amateur athletes do it out of enjoyment on one level or another. Balancing this amount of training with a busy job and family schedule can be challenging at times. The off-season is a great time to look at how that balance might need to be adjusted. It is impossible to maintain a high level of fitness indefinitely, so continuing to train hard will often result in diminishing gains from such an approach. On the other hand, reducing volume for a time, or even taking a week or two of complete rest, will help this athlete to recover completely from the stress of the previous season and come back ready to train well for the next season. Athlete 3 may benefit from an alternative sport that maintains aerobic fitness while also improving overall athleticism. Like Athlete 2, this athlete will also benefit greatly from addressing weaknesses at this point in the season, rather than making the mistake we are often so prone to repeating: training the areas we are already good at and tend to enjoy more.
There is no perfect answer for every situation. Many factors need to be considered in determining the best approach to take, including training history, work and family demands, perception of fatigue and psychological factors. Hopefully, one of the examples above will resonate with your situation and you will be able to use some of these thoughts in guiding your own approach to off-season training.