It is no mystery that we as athletes are an ambitious bunch, but when is it time to turn the objective lens on ourselves and embrace one word, “recovery”. Having coached numerous athletes in various disciplines ranging from track cycling’s magic minute of pain (kilo) to the coveted Ironman finishers medal, the universal notion amongst many is the idea that “rest is for the weak” and the notion that “time off” is going to stunt fitness gains is a false reality, which has led many athletes into training year round. This has created what I call athlete purgatory or “the great plateau” that holds athletic pursuit hostage and limits the potential of so many.
Whether you’re the athlete seeking to perfect that one discipline, or even one event for the year, or are the multitasking triathlete seeking to balance three sports culminating in your big day trifecta, we all at some point have battled with the idea of an “off season”. If you’re like myself and many others you absorb every tip, secret trick, and latest tech development all in an effort to polish your efficiency…..why not take the oldest advice in the book…..rest, recover…..and get stronger.
That’s right! The old adage “slow down to speed up” holds more truth than some let on. Yet so many of us preach it without actually practicing it. That is where the idea of periodizing your training into cycles of stress/recovery comes into play. The concept has withstood the test of time so much that even mainstream sports such as football have an offseason, why should you be any different? For those unfamiliar with periodization training, this is a training methodology that strategically builds your fitness, in typically a base (high volume/low intensity), build (slightly less volume increased intensity), peak (low volume/high intensity) fashion, and yields the highest return on investment. That is exactly what training is…an investment in time, money, sacrifice, health, relationships…everything to some extent, and the gravity of that investment is dependent upon your goals as an athlete. You wouldn’t burn your money up like it was endless, why do metaphorically the same thing with your energy. Now that isn’t to say you can’t achieve lofty goals with “X” invested, however if you invested more or in some cases less what would your return look like? Let’s work smarter, not harder, and with a purpose to every workout rather than just blinding plugging mile after mile, lap after lap into our training logs.
It’s very common to see newcomers to any sport achieve drastic results in their first season, maybe even second as well. However, more often than not, a plateau is reached once you go from newbie to novice, and the perceived ceiling of fitness is reached, or is it? Many novice athletes work year round off the idea that the harder they work the stronger, fitter, faster they will become, those that work smarter and not harder call this overtraining. This practice is not limited to amateurs and age group athletes, it is the pitfall of all athletes at one point or another in their pursuits. The unfortunate evil twin to overtraining though is burnout, and if not curbed proactively this can be the demise of would-be talented, and in some cases world class athletes. Everyone has that one collegue that was obsessed to nth degree and has fallen victim to a vicious cycle of unhappiness and possiblly even in a poor health all because something they once loved grew to become a job. That is one of the saddest aspects of sport as we know it, yet it happens still within our respective diciplines.
So what do we need to do?
If most of us focused on recovery (sleep/nutrition integral components to recovery) as much as we did hitting our numbers in our weekly intervals or breakthrough workout, we would see fitness gains year in year out, month after month. Working within the concept of periodization (specifically off season/prep/and base), and without overwhelming most in the process of writing this article, I wanted to layout the “big picture”. In the process I will showcase the typical road racing cyclists season as it pertains to our current time of year; late summer/early fall, and anyone reading this can contact me if you desire resources to really dive into changing your training cycle or lack thereof further than the "intro" exemplified below.
This time of year many road cyclists are rounding out their season with their respective race(s) and looking forward to some much need rest. By rest I mean anywhere from 4-8weeks, and by off I mean OFF…as in nothing, nada, zip, zilch….at least for the initial 2-3wk portion! Now is where some of you are skeptic but hear me out, as I constantly am reasoning with new clients all the time with this notion when laying their schedule of training. Often this concept is meant with disbelief, because after all how can I get faster if i'm not doing hard workout after hard workout, well let me explain. So back to our “typical road racer”, late September enters off-season…..this is a time to fully recover and allow their body to adapt to the training stresses from a long season, returning their body to homeostasis (balance) both in immune and metabolic function. It is typical to see weight gain (5-10lbs dependent upon the individual)….are you cursing me out yet? Now there is the option to do yoga and functional strength training the latter half of the off season (after initial rest of at least 2wks) in an effort to prepare the body via repairing muscle imbalances, specifically core muscle function (critical to LIFE!). I strongly recommend this to a lot of my athletes, as it offers a focal point for their type “A” personalities that so many of us have (let’s be honest). In addition it allows us to be more balanced on and off the bike, even to the extent of performing daily activities. Now the initial 2wks of rest and recovery your body is still getting stronger as it is adapting to prior workload while not having additional training stress being imposed. This is of huge benefit when looking at “mid-season break” typically in June for most cyclists (I know WHAT more rest!!!). So this time of year 4wks off then 2-4weeks of “prep” with yoga and/or functional core work and strength training.
Enters “Base”, now base riding doesn’t mean hitting group rides, and riding hard as much as possible. That said volume is definitely the focal point but intensity is NOT, in base you ride long and slow (56-75% Functional Threshold Power/ 69-83% Functional Threshold HR….there are methods of computing threshold power/HR but it is a whole article in of itself). This is to establish/build your aerobic capacity, and a foundation for the rest of your season to build on. Now you will have lost some of your fitness but you didn’t go back to nothing. In other words, you have to take a step back before going two or more steps forward. Although it is nothing new, the phrase “wider the base, the taller the peak” holds much truth. It cannot be understated that your investment in the fall/winter largely determines your return (peak fitness gains) in spring/summer. Now since we aren’t all pro athletes and have nothing to do but ride and update our Twitter feeds, we can’t ride 4-7hrs a day multiple times a week. So as athletes, and if you work with a coach, you need to sit down and go over a realistic volume that you can sustain while holding down life and the obligations that come with the responsibilities of also being a parent/ friend/ spouse/ co-worker….etc. All while keeping sleep/nutrition/recovery in balance, WOW! There should be an award for that type of multitasking in of itslef! This is where an objective perspective can really help you. Whether it is a spouse, coach, family member, or friend…someone who can help manage your stresses in and around training is critical. As a coach this is one of my biggest tasks…managing training stress/workload so that your functionally overreaching without going into overtraining and the aforementioned burnout. You need to lay out your week to allow for rest just as much as training, because you see results from the adaptations achieved at rest not from the just the training stress imposed workout to workout. Sleep is one of the biggest recovery tools that is the most abused, and we are all victim to it, not just athletes. It has been found that the average person needs three R.E.M. cycles of deep sleep (7-8hrs for most) to rejuvenate and recover day to day, and that’s the average person! If you add in the stress of training you can see the ripple effect of what I’m getting at. Now, your average base period lasts 8-12wks, and is largely dependent upon the individual athlete. The old road racing practice is to have 1000mi+ of base on your legs before increasing to intensity and building in tempo(76-90%FTP/84-94%FTHR) intervals of varying duration. Important to note is to be realistic regarding the amount of time you can commit to volume in your schedule when planning your season with your coach, after all failure to plan is planning for failure. Accountability is critical to success as an athlete and holding yourself accountable by setting tangible goals and markers along the way will leave you fitter, healthier, and happier as a result! The level of rider you are seeking to be, and the required fitness that comes with your next seasons goals begins with a well constructed plan. So whether you are a cyclist, triathlete, runner…or whatever your athletic pursuit, now is a great time of year to get an objective perspective on yourself from your coach, friend, spouse or even co-worker and take a hard look at how you want your next season to go…..after all you may benefit the most by doing nothing at all, at least for the next few weeks....
On/Off-season…navigating the great plateau.
By Brandon Davis [09-02-2013]