Editor's note: The Sport Geeks, Scott and Shawn, are athletes with unique scientific expertise, who have also created their own active hydration mix, Sword. This post was written by The Sport Geeks – Dr. Scott Black, MD and Dr. Shawn Stasko, PhD.
To learn more about The Sport Geeks, check out their website here
As fall passes into winter, the days are shorter and the weather is colder. We seem to go to work before the sun rises then come home in the dark long after sunset. In addition, the season of office parties and holiday activities are upon us, each making it a lot harder to find time to train. For many athletes, this time of year also coincides with the end of the competitive race season. With less time to train, and no major competitions on the horizon, many athletes consider taking some time off over the holidays. Is this a good idea or will a few weeks off leave you feeling as soft as that jello served at the office party?
Do I need to take an off season?
This is the most fundamental question we need to consider. The answer really depends on an athlete’s approach to training. If you are a fitness enthusiast who has a well-tuned regimen you have been doing for years AND your goal is to stay fit and maintain your best health, there really is no compelling reason to take a few weeks “off”. On the other hand, if you are training for competition and your goal is to perform your absolute best at a limited number of events each year (think “A” races), it is almost mandatory to take an off season.
Think of serious competition like mountaineering. It takes a lot of preparation and hard work to reach the highest peaks, but once you’re there, it is very difficult to stay for long. For that reason, serious competitive athletes usually periodize their training with preparatory phases leading into periods of harder training then a taper into a competition. The end of the competitive season usually is followed by a period of decreased training in order to recover and rekindle the competitive fire leading into the next competitive season.
If you have made the decision to take an off season, what is the right way to do it? Just like training, the most effective way to spend your off season is unique to the individual. Rather than recommending a “one plan fits all” off season, we’ve outlined some goals to accomplish with your off-season plans.
1) Heal those nagging injuries - completely
In our opinion, this might be the single most important thing you can accomplish during your planned down time. It will also dictate, to a large extent, the length of your off season. Be patient and let those musculoskeletal injuries fully heal before you jump back into full training mode. Take the time to consult with a physician or therapist if necessary and don’t fret if the aches and pains require 3 months or so to completely resolve. A little extra down time now will pay great dividends when you are able to train more consistently later.
2) Work on weaknesses
Weaknesses…we all have them. We tend to repeat what we do best and avoid those things we don’t enjoy. The off season is the ideal time to turn a weakness into a strength. Make an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. Once identified, prioritize and make a dedicated effort (even if only for a few weeks) to make an impact on the weaknesses. Coming out of your off season with new strengths will make you a better athlete when the competitive season arrives.
3) Don’t lose too much aerobic fitness
Yes, this is an off season but it is not an excuse to hibernate for several weeks. Even if you’re healing an injury, you’re just cutting back on the stress of full-on training. Training volume should drop, but you should still count on two well-planned intense workouts per week to prevent the loss of too much aerobic fitness. You can work point #2 into this. If you’re a typical triathlete, your swimming could probably need some work. Two hard interval sessions in the pool each week would satisfy both points. A cyclist or a runner might do some 3-minute VO2max intervals or some hill work each week. Just plan more built-in rest and/or cross training to let you recover from those more intense workouts.
4) Don’t gain too much weight
This is a point that’s not much fun to discuss and one that surely doesn’t make those foods found at office parties any easier to avoid. The holiday season brings lots of parties, calorie-rich snacks and maybe a few drinks flowing. At the same time, we’re cutting back on our physical activity, burning less calories, and trying to get a little extra rest. Just as training changes with the seasons, so should nutrition. It’s not healthy to obsess about weight gain in the off season, but a little moderation is appropriate. Here are a few points to help keep weight in-check this off season:
- Focus on portion control and seek out foods that are less calorie-dense. The high-carbohydrate foods you’ve gotten used to in the racing season should be replaced with lower-calorie snacks like yogurt, cottage cheese, fruits, and vegetables.
- Reduce portion size. Larger portion sizes are necessary during training, especially during peak race season. Once you cut back on training, you should also reduce portion size accordingly. To help, keep in mind that ½ cup of cooked pasta, rice, or potatoes is a realistic serving size for weight maintenance.
- Choose meals and snack options that are mainly natural and unprocessed. Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of protein like fish, egg whites, and white meat poultry should make up most of your daily diet. Natural tofu and soy products are also good lean sources of protein, especially for vegetarian athletes.
- Eat more fiber. Eating high fiber foods can prevent hunger cravings while you are reducing your caloric intake. It has been documented that meeting the dietary recommendations of fiber (12.5 grams per 1000 calories per day) is associated with a 10-percent decrease in calorie intake.
Enjoy the benefits of citrus. It may not be peak race season for you, but it is for citrus fruits like oranges, tangerines, and grapefruit. With these fruits comes great natural sources of fiber, vitamin C, and antioxidants which all serve to help you maintain weight, boost your immune system, and increase muscle repair and recovery.
Experiment with new nutrition options that you can then integrate into your training and race season. The market of more natural, unprocessed, and convenient sports nutrition is on the rise, and the off season is a great opportunity to explore. Look for new bars, drink mixes, and alternative fuel sources that are more natural and easy to digest during training. Many athletes don’t want to “try anything new on race day”. The off season is an ideal time to try new sports nutrition products without worrying if your experiment will backfire on race day.
Overall, the off season is about reducing caloric intake while satisfying those high carbohydrate hunger cravings with higher fiber, natural, unprocessed foods. You should accept that you might gain a few pounds over the winter, but remember that you will have to account for that extra baggage when the gun goes off next season.
5) Refresh your mind as much as you refresh your body.
If healing up any nagging injuries is the most important goal of your off season, refreshing your mind would have to be a very close second. Training for competition requires focus, attention to detail, and a significant amount of personal sacrifice. This takes as much of a toll on competitors as all of the hours of physical stress. Burnout and underperformance are as much psychological as they are physical. During the off season, let your guard down a little. Sleep in late on Sunday morning for a few weeks. Don’t plan every minute of your calendar and don’t choreograph every workout. Leave your watch at home occasionally. By the time you are ready to start training with intent again, you should be eager to head out the door.
The off season can contribute to your overall success throughout the year. It should be an enjoyable and refreshing opportunity to get your body and mind right before you start the next competitive phase of your training. By remembering these tips, you can capitalize on your “down” time and come out of your off season healthy and ready to dive into more intense training.
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