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Training: The importance of a mid-season break

By Rick Crawford

Most sports have a distinct off-season. For the super ambitious cyclist, there is a cycling medium for any time of year. Road and mountain bike racing goes all spring and summer, ‘cross rages in the fall and winter, and with the sweet indoor ADT velodrome in LA, track goes all year round.

I have many athletes finish their road or mountain bike season in September, go right into ‘cross, and a few are good enough to make the worlds ‘cross team, committing them through the end of January … leaving them a month before the next road/mtb season starts in earnest.

I have seen that very scenario backfire a few times with the most talented athletes. There are so many options, so little time. A distinct off-season is essential to a good cycling season, as is a well-timed mid-season break.

Many cyclists have been racing since February, and have had the opportunity to race almost every weekend since. And if they weren’t racing, they were likely taking the off-weekends to do some hard training with the local hammerheads. For those of my athletes who started in February, it is normal for them to lose a bit of zeal for the traditional workouts, and start to have some trouble getting normal levels of power in their intervals. They’ve raced a bunch already and are often fatigued from travel, logistics, and of course the heavy physical load. It is an inevitable accumulation of physical wear and tear compounded with central nervous system fatigue.

If you’re from northern climes, the season may have started a bit later and the time for the mid-season break will come later on, but the time eventually comes for everybody who’s racing a heavy schedule to shut it down for a spell to stay sharp.

This is the perfect application for grandma’s old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth of pound of cure.” It is much better to anticipate a mid-season respite in the prime of health rather than be forced to take one because of burn-out, injury, or sickness. In other words, rest before there is a problem, rather than ride until there is one. This may mean sitting out while your form is still decent, banking some energy for better form in the second half.

Form is the combination of fitness and the energy to drive it. At mid-season, form will peak according to training/racing loads and the energy available to sustain it. Peak form requires enormous amounts of energy and focus to maintain and is finite in nature. When energy gets critically low, athletes are susceptible to sickness and injury that can take away control of the season and result in a catastrophic collapse of form.

This catastrophic collapse of form often happens when form has been stretched too long, allowing energy levels to fall too low, leaving the athlete vulnerable to the common invisible threats. The idea behind proactively planning the break is to stay in control of form so it is there for the key periods of the season.

Think of the mid-season break as half-time. This is that traditional period when athletes rest, regroup, and refocus for the second half. This is where the coach rallies his players and scribbles the X’s and O’s, and revs up the team, reinvigorates the troops, goes over the playbook, and patches up booboos. For cyclists, getting a fresh perspective and cultivating a new love for the bike is key for a good second half.

Grandma says “absence make the heart grow fonder,” so make the normal training medium purposefully absent during the rest break. I find it’s not too hard to feed athletes a varietal menu of activities. Roadies may enjoy some recreational mountain riding and often find it challenging enough to even grow some form while taking a fun break from the routine road scene. Strolling to the coffee shop on the cruiser, hiking, swimming, racquet sports, ultimate Frisbee, etc. … anything that invigorates and refreshes is fair game. By the end of the break, you should be biting your nails and yearning to be back in the training groove.

I typically allow ten days for this break, which requires at least one weekend of no racing or hard training. When the break starts, “training” per se, is not allowed. Robust, healthy, fun activity is encouraged. Detraining is not prerequisite, and often athletes come off these breaks super snappy and fast, with no apparent loss of form. But even if the break is of the more sedentary variety, which some athletes savor at this time, a little detraining is a small price to pay for progressive form and control in the second half of the season.

This is guilt-free recovery that will yield significant results. You’ve trained and raced hard. You deserve this break and you’ll be faster for having taken it. Some athletes will kick and scream at the prospect of shutting it down when things are going well. But few complain after the first season yields the results they want, and next year they will look forward to the break with great anticipation.

Editor’s note: Rick Crawford is Director of Coaching and COO of Colorado Premier Training. He is also the head coach for the Fort Lewis College cycling team in Durango, Colorado.

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