As the calendar turns to October, most cyclists are thinking about taking an off-season. But what is an off-season?
A true off-season is taking a break from cycling for an extended period of time. For some riders, that means a couple of days off the bike. While for others, the off-season lasts for over a month.
In this column, we look at the prospect of detraining, the ideal length of an off-season, and how it could actually make you a faster cyclist.
Also read: Training FAQ: How to gauge recovery needs
Why you should have an off-season
Cycling is an extremely demanding sport, both physically and mentally. The average cyclist may spend 5–10 hours on the bike every week for months on end. Competitive racers spend even more time on the bike, with elite riders training and racing 15–25 hours per week, on average.
Competitive cyclists also spend lots of time on the road, traveling to races, staying in hotel rooms, and sometimes living out of a suitcase. During the peak of road racing season, cyclists may be traveling to a race almost every weekend.
Add in the mental stress of training, racing, preparing, recovering, and planning, and you can burn out in just a few months. While experienced cyclists have learned to cope with cycling-related stress, that doesn’t mean it takes a serious toll. WorldTour cyclists are the ones who take the longest off-season, after all, spending up to 6–8 weeks completely off the bike.
The off-season is a time to rest, relax, and recharge. You won’t lose as much fitness as you think, and you are better off in the long run after taking a break.
Also read: Planning Your Off-Season – on Velonews
How long should your off-season be?
The short answer: it depends.
But for most cyclists, two weeks off the bike is the sweet spot for your off-season. This may be harder than you think.
For dedicated cyclists, the off-season is like going two weeks without your morning cup of coffee. You’re going to really miss it on Day 1, and Day 2 won’t be much better. After a week without coffee, you’ll be obsessing over it until you get your next fix. Two weeks in, you’ll be counting down the hours until you can pour that steaming brew into your favorite mug.
Therein lies the key to the off-season: you need to be off the bike long enough that you are craving to return.
If, after two weeks, you look at your bike and feel disconnected or lethargic, you probably need a longer off-season. Cyclists should love riding their bikes, and if you’re not motivated by the prospect of returning to riding, that is a sign of overtraining or burnout.
So that is the art behind the off-season, but let’s add some numbers to it. Here is a rough guide to the cycling off-season for a variety of cyclists:
If you have been training an average of …
- 1–4 hours per week … take 5–7 days off the bike
- 5–8 hours per week … take 1–2 weeks off the bike
- 9–14 hours per week … take 2 weeks off the bike
- 14–20+ hours per week … take 2–4 weeks off the bike
What to do in the off-season
At the beginning of your off-season, you may realize that suddenly you have a lot more free time. Use it to your advantage. Spend more time with your family, focus on work (both at your job and working on yourself), enjoy your hobbies, or simply relax.
Some coaches, including myself, believe that it is acceptable to ride a bike in the off-season, including some crucial considerations.
You should never be “training” in the off-season. Leave the bike computer at home, don’t use your power meter or heart rate strap, and don’t exert yourself for more than a few seconds.
Here’s an example: if you are a road rider, I believe that you can ride your mountain bike in the off-season. My recommendation is to keep these MTB rides short and easy, say 20–30 minutes once or twice a week. Enjoy the trails and have fun!
The off-season is about doing what you want to do, not what you think you should be doing.
How quickly do you actually lose fitness?
The top worry of almost every cyclist is losing their fitness.
You can lose your fitness during the off-season, or as the result of a crash or illness. If you’re making a big life change, such as a cross-country move or job transfer, you may be too busy or stressed to keep up with your training.
Whatever the cause, losing fitness is not a good feeling. As endurance athletes, most cyclists feel the need to ride every day. If we don’t ride for a day, we feel slow. But this simply isn’t true.
Fitness losses occur in increments, from days to weeks to months off the bike. One day off will be more good than harm. But once you take a few days off in a row, things start to change.
This is a summary of what happens to your fitness in the off-season. But first, don’t get scared. These changes can be reversed in weeks and months. More on that in a minute.
- VO2 max decreases by ~5%
- Blood volume decreases by 8–12%
- Aerobic capacity and cardiac output decrease
- Muscle glycogen stores are reduced
- Blood lactate increases
- VO2 max decreases by 8–16%
- Stroke volume decreases by 10–17%
- Mass of the left ventricle of the heart decreases by ~20%
- Aerobic capacity and cardiac output decrease (more)
- VO2 max decreases by up to 20%
- Aerobic capacity and cardiac output decrease (at a slower rate)
How quickly you can regain fitness
While all those numbers might seem scary, your fitness can be regained in a relatively short amount of time. In fact, it often takes 2–3 times longer to regain our fitness than to lose it.
For example, after a three-week off-season, it may take roughly nine weeks to regain your fitness. That’s not bad.
Putting this in the context of an entire season, you can regain your lost fitness by January if you take three weeks off in October. This is perfect timing for most cyclists who are base training from December to March, racing from March through May, and then peaking in the summer from June to September.
Studies have also shown that better-trained athletes actually saw larger decreases in VO2 max over the same time period as average cyclists. However, these better-trained athletes can regain their original fitness faster.
The key is to structure your off-season at a time of year when you aren’t worried about your peak performance. Remember that you will regain fitness faster than you think, and an off-season refresher will make you faster in the long run.