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I woke up this morning to a crisp fall air and quickly retreated under a blanket with a hot cup of coffee. For many people, the changing of the seasons also represents the changing of goals. Unless you’re a cyclocross racer, you may be getting close to starting your off-season.
What is the off-season?
The off-season denotes a time in which you are not racing. Even the off-season should be broken down into distinct periods. First, you should complete your off-season transition period. The transition period is a time in which you should take time completely off of the bike. This time away from training is critical in order to allow your body to rebuild and replenish. This time off can help to heal or minimize any over-use or chronic injuries that you may have just managed throughout the year. You might not even be aware of the fact that your body is on the edge of fatigue or damage, but sometimes allowing your body to heal from these small, almost undetectable ailments is exactly what your body needs.
The time away from training also allows for mental rejuvenation. Endurance athletes are inherently stubborn. We like to claim that “we don’t need time off.” We love our sport, and riding our bikes every day seems to keep us sane. The truth is though, everybody needs some time off. Without time away from your training you will become more numb or immune to the workouts. Your focus won’t be as sharp and you risk burnout later in the season. It’s better to force yourself to take time off in November than it is to burn out and need time off in July.
Finally, after you take time off the bike, it’ll be time to start building up again. Even this build phase is still a part of the off-season because it’s time that you aren’t racing. In other words, when you plan time for your off-season you need to plan time for de-training and then a build phase.
When to take an off-season
Usually, you will take an off-season after your last race. This way you can finish your race, hang up your equipment, and take some time to decompress. Some people prefer to plan a big bike trip or a bucket list ride for the end of the season, these are great ideas as well. You’ll just need to plan to take time off of the bike when you’ve finished all of your adventures. Many people try to plan their time off with poor weather. Nothing is quite as satisfying as watching the snow dump down outside, knowing that you have an off day. Other people try to plan their off-season with a big family vacation or other events. The timing of the transition period is flexible, the most important thing is planning enough time to re-build.
As a general rule of thumb, you want 12-24 weeks to build toward your A-race of the season. If that seems like a big range, it’s because it is. A newer or beginner athlete may need more time to train and build a base than a more experienced athlete with years of training already in their legs. Plan for about 12 weeks of base building, and 12 weeks of structured interval training. It’s also important to note that you probably want two or three B and C races before your first A race of the season.
How long should the break last?
For most people, two to three weeks away from training will be enough. If you’ve been training all year, then two weeks should really be the minimum. If you’ve already been plagued with training disturbances all season and you’ve been forced to take time off intermittently then maybe you don’t need a full two weeks anymore. If you are feeling especially burnt out, then you may need to take longer for the motivation to come back. For me, personally, I usually take 2 weeks completely off of the bike, and then 2 weeks of “ride how I feel,” and then I start to ramp the structured training back up.
What can I do during my break?
Focus on having fun. You don’t have to just sit on the couch with your feet up, unless you want to. Do what feels good for your body and mind. Instead of riding your bike, you may become a hiker for two weeks. The important thing during this time period is to only do what you want to do and never feel like you should be doing something.
Also read: How to overcome the fear of crashing
What to expect
During your off-season break, many athletes worry about losing all of their hard-earned fitness gains. You will lose some, and that’s ok. You’ll be able to regain that fitness quickly. Most athletes fear losing more than they actually are, though. A study with collegiate swimmers showed that after four weeks of inactivity, there was no impact on arm and shoulder strength. Power, on the other hand, was reduced by about 8-14 percent.1 Generally speaking, the literature indicates that endurance decreases after about two weeks of inactivity. If you only take two weeks away from workouts, you should be able to build back very quickly.
Take a deep breath:
The most important part of the off-season is to de-stress your body and mind. If you spend your time worrying about losing fitness or worrying that you should be doing something differently, you defeat part of the purpose. Embrace the time off, and fill your cup with other things you love.
1. Kenney, W. Larry, et al. Physiology of Sport and Exercise. Human Kinetics, 2015.