Getting the off-season right is key to making fitness gains
Here in the northern hemisphere many road and mountain bikers are well into their off-seasons. If you’re a cyclocross racer, well, your season is just hitting full swing but hopefully you’ve already had your off-season!
Have you ever stopped to think about what the off-season really is? What does it mean to us recreational(yes, even though this cycling stuff is serious business, for most of us it isn’t our job) cyclists?
Here’s what I learned about the off-season(and bear with the short story about how I got there. Maybe it’ll help you see things differently.)
Back in the days when I cut my racing teeth, I’d start serious(read-regular) training sometime after Christmas, around the beginning of January. Every year, I’d train consistently through the winter and early spring, then race a bunch in the spring, all while still training like crazy once the weather turned nice and find myself often feeling burnt out by mid-summer and struggling to be motivated to ride, and lacking the results I hoped for. Like an idiot(by definition) I did this for several years before actually taking some time off from bike racing altogether around when I got married.
Then, when I decided to come back to road racing, I didn’t want to just be pack fill. I worked on getting back to my post matrimonial fitness and weight levels. This was ok, but I didn’t want to be pack fill so I knew I had to change something, and that’s when it hit me. I needed to train hard in the fall to actually build on the fitness I had already attained.
But wasn’t fall the cycling off-season?
Oh well, I decided this was the way I was going to get better. I was going to train hard in the fall and see where that landed me. I was a little afraid that I would reach spring burnt out and unmotivated. I was worried that I wouldn’t give my body a chance to “recover” after the previous year.
The funny thing was that this new(to me) idea of training in “off-season” actually worked. I was able to finally improve from one year to the next and build on the fitness that I had achieved the previous year. It actually seems pretty obvious to me now, but somehow I had always sort of thought that fall was supposed to be an off-season for cyclists and then you would train and be ready to go in a few months.
What I learned is that an off-season is very important to bike racing success, and becoming more fit, but defining what I was off from was crucial. What I came to realize is that unlike a professional athlete, I did not need so much of a break from the physical aspects of training and competing(although taking a short break from training and racing can be vital for success) rather, I needed time off from racing and a regular race schedule so that I could actually use the fitness I had built to train to improve even more, without the stress of racing or the need to taper before important events.
I also learned that the break from racing allowed me to more easily pursue other forms of training that greatly benefited my fitness but were not easy to fit into mid-season cycling training. Strength training and especially working on core strength seemed to alway be the first thing to go by the wayside when the bike racing season hit full swing since there just didn’t ever seem to be enough time and energy to complete the training rides, taper and then race.
One of the other reasons that I struggled for years with making major improvements was that I would stop training regularly after the road racing season ended around the beginning of September every year. While I’d still ride some, other activities would limit this and I would not be disciplined in my dietary intake. This would lead to 10-15lbs of weight gain before I would get back to serious training. Then I would have to significantly restrict my diet while resuming training to get back to my “race weight.” Of course, this was counterproductive to making long-term gains.
If any of this is sounding familiar, I have great news for you. The cycling off-season can by your secret weapon to having your best bike racing year ever. The cycling off-season is the time to exploit the fitness you gained this and employ the freedom you have because you are not racing to buckle down and really improve your fitness.
Here are my tips for getting the most out of your cycling off-season training-
- Be consistent but be conservative. Don’t start doing VO2 intervals every other day like your are in the last couple weeks of a build phase. This is a long game and consistency is king. You also don’t want to burn out and starting out too hard can easily lead to burnout.
- Plan some fun training goals to help with motivation. I have the Fall Epic ride(110+miles of challenging riding) every year for the last three years because I want strong motivation to stay fit in the fall and work on improving the fitness that will benefit me on a long hard day. It’s also a great way to go ride places or roads that don’t always fit with your “normal” training routines.
- Get rid of the metrics on your cycling computer screen. Yes, if you have a power meter and heart rate strap, continue to use them to record your ride date, but you don’t need the constant feedback right in front of you, at least not for a little while. Learn what riding feels like again.
- Evaluate your weaknesses from the previous season and make a plan to work on these. Did you struggle at the end or races with endurance? Was your threshold lacking in your TT’s? Maybe you didn’t quite have the climbing legs you wanted to have. These can all be addressed through training.
- After a few weeks of loose training to recharge mentally, get back to regular, consistent, structured training. Don’t wing it! Don’t just go out and ride. Have a purpose and a plan for your rides and training and stick with it.
- Incorporate strength training into your regular training routine. Not only can this help improve your cycling, but it can help with injury prevention since cycling is a repetitive use type activity.
- Experiment with your bike position(s) and consider getting a bike fit. This is an ideal time to “tinker” with things and experiment. Try a different position and see how it works. You can afford to give yourself some time to adjust and evaluate whether it is an improvement or not. Try that new saddle. Adjust your cleats. This is the time of year to make changes if you are going to.
If you’re looking for a great start to your next racing season, check out this base period training plan to help you build on the fitness you gained this year and set you up for great results next racing season.Check out the Base Plan
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