Some athletes look to the off season with relief, fantasizing about the chance to leave the bike in the garage for a while, a break from the early morning swim workouts and a slacker schedule in which to catch up with (their not so nutso about sport) friends. Others look at the off season with a mix of dread and anxiety. The off season stretches ahead like one long rainy day; with no planned workouts, no races and a lack of structure. They worry about gaining weight, losing fitness, and losing their minds.
For both athlete mentalities, and everything in between these extremes, understanding the purpose of the off season helps in maintaining commitment and a sense of continuity in one’s training. Viewed in the context of the full season, the off season period, or the rest phase is a necessary and important part of athlete development. The off season technically links one season to the next and theoretically provides a period of regeneration that allows the next season to be a build on the previous one. It is easier to maintain motivation and a sense of purpose throughout the off season if athletes are aware of the distinct and crucial purpose that it serves in their overall progression.
Without an off season there is no long sustained period of rest and over time, neither the body nor the mind will be able to recover from the rigors and stress of training and racing. The result is either burn out, injury or inexplicable feelings of fatigue and exhaustion, not unlike sleep deprivation. Every athlete has a varying tolerance for season duration, but very few athletes can continually perform well for periods of over ten months without some sort of off season or down time.
Since our racing season usually is slotted into spring, summer and fall racing, the winter is the natural time of year in which to take a break. A three to four week period anywhere from November through early February, when the weather is also typically at the coldest and wettest (at least in northern US and most of Canada), and also coinciding with the winter holidays is the most obvious time. Whether you love or hate the off season period, the following pointers will help you make the most of the winter downtime and allow you to make a positive bridge from this season into next.
Commit yourself to the off season and to understanding why you are taking a break. Moving from competitive phase to rest phase is probably the most radical change between all the season’s macrocycles. Preparatory to pre-competition and then to competition are relatively flowing adjustments. Going from training for and completing Hawaii Ironman to lying on the couch watching some reality TV show based on extreme sports is a huge leap. If you are one of the athletes that find it hard to stop training and working hard, embrace the idea that you are being good to yourself by taking a break and reiterate to yourself often that your body needs the rest in order to absorb all the training and racing from the season. Often our minds repeat words and stories that are habitual and not even true, so if your story line goes something like this; “I am losing all my fitness. I am gaining weight. I am getting slow”, replace with the affirmative such as, “My body is resting and becoming stronger for next season. I am a smart athlete and I train smart too”. In repeating these new true phrases, you will start to believe them and will have developed a new skill at the same time: the power to change your thought process. Understanding why we are doing what we are doing, in training as in all our work and life gives us a greater sense of purpose and ability to commit. It is good to remember that the end result of the off season is not to be fitter but to be fresh and excited to begin a new season.
During your off season, you will at first likely notice the lack of instant gratification that comes from twice daily training sessions. One of the most difficult aspects of rest, injury or pregnancy in sports, is this reduction in the almost clockwork feedback. The off season can initially come as a sense of let down or anti-climax to feelings of gratification we have received all season long from our most intense training sessions. In essence, athletes get ‘addicted’ to physical and emotional feedback: the feeling of well-being and accomplishment that accompanies working out. Removing that sensation leaves a void. Although it will seem difficult to deal with, remember that the inactivity shock will wear off and in seven to ten days or less you will have normalized to the current program of restful recovery training.
Inspiration can be a powerful motivator. If you feel committed to and inspired by what you are doing, you are more likely to have a sense of purpose in your path. In the off season, without the continual feedback from workouts and coaches, you will have to develop an intrinsic sense of motivation that is derived from being inspired by your own life. Inspiration comes from a deep place in our soul, and is truly connected to who we believe ourselves to be and what we see ourselves doing in the future.
We can find inspiration everywhere and anywhere, so intrinsic is it to life. Films and sporting events, books and music can all carry inspiration. Inspirational speakers are different than motivational speakers in that they speak to a universal human trait that is part of our very souls. Motivational speakers, while also relevant to sport and business, speak to tactics and methods of achieving that greatness. Find ways to be inspired this winter: choose movies and books about greatness, about people doing amazing things, about people who have found ways to succeed under difficult circumstances. I can well remember the first time I saw “Chariots of Fire”. The music, the imagery, the message of passion spoke to me. Write a journal about how you achieved personal bests in your last season, about the goals you reached and the ways in which you found success in small ways. Be inspired by your own life and the lives of people around you and you will build a sense of motivation that will rise out of the winter skies come time to train again.
No article on the topic of the off season would be complete without some practical advice on how to come back from your winter holiday feeling fresh and rejuvenated, and ready to train again.
Here are 5 tips for keeping in touch with your inner athlete:
Here’s to you being inspired and ready in 2016
Writing about the art of moving well and the lived experience of a life in sport.