The fall and winter is a common time for athletes to wrap up their race season. It is also good to take some time off and let your body recuperate from the rigors of high intensity training and racing. Some athletes take as much as four weeks off, but this does result in loss of fitness and requires making up lost ground later. Endurance especially is one of the more difficult aspects of fitness to rebuild. A better approach is to enter a “transition” period in which training and intensity are reduced; perhaps greatly, but a level of fitness is maintained. It takes a relatively small amount of training volume to maintain fitness, when compared with building fitness. I recommend at least 1 full week off at the end of the race season. After taking a week (or more if needed) off I recommend performing some sort of general cardiovascular exercise every other day and take at least 2 consecutive days off every other week. If you feel like you need another day off- take it. This transition period can last 2-6 weeks. Your work outs do not need to be specific to your sport during this time. Shying away from the impact of running with cross training is a good idea. This may mean using the stair stepper, elliptical trainer, rower, or another sport such as mountain biking (I leave the heart rate monitor home). If you plan on strength training introduce resistance work to acclimate yourself for the heavier routine to come. The transition period should be tailored to your personal needs such as individual recovery time, age, and the stress of your individual sport.
After the transition period enter into the base or foundation period. During this time increase volume of training, but keep intensity low and aerobic. Perform little if any work above the aerobic level and let my anaerobic system atrophy. Building this aerobic base is critical for efficiency later in the season. Each week increase duration slightly to build aerobic endurance. Since there are no sprints, speed work, climbing, hill repeats or other intense training your body gets a good rest and can repair itself fully. The first four weeks of base training simply perform low level aerobic work, but in the next 4 week block begin to work on technique, skill, and efficiency. This is a good time to perfect your spin, stride, and stroke so that you do not reinforce bad habits. Efficiency is a huge component of becoming a faster athlete. You may want to work with a coach to assess your weaknesses. He or she can recommend a wide variety of drills to increase cadence, efficiency, leg speed, and coordination.
The base period is also a good time to enter into a specific strength training routine. Strength training can be highly stressful on the body therefore excluding certain types of training such as speed work, I perform the majority of my weight work in the base period. I have found my body needs too much time to recover from weight work and it does not react well with higher intensity training performed later in the season. This does not mean strength work stops after the base period, but rather evolves into more specific “on the bike,” and “on the run” strength work. Examples are cycling tension intervals and hill running. I do however perform core strength exercises regularly throughout the year. A proper strength training system goes through specific phases such as maximum strength, strength endurance, and power, and is specific to your needs and sport. I highly recommend any endurance athlete interested in strength training to get with a trainer or coach with experience in this area. Each athlete is unique and should have a specific routine.
The base period is followed by a general preparation period and then a more specific race preparation period, so there is no “off” season. If you are an athlete who trains only in the race season you have probably noticed your performance has not improved much or may have decreased each year. Instead of building on your past season you are instead trying to get back to your previous level of performance each year. To me each season is a step up toward better performance. A good example of this is older athletes who are still performing well into their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. If you look at their training over the years you will find one consistency; rarely did they give up any ground.