The Transition Period
When we talk periodization, the “transition” period is the small slice of your calendar between seasons used for rest and rejuvenation. Typically this is a 2-6 week period with little or in some cases no activity. In the Northern Hemisphere many athletes have already completed their final event of the season and may have some questions about this time of year.
How long should the transition period last?
Some athletes apply this term too liberally and stretch this phase all the way past Thanksgiving and through the Holidays to the New Year. The transition period should not be confused with the off-season. The off-season is a great time to work on a limiter or establish solid training habits in preparation for the next season (more on that coming in the next article). The transition period, on the other hand, is an intentional loss of fitness and the main purpose is to let your mind and body rest. For younger athletes or those with a very demanding, long season, they may opt for a longer period closer to the 6-week mark. For athletes with a less demanding race schedule, or less overreaching, they can hold the transition period to 2-weeks, because they are dealing with less mental burnout.
There is a case to be made that competitive older athletes should be careful not to detrain their fitness too much and keep the transition period short. VO2 max is known to decline steadily with age, as much as 10% per decade even with training. Consistent training from season to season is a way to limit those losses and not going too long without some form of high intensity exercise or race. Additionally, with years or even decades of cumulative training, there is reason to avoid a long, drawn-out base phase that is void of any intensity, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
How long before I lose all of my fitness?
This is a big concern for Type-A triathletes and as long as the transition period is short, there is nothing to worry about. The science of detraining is very extensive and the bottom line is that nearly all of your fitness gains are reversible. If you essentially go on bed rest or desk duty, VO2 max and performance can drop significantly in just a couple weeks, but not as low as an untrained person. This is primarily due to lower blood volume and actual heart dimensions shrinking. Fat burning is impaired and muscle glycogen stores return to baseline. Beyond four weeks, long-term adaptations begin to degrade, such as capillary density and oxidative enzymes, causing longer-term loss in VO2 max. Luckily even a small amount of exercise can limit the losses, and those with a longer history of training retain a higher baseline of fitness.
What should I do during the transition period?
Again, the transition period is not technically a training phase, so training with a purpose can be reserved for the other 92% of the season. Put away the power meter and the heart rate monitor and only exercise if you feel like it. Consider some form of cross training, but not if it feels like a chore. Opt for activities rather than structured exercise. Regular exercise is such an ingrained part of our lives, so quitting cold turkey might be more disruptive to sleep and diet patterns than just cutting out 50-75%. Most of your fitness parameters can be maintained even when you cut your exercise by 2/3. The point, however is that you are exercising to feel good, or so you can sleep at night, not to try to hold onto your fitness.
For athletes in peak form, it is unrealistic to try to maintain performance at the highest level. Body fat may be hovering at unsustainably low levels and repetitive movement patterns have lead to some muscle imbalances. Adding 5 lbs of muscle and 5 lbs of body fat might be the best thing for a hard-core endurance junkie heading into the winter. Performance adaptations become so specific that cross-training can be great for general fitness, but expect a healthy drop in sport specific performance measures. Two years ago I took 6 weeks completely off the bike and decided to perform a power test my first day back on the bike. I was humbled to see a 40 Watt drop in my functional threshold power even though I had been running and strength training.
What can I do to maintain more of my fitness through a long break?
Generally I do believe in keeping fitness and performance in a narrow range throughout a year, but remember that peak performance wouldn’t be a peak without some valleys. Assuming that you were just at your highest level of performance, expect some drop off. Be okay with that. If for some reason you are planning a longer transition period (beyond 4 weeks), then some sort of maintenance can preserve most of your hard-earned fitness. For a longer break, engage in some low level cardio, strength training, have some dietary control, and include just one high intensity session per week. Consider performing this scientifically proven workout one day per week to preserve VO2 max: Warm up 10 min with easy jogging and then perform 3 x 5 minutes at 10k race intensity. Even if the rest of your training is very minimal, you can further preserve your VO2 max with this type of workout just once a week.