Time to Rest, or Time to Get Back to Work?
Time to rest, or time to get back to work?
This time of year is one of the most difficult times of the year to consistently get in your workouts with crazy holiday schedules, less daylight and poor weather conditions. Many athletes make the mistake of losing all structure and completely stop one or more disciplines only to regret it when they start back up. In this article we define the transition period, detraining and guidelines to help you navigate this difficult period of training.
The Transition Period
The period right after your last race of the season is considered your transition period. Many 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, but it should not be time off unless you want to spend much of your winter just trying to get back to where you left off last season.
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.
What should I do during the transition period?
For many of us the transition period is nearing an end and we are starting to think about getting back on a more structured program or maybe you are already there. 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. A few 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.
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 their fitness longer.
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: 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.
The Big Picture
This time of year does matter. So many times when we reflect on an athlete’s season it comes down to how consistently they trained over the course of the entire year. That does include the period from November thru January. The last thing you want to do is start back up with structure in January with lofty goals only to spend the next 4-5 months just trying to get back to where you were. Take this time to refresh the mind and body and build yourself back up after a tough season, but don’t wait too long to start focusing on what it will take for you to be your best next season!