Off-Season Training with Luis Vargas

By Luis Vargas,

Unless you are planning on racing in the Southern Hemisphere, the preparations you’re making right now are most likely for holiday festivities-selecting the fattest, juiciest turkeys, trimming the Christmas tree, shopping for gifts and planning vacations. With no big race to prepare for, what should a triathlete to do to make sure his or her 2008 performances are an improvement from 2007 showings?

In this first in a series of four articles, I will give you some tips as to what you should do this time of the year to ensure a successful next racing season. In the following articles, I will concentrate on how to plan your season, which is the other important component of the off-season.

I have been around this sport for 20 years and have seen both ends of the spectrum when it comes to off-season training. On one end are the triathletes who take too much time off and sit on the couch for too long. They put on way too many pounds, and it takes them forever to lose the weight once the season begins. On the other end are the athletes who train too long or too hard in the off-season. They achieve personal bests in training on New Years Day. Needless to say, the proper amount of training and preparation lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Here are some tips to making the most of your off-season:

Take a physical and mental break
Once you’ve finished your last race of the season, it is imperative to take a break. It is important to let your body recover, but perhaps more importantly, let your mind rest from all the stress incurred from training and racing. Play a team sport, hike with your loved ones or go on a skiing trip. You can still do some running, swimming or biking-just keep it fun and unstructured. New activities will invigorate you. Plus, your non-triathlete friends and loved ones will be happy to spend time with you!

Concentrate on technique
During the racing season, many athletes are so worried about split times and distance that they forget about technique. Therefore, the best time of year to work on technique is the off-season. Once you begin your off-season triathlon-specific training, be sure keep it easy to moderate in order to focus on technique. Get your swim coach to film your stroke. For the bike, concentrate on pedaling circles. If your bike is uncomfortable, this is the best time of the year to purchase a new set of wheels or get a professional bike fit on the rig you already own. Your body will have the time to adjust to any bike changes over the next few months. For the run, I recommend working on some running drills to improve turnover and minimize the time your foot is on the ground. Most top runners can maintain 90 steps per minute or better. Count the steps on one leg only or double to 180 and count both legs over a minute.

“Don’t be a (January) national champion”
I am not sure where I heard this quote, but I like it. Every time someone tells me about a great set of repeats or some crazy ride done at an incredible pace during the off-season, I use it. The likelihood that you’ll be able to maintain this sort of effort throughout the entire year is not very good. Training takes effort, it causes pain and it wears on you. Save your energy for when it counts later in the season. Being fit in January does not mean you will be that much fitter by June. The more likely scenario is that you’ll perform at a lower level during the summer due to training too hard and drain yourself mentally from such a high intensity.

Train your weaknesses
I like this motto in general, but I want to make sure training your weaknesses does not turn into logging mega-mileage during the off-season. If swimming is your weak sport, concentrate on improving technique rather than logging 5,000 yards in the pool five times a week. Most improvements in swimming stem from honing technique. If you swim 25,000 yards a week and have bad technique, you will cement bad technique into your muscle memory and make it that much harder to fix. You will become a very fit, but slow swimmer.

On the other hand, if running is your weak sport, I do not recommend training for a marathon to become a better runner. Rather, work on your running technique with running drills as I mentioned above. If you have to schedule a running race, I suggest distances up to a half-marathon. A full marathon is generally a very difficult event for an inexperienced runner. It can take up to a month to fully recover and it’ll drain the energy you’ll need for the triathlon-racing season.

“But Coach,” you say. “I signed up for Ironman Canada and I want to make sure I can run a marathon!” Here is my take on that: For most triathletes, Ironman is an exercise in energy management. In fact, the great majority of athletes walk during the marathon to insure fluid and food intake.
In all actuality, when compared to a solo marathon, the Ironman marathon is more like a training run. A solo marathon is more an exercise in pain management; the pace is high and runners barely break stride to get that half-cup of water. Most runners do not walk unless they hit the wall-it is a very different event. Running a marathon in the winter only proves that you can run a marathon and can handle a three- to five-hour effort. Similarly, I have seen many top marathoners struggle during an Ironman. Performance at one does not translate to the other. Scheduling a few long training runs of 20+ miles during Ironman training should mentally prepare an athlete who has any doubts of his or her capability to complete a marathon. I suggest you save your energy during the off-season and train properly for the Ironman.

Finally, if the bike is your weak sport, it is usually due to lack of experience on two wheels or a bad bike fit. Spring for the good bike fit at your local bike shop, get on your trainer or go outside if the weather permits. Get a consistent dosage of aerobic riding during the off-season. I find that hopping on a trainer is hardly the most enjoyable activity over the off-season, especially for runners and swimmers-but if you make a commitment to it, you will be rewarded once the triathlon season comes around.

Strength training
As triathletes, we like to think of ourselves as very fit individuals-we run, we bike, we swim, we do it all. Yet we find ourselves getting sore if we play tennis or do yard work. This becomes even truer as we get older. Therefore, strength training will help us strengthen those muscles that we generally do not use in triathlon. I recommend strength training year round, but I know that many athletes cannot find the time to do all three disciplines and also hit the weight room. For this reason, the off-season is the perfect time to get back on some strengthening program. It will improve your power and help with injury prevention. Ask your coach to design an off-season strengthening program for you.

Plan your racing season
Now that you are doing the right things, the next question is when to start doing specific race training in order to peak at the desired time of the competitive season. This will vary depending on your race schedule. Since I answer questions regarding planning a season on a daily basis, I have a good idea of the most popular patterns.

One big A race of the longest distance. This type of schedule is for the person attempting to peak for one race, and that race is also the longest one of his or her year. This can be your first Ironman, your first half-Ironman or even your first Olympic-distance race. It can also be for those veterans who already have a guaranteed slot in one Ironman race. I love this type of schedule, as it is what I stuck to in my racing years.
2.Two or more A races of the same longest distance. This type of schedule is very popular with those who sign up for multiple iron-distance races or perhaps qualify for Kona at one of the other Ironman events. Same principles would apply for those who race multiple half-iron-distance races or for short-distance racers who’d like to qualify for the International Triathlon Union world championship or national championship at the Olympic distance.
3.Two or more A races of different distances. This type of schedule is usually way more complicated. The long-distance races dictate the volume, but given that there are some shorter A-priority races, you may need to do some speed work at the right time to insure good performance.

Stay tuned! In next Tuesday’s installment of this four-part series, I’ll delve further into the three race-season patterns above.

Luis Vargas is a co-founder of, an online triathlon coaching service he founded with six-time Ironman world champion Mark Allen. Vargas races as an age grouper and raced at a high level for 15 years, having been a member of Team USA at the Olympic distance. Vargas also completed Ironman Hawaii six times with a PR of 9:34.

E-mail Luis Vargas at

The Death of a Triathlon T-Shirt

It’s that time of the year, time to have time.  Time to do all those things you wanted to or neglected to do while training mile after mile in water and on land. 

Resting the focus of the mind while muscles store up nutrients; one morphs into an energized being with free time.  Both commodities I have spent with wreckless abandon the last several months.  Suddenly, I notice my surroundings again with a new perspective.  Released from the blur of training and its strict, narrow path…I now have time to get organized.  When you are training, traveling, racing and repeating this process over and over again; a messy desk at work, a cluttered garage, un-packed luggage and loads of laundry… all fall into that blur. 

Without all the training; I have discovered new powers.  I no longer need the 8 to 10 hours of sleep every night, 6 or 7 have me bouncing off walls.  I can skip a meal and I will not kill over dead from hunger.  I can stay up late, eat a large bowl of ice-cream and not bonk the next day.  I can work through lunch, skipping the workout and huge meal afterwards.  As for the messy blur…that’s all coming into focus now. 

I begin a toned down version of Fall-Cleaning that my mom instilled in me.  My mom has a PHD in Cleaning and I garnered a Masters degree at the early age of 11.

Hortense and I tackle our basement first.  A grand scale re-organizing process starts to mend the months of neglect.  I am moving furniture while Hortense is doing heaps of laundry.  “I’m throwing this away.” She says.  I turn to see what she is holding up…it’s a revered Triathlon T-Shirt.  The shirt is OK but the race is fantastic.  It was also my last amateur race so it holds some extra meaning.  Sensing my disagreement, “Look at the armpit stains… you workout in a Cotton shirt?  It’s disgusting.”  I can’t deny that the yellow-brown armpits stains are abhorred.  And I have what seem like thousands of these t-shirts.  OK, no need to be a pack rat.  I grab the shirt and take a good last look at the piece of memorabilia.  The Pacific Grove Triathlon shirt stairs back at me and begs me not to do it. 

I’m wasting time looking at this old t-shirt and I notice all the work that still needs to be done.  I see some dust and mess that needs wiped down with a rag.  This T-shirt was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The shirt was down-graded to a rag, and a very good rag at that.

Happy Thanksgiving!.

San Francisco Treasure Island Triathlon, Haul to the Great Wall Championship

It should read the San Francisco Duathlon at Treasure Island.  A tragic oil spill in San Francisco Bay canceled the swim portion of the triathlon so we did a heavily weighted running race.

Hortense and I arrived in San Francisco on Wednesday to enjoy some down time before the race on Saturday.  Thursday morning I started reading the San Francisco Chronicle and my jaw dropped.  All over the front page were pictures of the Cargo Ship, ‘Cosco Busan”, floating in the Bay with a massive wound, belching out bunker fuel after colliding with the Bay Bridge.  I had a flood of emotions over-take me; melancholy, resignation and desperation seemed to be the theme.  “Heartbreaking”, said the big bolded title of the paper.  How could this happen in San Francisco Bay, in 2008?  A miscue, that will torture and kill scores of marine life as well as render pristine beaches toxic, is blameworthy.  I realized I was going to be denied the pleasure of swimming in the Bay…my swimming season had come to a pre-mature end.  That was hard to swallow; my strength is swimming and I had tweaked my training the last several months to maximize it.  It worked; I was swimming fast, surpassing even my lofty expectations.  I was going to make people suffer in the swim.

Instead, the runners of the sport were going to get a chance to make me suffer in a 6.5k run, 40k bike, 10k run.  I remained upbeat seeing an opportunity and a challenge, knowing that the race was going to be hard. 

50 pro men lined up in the narrow street about 6 or 7 deep.  I was 3 deep behind Hunter Kemper.  He looked back at the group and said, “We have a lot of running, I promise not to take it out too hard.”  If he stayed true to his word…His, ‘not too hard’ is my ‘red line’.  I was ok for the first mile but pushing a very fast pace and still about 15 seconds down to the first group of guys.  It became painfully obvious that I would not be able to hold this pace another 15+ minutes.  Still in the front half of the pack I began to fall back.  After completing the first lap (2 miles) I was 45 seconds behind the leaders.  Doing the next lap with the same kind of effort seemed out of reach.  I held on to a group of 4 guys now near the back half of the race.  Looking ahead it looked promising that I would get in a good draft pack as there was a long string of runners in front of me.  Running into transition the leaders were just leaving about 2 minutes up on me.  

My transition was quick, just taking off my running shoes and grabbing my bike.  I ran the 200m s-curve with my bike to the mount line with several guys in front and behind me.  I looked down as I started to get on my bike and time stopped.  I blinked a few times and stared for what seemed like a minute.  I was dumbfounded.  My bike shoe was missing!?  It was no longer clipped into the pedal and was no where in sight.  What can I do…my race is over….really over.  I heard shouting, I snapped out of my trance and heard people shouting that my shoe had fallen off and was way back in transition.   

I started running back to transition with my bike, then, realized I did not need to take my bike and looked for a place to set it down.  I clumsily left it leaning on the fence near the mount line and began running back to T1.  A lady had picked up my shoe and was assisting by meeting me half-way.  One of the officials was yelling at her to stop and put the shoe down…not wanting me to get any outside assistance.  We both ignored him.  I grabbed the shoe and turned around; with 100m to cover to get back to the mount line.  The official did not DQ me; for the outside assistance, probably feeling sorry for me as he watched my debacle drop me far from the pace.  I got to the mount line after half a century and a little embarrassed at the comical scene the spectators had witnessed.  As I stopped to put on the corrupt bike shoe, I was encouraged by lots of people and I needed this.  It was a major blow to have my race unravel so suddenly and I knew my race had just gotten even harder…I was doomed to ride solo while my fast peers worked together in packs.      

I was frustrated the entire first two laps, disbelieving my misfortune.  I was still determined to do my best and finish the race and I fretted that the leaders might lap me, meaning I would be pulled from the race.  A sense of urgency took over my frustration and I focused on keeping them at bay.  It was difficult mentally and physically to bike solo, not expecting to be in this situation.  There was no let up, just a constant battle against the rough pavement, wind, and sharp corners.  Forcing lots of accelerations and rarely if ever settling into a pace.  I made it through the 5th lap without the leaders catching me; but they were not too far back.  I was fatigued, the solo effort and the 6.5k run had taken a big toll on my legs.  My last lap on the bike was difficult, my legs burning and asking for mercy. 

I felt like I had already ran plenty, yet I still had a 10k to do.  Arrrgh, my legs were toast and I was way behind starting the run.  All I could do at that point was finish the race albeit slowly I managed to do just that.  

Just like that my season had come to an unceremonious end but I was proud to have finished and satisfied with a healthy season filled with lots of racing all over the United States.  Plus, there was some icing on the cake; finishing 4th in the Tri-California Elite Series and winning $1000.  The accumulation of points from Wildflower, Escape from Alcatraz, Pacific Grove, Scott Tinley’s, and Treasure Island had netted me enough points for 4th place out of a very strong field of participants.      

I will enjoy some rest & relaxation but I have a bad taste in my mouth after that race….that’s always good foder for the long winter training months. 

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