By Luis Vargas, markallenonline.com
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.
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.
1.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 markallenonline.com, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.