The Off Season Myth

Type: “To Call this a Ride Would be an Injustice” Ride
Distance: 20.00 miles
Time: 1:00:46
Average Watts: 161 watts
Normative Power: 163 watts
Average Heart Rate: 154 bpm
Total Work: 587 kJ
Average Speed: 20.0 mph

No really, this ride was scheduled to be a nice gentle easing back into the saddle after a couple of days off. I think I took the “nice and gentle” a little too seriously. You know how most books and articles on training say steer clear of the junk miles? I this ride is what they had in mind. In my defense I was trying to configure a new App for my iPad that a friend had referred me to (Flipboard)and I was having some trouble. I also had the Tour de France playing, so between cursing at my iPad and at Lance Armstrong for crashing out so much during the first couple of stages and thereby robbing me of the showdown between him a Contador, I was not focused on my power or anything else. If this were a ride on the street, we would call it a social ride. I even had a take a quick 10 second break in the middle of the ride to open the window because it was getting really hot in Mike’s Pain Cave.

Do you want to see what mediocrity looks like when measured by a PowerMeter? Well here it is…

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The Myth of the Off Season

We all put a ton of effort into our *running, swimming, cycling, triathlon, Ironman* during the warm months of the year. It is pretty easy to convince yourself to roll out the door at oh dark thirty when it is 50 degrees and you know it is going to be so hot that even your water bottle is going to melt. Personally I prefer to train in cooler weather so early morning rides and runs are what I am all about during the summer months.

But when the daylight starts to shorten an the temperatures begin to drop, many of us who participate in endurance sports take the opportunity to shorten our workouts. I think the amount of time we shorten our workouts is proportional to the amount of daylight that we are losing. I know it sounds crazy, but it is just a theory at this point. A theory just like I think quantitative easing is crazy, but that will be a post for another day.

The truth is it is easy to get lazy during the winter. Without races on the horizon or something specific that I need to be training for, the esoteric goal of “achieving a health-enhancing level of fitness” is beyond my ability to understand. So giving myself a carrot if you will, is a very powerful motivator. It also will help me train through the long and cold winter months.

If you want to continue to progress as an endurance sports junkie, you need to forget the concept of an off season. You need to erase the concept from your memory. Depending on the length of time you take off, your body begins to lose the fitness and then the base that you have spent the last several months trying to build up. Let us consider some concrete evidence to this fact. Take a look at my Performance Management Chart from the first half of 2010 from my WKO+ Software from TrainingPeaks.com.

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Open up the image in another window and follow along…

The CTL line is not a true representation of my fitness levels or ability to perform, but I will typically use it to determine the load my training is putting on my body. CTL stands for “Cumulative Training Load” so it takes into account previous workouts, their intensity, duration, and other factors.

You will notice my build to Ironman St. George on May 1st. I started to taper April 12th and you can see I nailed my taper if I do say so myself. On April 10th I had my last big workout and my CTL peaked at a level of 129. That is pretty solid and allowed me to perform the way I wanted to at Ironman St. George. I was a happy camper before, during, and after that race.

But then in the middle of June I wrecked my bike and broke my elbow, which meant I couldn’t ride for a while. I actually ran four days after breaking it. I swear I was literally going “Saddle Crazy”. It is a term for those who go from 15-20 hours of endurance sports a week to nothing. I think we understand each other. I would dream of riding. Literally. It was pathetic.

You can see graphically my CTL plummeted. It got down all the way to a 29.4 in mid July before I started riding again. You can see I lost a lot of my fitness. Phil Liggett would call it “He wasn’t in top form today.” I was able to build it back but it took some effort. I never returned to my Ironman shape for the rest of 2010.

If you take time off — because of injury or being lazy — your fitness levels suffer. You may need to take time off to rehab in injury, but fitness levels suffer none the less.

If you are like me, you really crave your time off. I mean, it is like an addiction. But instead of becoming sedentary or cross-training (which usually means not really training at all) then decrease your volume and intensity. You don’t need to be doing tempo runs or intervals 12 months out of the year. Take a month and just run or ride.

Your fitness levels may drop, but nothing like what they would when you become sedentary. And when you start your training in earnest in 2011, you will be glad you made running or riding a priority. I know your legs, shins, and IT Bands will thank you…

About the Author

I have been participating in running and triathlons for 10 years and love the feeling that training provides. You may not agree with me, but you know you just can't look away...