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Post-season: time, for a change. By Bruce Thomas.

 Post-season: time, for a change by Bruce Thomas

As a season goal event approaches, you, the athlete, can experience a range of emotions. There is the excitement as you anticipate the culmination of your training, there is nervousness as you contemplate whether you will meet your expectations in the event and there is also a feeling of being sick of the training and you just want to have the race over and done with so that you can have a break. This is usually a result of mental fatigue more than anything else. During the lead up to a race your training will usually drop off as you taper and so, physically, you don’t feel too bad; however, you are, after a season of solid training, usually sick of the routine of getting up early to train in the morning or forcing yourself to go out in the afternoon/evening. The “paradox” is that, after the race you suddenly feel like you want to race again. If you have a great race and you meet your expectations you feel almost invincible and want to go out and exploit your obvious good condition. If you have a less than satisfactory race, you feel that, considering all the training that you have done, it would be a waste not to go and compete again to make up for the poor result.

Recovery is an important part of the recipe in your goal of athletic improvement. Throughout the season, sensible training and adequate recovery are essential to enable you to get the most from your body. By the end of the season, on a macro scale, recovery is just as important and is a necessity if you want to continue to improve in the seasons to come.

If you are involved in the sport of triathlon then you are involved in a lifestyle sport. This requires a level of discipline, for some, more discipline is required than for others. Consequently, after a season of consistent training and sensible diet etc, there is plenty of mental fatigue to accompany the physical fatigue that is a by-product of swimming, cycling and running. To ensure that the next season or race is a good one for you, both areas have to be addressed. How is this achieved?

Taking a complete break from the structure of training is the best way to achieve both physical and mental rejuvenation. The desire to continue training after a major season goal has to be overcome. After the event you may feel physically tired, however, there is a large psychological burden that has been lifted and you now do not have to expend mental energy thinking about your goal race. This makes you feel capable of competing again. Directly after a race is not the best time to make decisions and a plan to have a break will be well worth it. Spending some time not worrying about when you will train or what you will do or how you will fit that particular session in, will relieve a great deal of mental energy.

The added bonus of not training for a period of time is that it gives the physical components of your body an opportunity to recover. Obviously, you will lose some condition if you are not training; however, the fact that your muscles will have time to fully recover, that your tendons and ligaments will also not be out under constant stress and your skeletal system is also given a break, will enable your body to be in good condition when you recommence training.

How long should your break be? It would depend on the training that you have been doing and your goals in training. If you have been training consistently for an extended period of time (over 6months) then a break of at least 4 weeks would be appropriate. This gives the body time to recover (assuming that you do not have any serious injuries) and allows the hunger to succeed in competition to return.

Once you have had a break from training you can think about your goals for next season and start working towards them. In starting training again, it is worthwhile to think about incorporating some cross-training into your schedule. Cross-training gives you an opportunity to develop your cardio-vascular fitness while indulging in a form of exercise that is a bit different for you. This variety is good and usually has the added bonus of not having any pressure to perform. What are some options? For the upper body you may think about trying some paddling – either kayak or canoe. This can give you a solid work out in a completely different environment and also has some cross over benefits when you start swimming again.

Mountain bike riding is another good option. This again changes the environment in which you train and allows you to develop some good cycling skills. Riding a mountain bike requires you to use the gears to get over steep hills or uneven ground. When riding hills on a mountain bike it is essential to remain seated so that you can maintain traction on the rear wheel. This forces you to use gears that you can turn efficiently while remaining in the saddle and also encourages you to pedal “the full circle”. The bike-handling skills you can learn from riding off-road and from descending will also be an asset to you in your road bike riding.

Often triathletes try cycle racing in the off-season. This also helps with bike handling and developing cardio-vascular fitness. There is a difference between cycle racing and triathlon cycling: the bike leg of the triathlon involves winding the bike up and holding your best speed in a steady state; cycle racing, on the other hand, generally involves aggressive attacks and then recovering in packs or groups. (Drafting another bike can save around 30% of your energy – in a pack, even greater benefits can be achieved). Some very strong road cyclists have come to the sport of triathlon and have been surprised that they are not competing with the best cyclists in triathlon. Of course, these strong cyclists do become competitive very quickly when they adopt the correct training techniques for the steady state requirements of triathlon cycling. I guess what I am saying here is, if you find you are successful when you try some cycle racing, don’t automatically assume that you will be able to beat your PBs on the bike in triathlon without some specific preparation. Certainly, the bike racing can be exciting and does yield some great benefits.

Fun runs and orienteering are also good ways of getting some off-season training in without the pressure of performing. The fun runs are a useful means of learning to pace yourself over a given distance and obviously are useful in allowing you to test yourself on the run. One word of advice, you will feel unusually fresh when you start a fun run - compared to the slightly fatigued feeling you usually have at the start of the run leg in the triathlon - and will be tempted to run at a pace that will result in someone dropping a refrigerator on your back after about 1km. To avoid this, build into the run at a sensible pace – the overall result will be more satisfying.

For a bit of thinking and running combined, orienteering is a good choice. In this sport you have the opportunity to test your navigation skills along with your fitness. The, generally, off-road running is a great strength work out and the duration of the event (anything from 2hours to 24hours) gives you a great aerobic work out.

Post season is also a good time to reassess your body. If you have been experiencing a long run of injuries or illness throughout the season, then, now is the time to consult your health professional about ways in which you can minimize time off training through injury or illness in the future. It may be that your doctor or physiotherapist is able to identify specific areas of weakness in your body that can be addressed during the off-season. Eliminating imbalance in your body will reduce the likelihood of an overuse injury or similar when you get back to full training. Similarly, identifying specific areas of your immune system that are weak gives you the opportunity, through diet or medication, to rectify the problem. Reducing the amount of time lost from training during the season will only enhance your overall adaptation and help you to perform at a higher level in the long run.

The off-season is also a time in which you can spend some time in the gym. Since your sport specific training is not as time consuming in the early part of the off season, you have the chance to get into the gym and develop a base from which you can do some useful strength work for the season ahead. This gym work should be aerobic in nature and should be looking at improving your overall condition. It is certainly not there to increase muscle bulk. 10-15reps of 8-12 exercises in the gym completed 2-3 times would be the aim for a given gym session. These exercises should be done at about 80% of your 15 repetition maximum (i.e. about 80% of the weight with which you can only just complete 15 reps). Exercises could include: calf-raisers, hamstring curls, leg extensions, squats, lunges, triceps extensions, seated rowing, lat. pull-downs and even bench press. You should also spend some time on core stability. When doing work in the gym, it is of vital importance that you warm-up and cool down properly and also spend plenty of time stretching after a session to maintain flexibility – strength without flexibility will not improve your performance in triathlon.

So, as the season draws to a close, you should spend some time considering how you will spend the off-season. Sit down and evaluate the season just past and then decide what your goals for the following season will be. Once you have established your goals you can determine when is the best time to have a break from training, what you would like to do in terms of keeping yourself occupied with some cross-training once your break is over and whether there are some weaknesses that you need to address to help you to be a better athlete next season. Once you have identified the changes you wish to make, you can put your feet up and enjoy the break that you have earned.

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