Now that the triathlon season has come to a close, you may find yourself falling into a bit of a funk. You looked forward with great anticipation to the first few Sundays, when you could sleep until noon instead of riding a century before lunch (admittedly, I’m not speaking from experience here). And it was great to spend a Saturday evening out past 10 p.m. without a dawn race start looming over you.
After a week or two of this, however, you may have found yourself getting a bit restless. Sure, it is nice to get to know your spouse and kids again, and to spend an extra few hours at work to ease the guilt of cutting out early for Ironman training. Then, one day, you notice that you can no longer count your ribs in the mirror—and panic sets in.
The Deadly Dichotomy
At this point, most triathletes tend to follow one of two addictive-behavior patterns. Either they return to hard training to regain the fitness to which they had become accustomed by the season’s end, or they decide that trying to stay in shape through the off-season is a losing battle, and they throw in the towel completely, vegetating into couch potatoes.
Neither path is optimal. If you hurl yourself back into the old grind, you risk burnout or injury (not to mention divorce and unemployment). If you quit training and racing cold turkey, you waste some hard-earned fitness and start from scratch come spring. I recommend picking some short, low-key races and milking your fitness for all it’s worth. This keeps you motivated to stay in shape; gives you some goals to distract you from the post-season blues; and teaches you a few things about tapering and maintaining fitness that you can put to good use in future seasons.
Racing and Resting
The key to capitalizing on the base you built over the season is not being afraid to rest. You’re really in an extended taper phase; all you should do for training is light maintenance work to keep your muscles supple and functioning. In general, your mileage should be 50 percent or less of what it is during the regular season. Cut out all intensity, except for the races and an occasional “pickup” to stretch your legs.
It is especially amazing how long you can milk the fitness you gain from Ironman training. I experimented a little in 1995 with several races after Hawaii. Three weeks after Kona, I did a race in Thailand; I was definitely still recovering, but managed a pretty good effort. But at five weeks, with two more weeks of rest, I was able to win the Olympic distance world championships at Cancún, Mexico. After two more weeks of taper, I ran in a five-mile Thanksgiving Day road race and set a PR.
Just for kicks, I ran in the cross-country nationals 10 days later and discovered halfway through that I had pretty much sucked all the marrow out of the season. So I happily hung up the racing shoes and brought out the snowboard boots.
Now, I have an idea of my limits: I can race for up to eight whole weeks without going back to base training! That is two whole months of spending “money in the bank,” a treat that most people miss.
Here are some ideas for a post-season racing program. I do these in the fall to help me resist that burning desire to jump back into six-hour training days … or to avoid the more realistic danger of becoming a permanent fixture on the couch.
Enter a few road races. You may be surprised with some personal bests—and you may be delighted at how much better you look in your race photos without bathing-cap hair. Road races are also an excellent way of gauging fitness gains from year to year, because the courses are usually a little more accurate than triathlon courses.
Pick a fun vacation race at a shorter distance. Though the season is winding down in most of this country, there are still races to be had in some fabulous destinations. I’ve done late-season races Israel, Thailand and Chile, to name a few.
A “destination” race at the end of the season makes sense because you don’t need to spend time training while you are there. You can realy enjoy some sightseeing, shopping, and other sub-aerobic activities done by normal people when they visit a new place.
Try a cross-country running race. If you missed out on this sport in school, you probably have never considered trying one. Come fall, these races are held unobtrusively in fields, trails, and woods throughout the country. They don’t attract the attention or numbers that road races do, so they may be harder to find, but they are definitely worth the effort.
Triathletes tend to be good at cross-country because it takes powerful quads to get up hills; a swimmer’s shoulders to hold your position on a narrow trail; and good transition skills in case you lose a shoe in the mud and have to quickly put it back on.
Break New Ground
The autumn months are a good time to sample a sport that you are afraid to try during the season because of the risk of injury. For me, mountain biking, in-line skating, and cyclo-cross all fall into this category. If you are sick of racing at the end of the season, you may want to focus on learning one of these new sports rather than competing.
I’ve yet to try cyclo-cross, but I went to watch the National Championships one year when it was in the Boston area. Seeing those people careening over the snowy terrain on their skinny-tired bikes in 16-degree temperatures (not including wind chill), wiping out on the icy downhills, lugging their bikes up the hills and over barriers with saliva frozen on their chins, really made me want to recommend it to you.
Whatever you choose to do, don’t train too hard or you’ll defeat your purpose. Stay active aerobically, so you don’t have to start from scratch next season, but back off enough in intensity that you allow yourself to rejuvenate.