A Triathlon Focused Off Season

Evaluate your previous season's performancesAfter every season of triathlon should be an off season, but what exactly is an “off season” for an athlete who spends his or her “on season” training to combine three disciplines into one event? There are a number of approaches and answers to this question. For some athletes, doing nothing is the answer. We all, from time to time, need a break from sport, sometimes more mentally than physically, but the two are eternally connected. For others, focusing on a single discipline sport related to triathlon is how time is best spent, particularly if the focus is on one’s weakest discipline of the three. For example, for weak runners, training only the run during the off season to become faster at 5, 10, 15, and 21k running races might be a good idea.

I would like to offer another option which I consider the best approach for athletes who are focused solely on improving as triathletes as a whole. This would be someone who intends on only “racing” triathlon as their primary focus next season and beyond. What I am suggesting is that you, the triathlete, [continue to] focus on triathlon during what you might call your “off season.”

The truth is (and this assumes that you are not simply an athlete, but specifically a triathlete), if you want to see year to year improvement, dropping one or two of the disciplines that make up triathlon, you need to continue to work on swimming, biking, and running all year long. Some training programs and coaches will tell you otherwise, but don’t kid yourself: if your swim in an Ironman distance triathlon takes 1:20 hour (80 min) and you stop swimming for 6 months during your off season, you can’t expect to see much, if any improvement. The key to long term improvement is hard, consistent work. Let’s take a closer look.

To begin with, let’s assume you have just finished your last big race of the season. You’re feeling good. You have hopefully made some big gains this season, and you are totally excited to continue the streak of improvement. This is a good sign. So what is next? Time off: Take a week or two completely off from structured training. Now, this does not mean sit at home on the sofa and stuff your face. It means actively do not train. Don’t wake up at 4:00 AM to go to the pool, do not rush home from work to bust out 10k at tempo before dinner. However, do go for a long hike in the middle of nowhere on Saturday. Do go for an easy bike ride with your family Tuesday afternoon. Do go camping, go to the beach, go climb a tree, go out with your friends. In other words, stay active, but keep it all unstructured. All the while you are “not training,” you need to be making preparations for what you plan to do next season. For a more detailed look at what that means, check out this article.

Now that you have rested a bit, it’s time to get back to work. Training begins, and the training that you will do depends on what your goals are for the season. As triathletes, we have to accept the fact that if we focus solely on one discipline, for example running, the other two disciplines, swimming and cycling, will become weaker. I’m not saying that there are not benefits to single discipline focus during the off season, but my opinion is that this type of approach is short sighted for the athlete with long term goals of reaching a very high level of performance in triathlon. If you train all three disciplines simultaneously, they each get stronger together.

This is not to say that you wouldn’t focus more on one discipline while maintaining the other two. It’s actually quite common to do this, all year round. You might put together an off season plan that changes weekly, putting more emphasis on one or another of the three disciplines for only a week at a time. Or you could decide to focus mostly on your weakest of the three disciplines for a couple of months, all the while, you are still training as a triathlete.

Here are some thoughts on how you can focus on one discipline, while maintaining all three.

  1. Begin by assessing what it is you need to work on by identifying a weakness. Go back to race reports from last season, and take notes on your performances in each leg of the event. Was one of the three events weaker relative to the others? One way to find out is to look at your placement within the field. If you swam and biked in the top 25%, but ran in the bottom 50%, chances are good that your running needs special attention.
  2. Once you have decided on your weak link(s), work with your coach to devise a plan to improve these limiters. Here are some suggestions, but by no means is this comprehensive:
    Weak swimmers. Frankly, this group contains most of us. In fact, I say that if you are not swimming faster than 1 min, 30 seconds per 100m in a pool consistently, you are a weak swimmer. Now, when I refer to a weak swimmer, I do not mean he or she needs to build strength per se. What I mean is you need to get faster. You do this by improving your body positioning and balance in the water, and by building your swim specific fitness by swimming hard, often.If this is you, swim no less than three to six times per week. Frequent swimming will help you keep a “feel” for the water, which is to say, it will keep your body used to moving through the water, and gaining efficiency. To note: I had the privilege to watch some of our nations best triathletes (Kemper, Haskins, Chrabot, Collins, Fretta, to name a few) swim this past summer. They all swam five or six days per week. Why? Because they want to be faster, and that is what it takes. For your off season, there is not a big need to swim big volume, so anything from 1500m to 4000m per swim workout will suffice, depending on what you are used to doing, and what your goals are going to dictate. The key is swim quality yardage on a frequent basis.

    Weak bikers. Triathletes are notoriously poor bike handlers as a group. If this is the case for you, I suggest spending a month or two getting off the roads, and onto the trails with your mountain bike. Off-road cycling presents a set of bike handling challenges that are extreme compared to what triathletes normally encounter on the roads. Mountain biking is a fun way to begin building better cycling skills, while maintaining, and even improving, bike fitness.

    Another option for weak cyclists is to build fitness in areas that we as triathletes rarely have the opportunity to work on, due to the nature of how we race. Specifically, the ability to accelerate quickly for short bursts. As a road cyclist, you would learn this skill, and force you body to adapt to performing these short bursts very quickly, otherwise, you would end up being spit out the back of the peleton. Although we rarely use this skill in a non-drafting triathlon race, triathletes can benefit quite a bit by increasing our ability to produce very high amounts of power for anything from 10 seconds up to 5 minutes. Studies have shown that increasing your bike fitness in this way will also trickle down into your abilities to time trial over longer periods of time, which is the normal manor in which we triathletes train and race.

    Weak runners. More often than not, a triathlon is won or lost during the run. If you feel that your running ability is holding you back, then spending time focusing on running is going to be your best approach during your triathlon off season. As simple and “natural” as it seems, running is actually a quite complicated activity. I would venture to say that all of us could use run technique improvements, and off season is a great place to begin making new running habits that will make you a more efficient runner. Spend 15 to 30 minutes of each run workout doing running drills and exercises that are going to address your running inefficiencies. Seek guidance from a running coach who will help you identify inefficiencies and prescribe the drills that will address these problems. You can also use video to get a look at yourself running. This will help you identify problem areas immediately. Compare your run to that of great runners like Haile Gebrselassie. Note what is different, and begin to incorporate more efficient improvements into your running workouts.

After you have decided on which of the three is the weak link, put together an outline of a month or two of training that will have you working hardest on your weaknesses while maintaining the other two disciplines. Here is a sample schedule for an athlete in need of swim focus:

Sample week for triathlon off season

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In the sample, notice that there are five swim workouts in the week. Three of them are with a group. This is where fitness gains will be made, while during the other two swim workouts, technique work using swim drills will make up the main set.

Here is an example for an athlete focusing on improving biking.

Sample Week - Bike Focus

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The bike focus sample contains five days on the bike with a lot of variety in the type of cycling being done. The remaining training for the week includes two swims and three runs

Finally, an example of an athlete focusing on their running.

Sample Week - Run Focus

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In the run focus sample, you see five runs per week in basically two blocks. The speedier running is early on, followed by distance and strength focused running. This allows for most of the attention during the run focus to be spent perfecting form and run efficiency. Swimming and cycling are maintained with two swims and three bike workouts.

The key to this approach of continuing your triathlon training during your off season is that you minimize the fitness and skill losses that would otherwise happen if you were to drop training for two of the three disciplines of triathlon. Additionally, understanding exactly where your weaknesses fall within each discipline is important as well. This is where a great coach can really make a difference, designing a training program that will hone in on the details of what will make you a better triathlete. A full triathlon off season is not always the answer for all athletes, however, I believe that if you want to continue to improve as a triathlete, training like one all year round, even during the off season, is important.

If you are interested in making the most out of your triathlon off season, feel free to contact us for a free consultation.