The Off-Season: The most important phase of all

Alan Couzens, M.Sc. (Sports Science)

Updated: Nov 17th, 2017

“Resuming training too early is much like pulling an onion out of the garden and realizing it is not yet fully grown. One cannot put it back in and expect more growth!”
- Peter Coe (Coach of middle distance legend Sebastian Coe)

The opening picture for today’s post was put together by one of the athletes that I work with at the end of his season for 2008. I think it pretty eloquently describes how many of us feel at the end of a tough season.

The off-season or transitional period is probably the least understood training phase of the annual plan. Athletes vary widely in their interpretation of what the purpose of the off season is, and indeed if an off-season is needed at all. The “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” mentality is all too prevelant among the type A Ironman world. It is my opinion that this is a grave mistake and a mistake that can fundamentally limit the expression of your long term athletic potential.

I am not the first to come to this conclusion. Bondarchuk, one of the leading experts in periodization has studied factors leading to long term athletic stagnation in elite athletes (1995) and, the #1 predicting factor that he came up with was athletes who either a) fail to take an off-season or b) athletes who continue specific training during their off-season. In the words of Bondarchuk...

"To be exact, the group of athletes who didn't include a dedicated Transition period following their season improved less than 3% on their performance level at the start of the season and failed to improve AT ALL on their best performance from the previous season. This was despite systematic and consistent training during the season, similar in quality and quantity to their improving peers."

So, without further ado, let’s get into the nitty gritty of what constitutes a good, productive Transition period/'Off-season'....

First of all, what is the purpose of the off-season?

Simply, the purpose of the off-season is to shed ALL of the fatigue accumulated in the preceding season so that the athlete is starting from a blank slate at the start of the next preparation period. If you hold onto just 20% of your fatigue from the previous season, the cumulative effect means that after 5 years you’ll be starting the next season as fatigued as you were at your peak training volume 5 years ago. This is going to significantly compromise your ability to tolerate the extra training load that you want to do that season and ultimately lead to a plateau in your long term performance.

Diving a little deeper into the physiology...

Another periodization guru, Tudor Bompa does a good job explaining the different forms of recovery in his book "Theory and Methodology of Training."

As the curve above shows, he breaks recovery into 3 phases - a fast, medium and slow phase. The fast consists primarily of metabolic recovery, i.e. replenishment of glycogen etc. Complete restoration of this is, at most, a matter of a few days. Since having the energy to complete the session is job 1, the athlete is ~70% recovered at the end of this phase - certainly 'recovered enough' to continue to put in work. The second phase represents structural recovery, i.e the repair (& supercompensation) of muscles, (including intramuscular components - mitochondria etc). While the last phase was a matter of days, complete recovery here is a matter of weeks. This recovery cycle forms the basis of the 3-4 week mesocycle. Finally, the last 10% represents recovery of the CNS and hormonal systems, i.e. the athlete's ability to respond to stress. This form of recovery operates over the longest timeline (a matter of months) &, while only making up a small (often imperceivable) 10%, it is a very important 10%!

Because we are dealing with hormonal systems, I think it helps to think of inadequate recovery/overload of this system in terms of a related hormonal disorder - Type 2 Diabetes. When the pancreas is perpetually taxed to keep pumping out insulin without recovery, it gets tired. In the same way, an athlete's adrenal glands get tired of perpetually pumping out cortisol in response to stress. Similar to diabetes, the body's ability to respond to the stressor that is training gets diminished over time, i.e. it becomes 'resistant' to this messenger hormone in the same way that muscles become resistant to the other messenger hormone - insulin. Or, to quote the ACSM and European College of Sports Science consensus statement on the prevention of overtraining...

"Chronic stress and the subsequent chronically elevated adrenal glucocorticoid secretion could play an important role in the desensitization of higher brain centers’ response to acute stressors."

In order to keep these response systems working over time, & to keep the athlete responding to training over the long term, they both need a periodic extended break from the chronic stress of training, Put more bluntly: If you wish to 'stay sensitive to' & actually keep improving from(!) the 'acute stressors' of training sessions, it is important to periodically give your adrenals a break!

As I allude to above, it's important to note that while studies have shown a significant link between performance fatigue and hormonal markers of over-reaching/over-training, less of a link has been exhibited between subjective ratings of fatigue and performance indicated fatigue. In other words, while you may feel ‘good to go’ and ready to start the next season, it is this last little 10% of lingering fatigue that you don’t necessarily feel that will ultimately limit your long term performance, or put more plainly, it is this last 10% season after season that ultimately causes athletes to stop responding to the training and 'go stale'.

How long should the off-season last?

Or, what does this recovery curve look like in terms of actual time frames?

For an ‘average’ athlete training at 100 TSS/d, upon cessation of training, fatigue will decay rapidly for the first 2 weeks (hence the taper length implications) and will then continue to decay albeit at a slower rate for the next 2+ months (see figure below). On the other hand, fitness decays at a much slower rate. In fact, it will take most fit athletes 1 year of no training before they have lost all of the fitness that they achieved with training. Intelligent athletes can exploit this difference in decay rates between fitness and fatigue.

For an average athlete, at ~60 days post race they will have less than 1% of fatigue remaining from the season. Yet, they will still be retaining 17% of their fitness from the preceding season. Zero fatigue plus some fitness is a great deal for an athlete looking to undertake an all time high training load in the following season.

If some is good, is more better? Like all aspects of training planning, timing is everything. If our hypothetical athlete waits another month to start his preparation for the next season, fitness will decline to only 7% of starting levels. Therefore, it is certainly possible to extend the off-season for too long.

On the flip-side, for those athletes looking to shorten the off-season, and get a jump on next season, it is worthwhile remembering that training performed more than 5 months before your target event has very little performance impact (Morton, 1991). Save your mojo for when it counts.

Are these recommendations true for all?

Short answer is no. In general, the better trained the individual, the longer the off-season needs to be.

Completely novice athletes can shed fatigue very quickly. In a study by Busso (1991) untrained individuals shed all fatigue within 2 weeks after a 14 week training program. On the other hand, in a study of Olympic level swimmers by Hellard (2005) some fatigue was shown to remain up to 6 months after a swimming season. In other words, even for the elite, the gap between fitness and fatigue narrows each and every season. When fitness and fatigue reach the point that they are decaying at similar rates, performance is maxed out. For this reason, individuals with very fast fatigue decay rates have a great advantage. Or, put another way, athletes should do all that is possible to speed recovery at all times. In this sense, health and performance overlap.

So what should I do during the off-season?

1. Not very much.
Keep in mind that your #1 objective is to shed (not create) fatigue. Taper studies offer some recommendations in this regard. In most studies volume drops of 60-90% have elicited the greatest improvements in performance, presumably due to the greatest rate of fatigue shed (Costill et al. 1985). IOW, 10-40% of your in-season volume offers the best short term fatigue vs. fitness compromise.

With a couple of exceptions (see below) any exercise that you do should fall under the category of ‘active recovery’, i.e. you should feel more invigorated after the session than before it: A walk in the forest, an easy spin on the mountain bike, renting a canoe for a couple of hours. Think ‘feel good’ and ‘fun’.

2. General Training
At this point in the season, the more removed from the specifics of your event, the better. As mentioned above, after the non-existence of an off-season, the next greatest predictor of training stagnation in Bondarchuk’s study was starting specific training too early in the season. Just how general? You can come along to my wife’s aquarobics class and ask me. That’s where I’ll be this Sunday :-)

3. Speed/skill and flexibility training.
Of course, when we talk about “fitness decay” we’re using a general term to describe a number of physiological components. In reality, each one of these has a different fatigue decay and fitness re-acquisition rate. A couple of particular physiological attributes differ markedly enough that they demand specific attention during the transition period, especially the latter half, as we're nice and fresh and slowly easing back into training.

First of all, flexibility can decline 100% within 4 days of training cessation (Maglischo, 1990). While it can be re-acquired at a good rate, the off season is the perfect time to make in-roads in this quality. IOW, do some yoga classes.

Additionally, skill, speed and power are three related qualities that can diminish rapidly and take a lot of time to reacquire (Hsu and Hsu, 1999).

The transitional period offers a great opportunity to give some weight to some of these fast decaying physiological qualities that we may neglect during the inseason but with semi-specific training means, e.g. ball sports provide a good agility and basic speed challenge to us ‘linear athletes’ who do most of our movements at one speed in one plane. Likewise, circuit routines that incorporate basic speed and agility via tools such as agility ladders, slideboards, plyo-boxes etc are a good inclusion to keep you busy and prevent basic skill, speed and power decline during the off-season.

How should I structure the off-season?

My preferred structure for this period is to take the first half (2-4 weeks) as pure recovery. A mental break from 'training with a purpose', replacing it with a normal, healthy, 'move every day' objective. An 'hour a day keeps the Doctor away' is a good theme for this block. In line with my recommendations above, all should be very, very easy - just active recovery intensities (less than 60% VO2max). I like yoga during this period. I like very easy swims (or aquarobics :-) during this period, I like easy walks in the forest during this period.

For the second half of the off-season, we are looking to continue to keep the fatigue very low but start with some general movement 'skill' practice. We may include here some very easy strength circuits with a integrated movement, core/stabilizer focus in all planes. We will begin to turn our swim and run focus to technique work, initially easy, then progressing to short efforts at speed & we will look to address specific strength & mobility weaknesses in the gym. All the while, still keeping the volume low and the overall intensity very low.

So, for a full ~60 day 'off-season', we will have 2 blocks - 1 pure active recovery of ~7hrs per week with a yoga/active recovery focus, 2 - Setting the scene 'preparatory' work - a very gentle 'ramp block' back into training with a focus on general skills, core/stabilizer work and corrective strength and mobility along with plain old re-establishing the consistency and routine of the athletic life.


Update 2017: In the decade of coaching since I wrote this article, I have repeatedly seen the negative effects from athletes who didn't heed the above. Athletes who pushed for "just one more race" or didn't "feel tired" at the end of the season so went above and beyond prescription for these blocks. I cannot recall any athlete who ignored the off-season who didn't experience a negative effect later in the following season. Whether illness, injury or just 'going flat' and not getting the performances they usually would from the training load they were putting in. The message is as valid now as it ever was: The off-season truly is the most important phase of all. Set up your 2018 right and...

Train smart.


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