If you're like most athletes, you finished your last race a month or two ago and you're working on the butt-groove on your couch or adding a spare tire to your waistline. Pretty soon, however, you'll start getting that itch. You search the web, looking for a 10k run an open water swim or ANYTHING to scratch that racing itch. I've heard this time of the year called "the Dreamin' Season" because you're dreaming about next year and how great it could be. Here are a few things I've learned over the years that can help you turn that dream into a reality. Single sport athletes: do not despair for all of what follows apply you too.
1) What's the plan, Stan?
Before you suit up and head out the door for your first workout of the season, you need to know what you're doing and why you're doing it. Every workout needs an articulable purpose and should move you toward peak fitness on race day. The key to being in your best shape when you need it is to have a plan.
Consider starting your season planning by identifying races where you want to perform your best at. My best advice here is choose races that excite you and even make you a little nervous. The more excited about I race I am, the harder I tend to train and race for it.
Once you identify your race priorities, you should identify and write down a few performance goals you need to hit in training in order to perform at your best in races. Some examples are specific power goals on the bike, and specific paces during a swim or run test set. Make sure these have a measurable quantity and a date assigned to them so you stick to them. Example: aerobic 20k run in 90 mins by 12th week of training. Also, make sure you include Short -Term Objectives that help you work towards your larger goals. Smaller objectives like: stretch every day, go to yoga 2x per week, do strength training 2x per week, and complete 90% of workouts can keep you on track when you begin losing focus.
Some final tips on planning: write down not only what you plan on doing, but what you've completed. Reviewing your log/journal at regular intervals provides a sense of accomplishment and helps with motivation. Writing your training down also provides you with a blueprint for success for future seasons, if things go well or can show you what not to do if things didn't go as planned.
2) Get your swoll on
From a purely empirical perspective, strength training helps with my athletic performance. Off-season is the time to address any weaknesses that held you back last season. If you lack things like speed on the flats on the bike leg, power in the water, or hill climbing on the run, adding strength training can help address those issues.If hitting the gym isn't for you, there are plenty of alternative strength routines that can help improve performance. Personally, I prefer a suspension trainer to the gym for its affordability, ease of use and effectiveness in a short workout. Others have seen results with plyometrics, pilates, yoga, etc. Experiment and see which works best for you.
3) You are what you eat
Off-season coincides with big eating holidays in the northern hemisphere. One of the biggest mistakes I see is athletes who stop training altogether in September, gain a lot of weight over the holidays and then start training after January 1st. You've lost too much fitness over the off-season, gained too much weight and your performance is the same year after year. Take a break, yes, but maintain some level of fitness and a healthy weight so you're not starting over every year. Definitely indulge a little in the all the goodness that the holidays have to offer, but have in your head that moderation is the key to a better season next year.
4) Slow is PRO
One of the things elite athletes do better than "the rest of us" is they go slow when it's time to go slow. You've just emerged from your winter hibernation and your'e fired up to start training. So you log a bunch of hours, you're smoking your buddies in group rides by February, your early season data looks good and you're deliriously happy. Then you start losing interest, you skip workouts and by May or June you've all but quit. What happened? The next year you start your training even earlier only this time you get to April and you're burned out. This is a nasty cycle that I've been guilty of getting caught up in too. Pump the brakes, remember that it's VERY early right now. Remind yourself that you want to be fast at your next goal race and not killing it in February. I believe there is a finite amount of training and racing "energy" every athlete possess during a training year and you want to burn it slowly so there is enough to get you through the whole season. A mid-season break helps replenish this energy, but burn it all in the winter/early spring and you're on track for burn out. Take it easy early on. Save that energy for late in the season when your competition is burned out and take it to 'em.
6) If it fits, it ships
Off-Season is the time to address equipment issues.If you've never had a professional bike fit, it might be time to get one. Bike fit becomes more critical the more time you spend in the saddle for your race and for time trialing. For triathlon, the goal is maximizing power output and aerodynamics simultaneously without leaving you too trashed to run. Getting a proper fit now allows your body time to get used to the position well before race day; ignoring a poor-fit can cause lead to a DNF. Don't let this happen to you.
It's also time to correct any technique flaws in your swimming stroke or run mechanics. I thought my run mechanics were pretty solid, but had them looked at after I sought treatment for a cuboid sprain. My physical therapist watched me run, confirmed that my mechanics were solid, but suggested a few tweaks that dropped time off my mile splits without adding effort. Free speed!
Bottom line, get your bike fit to you, have your run and swim mechanics looked at. Find a pro coach that has video so you can see the before and after because what it feels like you're doing and what you're actually doing may be vastly different.
7) BELIEVE IT
Despite all your physical training and preparation, something on race day won't come out as planned and how you deal with that adversity dramatically affects your race. Fortunately, there are things you can do prior to race day to help you when things go sideways. During intervals, visualize yourself in the middle of a race, see yourself performing well or maybe chasing down your fiercest rival. Greek philosopher, Aristotle (?) said that to truly know something, you must believe it to be true. I feel the same way with fitness, in order to truly reach your potential you must BELIEVE that you have the capacity to perform at that level. Whatever goals you choose this season, you have to truly believe that you are capable of achieving them. I love analogies, and my favorite is this: "going for it" in a race is akin to throwing yourself off a cliff and hoping the mattress (your fitness) at the bottom is in the right spot and soft enough to catch you. You really have to trust your fitness to race at a high level and any self-doubt can hold you back from racing at your physical capabilities. You have to TRUST yourself and your fitness.
I hope some of the tips above will help you in the coming season. I'm always happy to help out.