There is no doubt that the definition of the cycling off-season has changed over the years. It used to be the off-season meant having this major break off the bike. There didn’t seem to be much happening in the world of cycling and you would look forward to your monthly copy of Velo News in the mail to see what was transpiring in the dead of winter. You couldn’t wait until spring!
Fast forward to a world of mass media and technology including the Internet, online forums, and mobile devices to follow Facebook and Twitter. Yes, the off-season seems to be this hazy transition from year to year where athletes are not sure what to participate in with the availability of so many competitive options (like Cyclocross and mountain biking.) Add in different off-season activities prescribed by coaches and articles (like these), and the off-season has become a season in itself!
It’s pretty overwhelming, so let’s look at some common questions athletes ask about what to do in the off-season and answer them best we can.
What is the meaning of break and how long should it be?
The first thing to do is defining a break and determining how long that break should be. Does it mean putting the bike away for a while with no riding at all? Does it mean you can ride, but “not much?” Or does it mean you can ride different disciplines like MTB or Cross?
I think the first thing to understand, that unless you are totally wasted and over-trained, the body really doesn’t need that much time to recover and become fresh again. Most athletes can take 4-6 days off the bike and feel pretty good in the legs and have good energy. A lot of you see this by taking a few days off and see how your heart rate becomes so responsive and higher than normal.
The more important question is how are you mentally? How motivated are you to truly dedicate 100 percent of your cycling energy to your next season goals? Now we are talking about a different animal here. This is where you have to evaluate your mental state and make sure you define the time off the bike and allow yourself to mentally get recharged. It takes different amounts of time for different athletes. Just a suggestion, if it takes you a month, take 5-6 weeks. Always give yourself a bit more time; better a bit more than a bit less.
As an important side note, I think it’s a good idea for active athletes to have blood work done a at least once a year, just to make sure everything is in good shape. We put our bodies through an immense amount of stress from training, career, and life in general. A lot of times I will see athletes get normal blood work done and have some inconsistent values. They don’t feel bad, but the values are either out of range or at the extreme edges of normal. It could be because of all the training stress. These values like ferritin or hemoglobin just don’t “fill up” again like fluids in your car; they can take months to get back to what would be considered normal. And a big component of getting them back is REST. So by checking your blood, you may be avoiding problems as far out as the middle of next year.
What activities should I do when I am not cycling?
Great question! What specifically you do and how much time you spend doing it will depend on priorities. When pros do off-season activities, given the amount of hours and time spent on the bike, their off-season is a needle in a haystack. They cannot spend too much time doing other activities before they have to think about the upcoming year. That is why they are professionals.
Masters athletes as well as younger aged amateurs can do other activities for longer periods of time. A Masters athlete looks at quality-of-life issues and balancing their lifestyle in terms of strength and fitness. And quite honestly, that is a great idea. Just keep one thing in mind: Whatever you choose to do, try to be consistent in doing it to gain any benefits.
Most of us have pretty active lives and since the ultimate priority is bike racing, you still have to spend time on the bike as an older athlete. So choosing an activity or two is probably enough versus trying to do five things. If I had to put my money on one activity, it’s yoga, assuming you can handle it. It combines strength, core, flexibility and the mind into one activity. Other activities to consider would be hiking, trail running, Pilates, cross-fit training and many more.
Should I weight lift or not?
Probably one of the biggest debates that appear every year about this time is whether bike racers should go to the gym and lift weights. For every coach that says you should, you can find one that says it’s not worth the time. For every study that supports it, you can again find another study that doesn’t support it or the study that supported it had multiple flaws.
So what should you do? Well, I can tell you right now, I am not going to support either side of the debate because a whole book could be written on the subject. I will though try to give a few key points to consider when making your decision:
• Whatever you decide, again you must be consistent and increase the program slowly and methodically with the help of someone who knows what they are doing and more importantly, whom they are dealing with. They are working with a person who spends an enormous amount of time doing one specific movement in their live…pedaling a bike!
• Consider the question of if you do weight lifting for, say, 6-12 weeks, how long will the benefits last? As an example, you ride pretty much year round. When you stop, how long before you feel like you never rode? This goes in line with what I was saying about how much time a pro spends doing other activities.
• Quality of life issues. As most of us are Masters athletes, it’s about living a healthy, balanced lifestyle and doing other activities like weight lifting to help achieve that goal.
If it works for you, then by all means continue to do it. Only the athlete can be the overall judge of whether their time in the gym benefits their cycling outside.
I think what is missing in a lot of athlete’s programs is not strength in the gym, but “strength” on the bike. High torque, low cadence, low HR work that focuses on the pedal stroke movement as well as aerobic muscle endurance.
And finally, strength, as we associate it with weight lifting, is not the limiting issue in an aerobic sport like cycling. The limiting factor is mainly O2 delivery and utilization. Have you ever stood next to a professional cyclist? A lot of them look like the wind might blow them away. I wouldn’t want them on my side in a fight! And finally, we sadly only have to look as to what the popular methods of cheating are these days. Mainly EPO, blood transfusions, and drugs that allow you to train more (improved recovery) and gain more lean mass as a percentage of your body composition. These are not drugs that make you stronger and gain more mass.
The off-season has changed. Part of it can be attributed to the popularity of the sport, more coaches, and more available literature. The Internet and the availability of information are at an all-time high. It used to be that up here in the Northern Hemisphere, we had no clue that there was even a cycling season down under. Now we are treated to every detail of every race in our winter. Information overload!
I want to add a couple more important points. It’s OK to not be 100 percent and at the top of your game all the time. It’s OK to de-train, take a break, do something else, and give the bike and bike culture a break from your life. Trust me, if you are dedicated and have a good program, the fitness will come back, perhaps even stronger than before. And the bike culture in terms of clubs, online news, and friends will always be there for you when you get back!
Remember primarily that the off-season is a time to review the previous year, plan the upcoming year and focus on fitness goals that are difficult to do when you are racing every weekend and trying to recover to the next. From a cycling perspective use the off-season to gain more aerobic fitness or “raise the floor” as I call it, because all things being equal, I would rather go into next year with a higher watts per kilo at threshold than anything else.