Many athletes I know need to be told to take an off season, do some different things, not feel the need to ‘train’ every day, and let the body and mind get fresh and excited for the next season. Not me, and definitely not this year – I was more than ready for winter. I wasn’t physically tired, or injured or sore – my body was holding up just fine, but the spark to train and race had gone. It wasn’t rest I needed so much as change. I’d spent a whole season focused just on cycling and, although I realized it too late into my season to prevent burnout, I had desperately missed the variety of being a multisport athlete. Those who know me are aware that I’m really not a swimmer – it has always been a ‘must do’ part of triathlon training for me rather than something I truly enjoyed. But by the time fall came around, I even was excited to swim! Yes, a brand new pool 5 minutes from my door and formation of a swim training group (thanks Boost Swimming!) really helped with that, but still, me, excited to swim – I never thought I would see the day! It had been a long season, with cyclocross running all the way through until the snow started to fall in mid-December and while I discovered how much I loved cx racing, learned an incredible amount about this new (for me) discipline, and even won a race, I was ready to hang up my bikes for the winter. Luckily winter delivered all the snow we could possibly want (far too much for some!) and I could cross country ski all I wanted, with the added bonus of built in strength workouts with what felt like days on end of shoveling snow just to be able to get out of the house.
I really didn’t think of my activities over the winter as training – it was just part of daily life, which living where I do means there is no lack of options available! If the weather didn’t cooperate with plans, I switched to a different activity – some days there was too much snow for anywhere to open to ski, and some storms were just too plain dangerous to be outside in, with roads often impassable even for the best of vehicles and driver. I swam pretty consistently with the swim group all winter, did a bit of running of no particular distance or intensity (this resulted in some happy dogs!), a good amount of skate and classic skiing (a couple of times I skied right out of my front door!), some telemark skiing (one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to even become vaguely proficient at!), snowboarding, snowshoeing, and along with snow shoveling and firewood hauling strength workouts I hit the gym on a pretty regular basis. There was some structure expertly built into my weeks without me really realizing it by Julie of Dai Endurance, but it didn’t feel like it most of the time, and I felt free to enjoy winter without worrying too much about being ‘fit’ for the season ahead.
When many friends were driving to ride their bikes out of the snow, I didn’t even want to think about it. Despite having a new bike (thanks Roseville Cyclery!) sitting in the garage, I had no motivation to ride (I probably rode the trainer twice or three times all winter when I literally couldn’t get out of the house to do anything else due to snow), and even coming in to March, with bike racing in these parts starting up, I was still firmly in winter mode. I knew at some point I would be excited to ride again, and I would know when I was ready to race so I wasn’t worried (even though I know Dennis was getting a little concerned that my new bike was going to go un-ridden and he was preparing to take ownership of it himself!).
The change was sudden – whether it was the one week near the start of March where the sun finally came out (it honestly felt like we had been under a blanket of grey stormy skies since December!), or the early clock change giving us more evening daylight, or just being patient enough to give myself enough time, I don’t know, but all of a sudden I couldn’t wait to get on my bike. I was ready for structured training and I really wanted to race the early season Xterra that was a couple of weeks away. The ski’s got put away (mostly), and I finally drove down the hill to hit the trails on my new bike – it felt familiar, yet like I was just experiencing the trails again for the first time. The trainer seemed fun, I had purpose, and I got motivated to do some testing with Julie at the new Kaiser Endurance Lab to see where my fitness was from a science perspective. Yes, I lost some pure watts over the winter, but I felt strong in other ways, and most of all I was excited – which for me, usually goes further on a race course than science.
So this weekend, I raced Xterra for the first time in quite a while (I took last year off from triathlon) – I was even willing to drive through a spring storm to get over the pass at dark o’clock in the morning. I could count the number of times I had ridden my bike since December on one hand, but I didn’t care, I just wanted to race and see where my fitness was at to build on for the rest of the season – something I am now fully ready to focus on with structured training.
The water was freezing and filled with all manner of floating debris from the crazy California winter (the race organizers, TBF Racing, had done as best a job as they could possibly to do to remove the large objects so it was safe but it was a losing battle for the smaller tree limbs!), and the bike course was heavily modified with long road sections so we didn’t damage the water saturated trails beyond repair but I loved every minute of it. It didn’t feel (as many early season races do) like blowing out the cobwebs – I felt surprisingly strong (that excitement to race I’m sure has a lot to do with that!), and was able to push my body to close to those race intensities; I felt fresh – a feeling I’d struggled to find in a lot of races last year. I wasn’t that focused on the result today but I turned in a third overall female and an age group win, with two strong pro’s taking the top two spots.
So, to anyone who worries about losing fitness in the winter, not being able to train in poor weather conditions, or when the thought of ‘training’ everyday just sounds awful, I say give yourself a break. Try a new activity, do what sounds fun and if some days that is nothing then do nothing. Figure out what ‘normal’ people do each day and do some of that. Find a coach who embraces this type of off-season with you and can build you a flexible plan over the winter with the right mix of variety and fun movement, coupled with a strength and mobility plan that will build you a strong foundation and an injury-proof body for the upcoming season. You will know when you are ready and excited to hit the structured and focused training for your chosen sport again – there is plenty of time in the season to do that, you don’t need to do it all winter long as well.