There’s a popular saying among triathletes: Winter miles equal summer smiles. It’s a nod to the power of off-season triathlon training, which is the period between one race season and the next. In the northern hemisphere, it typically lasts from October or November through March. In the southern hemisphere, it usually stretches from May to September. But no matter where you live, it’s an opportunity to hit the refresh button, build strength, power, and endurance, and hone athletic skills without the pressure of competition looming over you.
In short, it’s the perfect time to lay the foundation for your best race season yet. And if you follow these 10 off-season triathlon training tips — which I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) during 13 years as a professional triathlete — you’ll increase your odds of doing just that.
10 Off-Season Triathlon Training Tips
1. Take a break
Most pro triathletes begin the off-season by stepping back from structured training — typically for two to four weeks — to allow their bodies to recover fully. They don’t stay off their feet during that time; on the contrary, they remain active, often pursuing sports and pastimes other than cycling, swimming, and running — but they take enough of a break from their usual multisport training to recharge mentally and physically.
Taking a break from triathlon isn’t just good for your body and soul — it’s critical for your athletic success, as failing to do so can increase your risk of overtraining, injury, and burnout. So book that vacation you’ve been putting off. Spend time with family and friends whom you neglected during the race season. And don’t worry about losing a bit of fitness. Not only will you get it back quickly once you start training again, but you’ll also be in a position to become stronger and fitter than before.
2. Cross train
When you resume structured training, keep it varied and diverse by weaving the sports you pursued during your break into your program. Not only can that break up the monotony of your usual routine, helping to increase your motivation, but it can also help reduce the wear and tear on your body as you “build base” (i.e., increase endurance and aerobic fitness), which is a key part of off-season triathlon training. Ski, snowshoe, hike, climb — the point is to pursue an activity that will boost foundational fitness while keeping you mentally fresh and motivated.
3. Focus on technique
No one is perfect, but the of-season is the time to work on becoming more so. Invest in swim stroke analysis. Attend a running workshop. Find a coach (more on that in tip nine). Do whatever you have to do to start moving more efficiently. I don’t care if you’re an amateur athlete or a professional competitor — odds are that even slight improvements to your running form, swimming stroke, or pedal turnover will yield huge performance gains.
4. Strength train
Triathlon is an endurance sport, but strength, power, and speed are still critical to success. Triathletes also need bodies that are robust enough to withstand the many punishing miles on land and in water that they put them through. Strength training provides all of that.
Studies show that it can improve speed, running economy, power output, stamina, and VO2 Max. It can also help reduce overall risk of injury. And I know from personal experience that it can make a huge difference in performance. I began a dedicated lifting program in the winter of 2015, and by the spring of 2016 I was deadlifting one and a half times my body weight. That kind of strength not only made me a stronger, more powerful competitor, but also helped me move with greater efficiency in all three sports. And it’s incredibly addictive.
The off-season is the best time to dive into strength training. During the race season, when training and race preparation are at a higher intensity, a full strength program is simply too fatiguing. That doesn’t mean you should ditch it entirely during that time — there’s always a place for strength work in triathlon training — but you should dial it back and focus more on mobility once races start to crowd your schedule.
5. Experiment with new equipment
If you’re considering upgrading your gear, now is the time to do it. And I’m not just talking about bikes; I’ve used the off-season to test wetsuits, wheels, helmets, and running shoes, making adjustments as necessary.
Once the race season starts, you don’t want to mess around with untested equipment, which can surprise you in extremely unpleasant ways at amazingly inopportune times, such as during a race. So do your homework, seek recommendations from experienced athletes (who tend to have a particular affinity for bike porn), and become 100-percent familiar with your set-up, so you can iron out niggling issues before they become serious problems.
6. Pick up the pace (occasionally)
There are coaches who say that you should stick to low intensity, steady state training during the off-season. In my experience, it’s advisable to blend in some higher intensity work — emphasis on “some.” You don’t want to increase your risk of overtraining or injury by pushing yourself too hard, too often, but mixing in one or two interval sessions a week can prime your body for the increased volume of high intensity training you’ll likely do once the season starts. Begin picking up the pace after you’ve given your body sufficient opportunity to “reset” (see tip number one) and logged three to four weeks of solid endurance training/base building.
7. Keep it fun
Triathlons might be solo competitions, but the sport fosters a strong camaraderie among its athletes. Take advantage of it to alleviate the monotony of training. Join a local triathlon team, organize a training group with friends, work with a coach — do whatever you can to make your workouts more social and enjoyable. Research shows that the more fun you have — and the more camaraderie you feel — the more likely you are to enjoy your sport and be consistent in your training.
8. Eat more healthfully
You are what you eat, and if you put garbage in, you’ll get garbage out. Does that mean your diet needs to be on point 100 percent of the time to see results? Of course not — around 80 percent of the time is fine. But you will likely notice a significant improvement in your workouts, recovery, and performance if you pay as much attention to your feeding as you do to your training.
Use the off-season as a time to reassess what, when, and how much you eat. Are eating sufficient quantities of all three macronutrients (carbs, protein, fat)? Are you drinking a protein shake within 30-minutes of finishing a workout? Do you consume enough daily calories to not only fuel athletic performance, but also athletic gains (strength, speed, endurance)? Answer these questions, and adjust your diet accordingly.
9. Hire a coach
Professional athletes don’t train themselves, so what makes you think you can? Not only can coaches provide a realistic, objective assessment of your strengths and weaknesses — and develop a plan to reinforce the former and reduce the latter — but they can also more generally take the guesswork (and the stress that comes with it) out of training.
Just as important, they can hold you accountable. Having to answer to someone for not showing up has a way of inspiring consistency. And knowing that person can help you reach your potential has a way of fueling motivation. As with bikes and equipment (see tip five), do your homework, ask around for recommendations, and interview multiple coaches before hiring one. Experience and knowledge are key attributes, but don’t neglect the importance of personality. If you don’t click with your coach, you’ll have a much harder time working with them to achieve your athletic potential.
10. Sharpen your mental game
If you only focus on physical training, you’ll shortchange your results. To accomplish your goals, you need to set clear, realistic goals, and (perhaps most important) condition yourself to think like a champion.
Use the off-season to review your performance from the previous race season and set objectives for the one ahead. Which training strategies worked? Which ones didn’t? Why? What are your goals for the coming race season, and what training and performance goals can help you achieve them? Answering those questions will help you not only develop an effective training program, but also enhance your likelihood of competitive success. So will actively working on your confidence, mental stamina, and grit (i.e., mental game).