Structuring Your End of Season Break

In the first pack (center, in red) at the Ballbuster Duathlon. Winner Wayne Smith in red to my right.

The dark nights are really starting to set in, and it’s time to take a break and refresh after the season. After a great end of season race at the Ballbuster Duathlon (more on this later) last weekend, I found I was really motivated to carry on training – but I’m sticking to my plan to take a month of dedicated down time.

A lot of highly motivated athletes find it hard to take a break at the start of the winter – after all, we’re probably the fittest we’ve been at the end of the summer racing season, with good body composition, and any late races we do tend to go surprisingly well. I think that’s probably down to a combination of high end of season fitness (relative to training load,) feeling fresh (due to the natural decreased training load after our ‘A’ race season is over) and a lack of mental pressure to perform. Certainly, that’s been the case for me – some of my best performances come when I’m racing for the fun of it.

We’re naturally reluctant to take a break when we’re going well. We’re naturally resistant to the idea of deliberately ‘losing’ fitness when it would seem to make more sense to keep the fitness up. Hardest of all is the thought of putting on some weight when we’re in great shape body composition-wise.

When I’m focussing on getting into ‘A’ race shape, I find that my body naturally finds it’s way to a leaner composition – probably the combination of the extra training hours I put in during the summer, and a conscious effort to eat more healthily in the run up to big races. If I’m doing a series of very hilly races, like this year with Wenselydale, Helvellyn and The Ballbuster, where being very lean translates into vastly improved run performance on the hills, I will even have deliberately restricted or removed certain foods to help shed a couple of extra pounds. I’ve ended this season leaner than I’ve ever been, and my run performances have certainly benefitted. However, I’ve had a few health issues over the last month – colds, conjunctivitis – and I think they’re connected to being super-lean. Trying to stay skinny during September, after Helvellyn, to race the Ballbuster 4 weeks later, contributed to me having some health and immune system issues, and while I raced well last weekend, if I had my season again, I would have called time on it after Helvellyn.

I’ve found in the past that aiming to stay very fit all through the winter can be quite counterproductive. We all have a natural cycle to our lives, and it’s the same with our training year. We need some down-time, both mentally and physically. I like to advise my athletes that a month ‘off’ can do them the world of good the following season. However, I don’t mean ‘do nothing for a month’  - rather, it’s time to change focus, recharge mentally and physically, and sort out any injury issues without the pressure of training relentlessly.

Some things you might want to consider for your end of season break:

Do something every other day, at least.

Unstructured, easy training, in the pool, bike or run. 30 minute sessions where you just exercise to enjoy the feeling of moving. In the pool, do drill sessions focussed on feel for the water, and skip the main set. Your aim is to get wet twice a week, not to build any kind of fitness. Run sessions at the track, focussed on run economy and speed drills can reap big benefits when you start your winter training properly. Important – I am talking about focussed speed drills and run economy drills here, NOT hard interval efforts – there is a big difference between running fast and running hard. Find a good running coach to work with if you’re not sure exactly what to do. On the bike – ride with your friends for fun, or spin on a gym bike while you watch TV. Enjoy the scenery if you’re riding outdoors, and keep the training stress low. Keeping your legs moving a couple of times a week during your month off can mean that your transition back to training will be easy. Sit on the couch for a month and that first month back can be very challenging!

Sleep in when you can

Give your body extra sleep by missing your usual early morning sessions. Personally, it means no swimming before work. I find that the extra hour in bed three times a week helps me to feel like I’ve had a massive mental break. It also gives you chance to adjust to the shorter days and darker nights without feeling guilty about missing your usual sessions. Don’t stress about it – you have another 11 months in the year to hit your regular routine!

Allow yourself treats

If you’ve made an effort to reduce your body fat, give yourself permission to put on a few pounds over the winter – but keep it sensible. A few extra pounds over the cold winter months can really help our immune systems fight off illness – not to mention helping us stay a bit warmer! I’ve set myself the aim of staying around 152 lb this winter – 6-8lb heavier than my absolute leanest race weight. For most people, I’d advise a winter weight gain of no more than 4lbs. It’s a great time of year to catch up with friends, and allow yourself that glass of wine with dinner. I  know I’m looking forward to eating desserts again!

Fix your body 

Use your extra free time to get your injuries and niggles sorted out. Paying £50 for a sports massage is probably one of the best investments you can make, and seeing a physio is not much more if you have any serious issues. Really, that's the price of a race tyre, and how many of us would race with worn tyres? Take time to invest in your body, and it'll pay you back tenfold next season.  

End of season race update

The weekend was spent down in London for the Ballbuster duathlon. I entered this months ago as a focus to hold some late season fitness - but to be honest, I would think twice before doing it next year - it's just too late in the year to try to stay fit enough for a race of this duration. I've been ready for a break for a few weeks now! I talked with Nick Kinsey and Rich Hunt (who ended up 2nd) before the race and they both had similar feelings.

As things turned out, I had a brilliant race. I Finished in 15th overall (4th in AG) with splits of 51.35 / 1.12 / 51.16 for a combined time of 2.57.58.

I was really happy to go under 3 hours, I was thinking at 3.05 was my best case scenario - but really surprised by how good I felt. To put this in perspective, the first time I did this race in 2002 I did 3.35 ....

Really pleased with the 'negative split' - faster 2nd run than first, as my big aim for the day was to get the pacing right and end with a strong run, finishing fast up the hill. As it turned out, I don't think I was running fast up the hill, but I definitely slowed down less than everyone else :)

To give you some idea of my pacing relative to others, I was about 55th on the first run, and 12th fastest 2nd run - I think everyone runs too hard on the first lap because it's downhill, and ends up with smashed quads for the 2nd run.

Pacing the race well played a vital part in my overall performance. Pacing my year well will play a vital part in my IM performance next July – which is why I’m taking my month off. As Gordo likes to say, it pays to be strong at the end!