Endurance athletes are stubborn. And if you told them so, they’d most likely take it as a compliment. If you asked them to take a little break from training, they’d take it as an insult. They’d tell you breaks don’t make athletes stronger, rest doesn’t improve performance, and taking time off doesn’t create winners.
Are these generalizations? Of course they are. Every endurance athlete is different, and more than a few recognize the benefits of short-term rest. Some endurance athletes even know that longer-term rest can enhance both mental and physical capabilities.
Still, when you read that first paragraph, you probably thought of some particular stubborn athlete — didn’t you? Maybe you even nodded right along with that paragraph, not only knowing such a person, but also acknowledging that person is you.
It’s okay. We’ve all been there. We’ve all wondered what might happen if we just worked a little harder; maybe that would get us over the top. After all, the mindset of full-time training and competing is well catered to these days. In the rainy, cool Northwest, you can now race in triathlons from February to October. Travel a little and you can find a tri every single month of the year. Marathons have spread from spring to summer and from fall to winter. It’s easy to find a half marathon every single weekend of the year.
There is no off-season anymore. The endurance world has moved past the notion of an off-season break.
It’s time to bring it back.
“We don’t progress continually — we have times of progress and then times of regress,” said Michelle StanWiens, a USAT-certified triathlon coach and founder of Performance High endurance coaching and training in Boise, ID. “Both are equally important. So, in my opinion, a big part of the off-season time is a chance to allow the body to regress without feelings of guilt.”
Ah yes, the guilty athlete. Somehow we’ve come to the notion that it’s wrong to skip one day’s workout, much less a week or a month. Contrary to the habits of many endurance athletes, complete rest is an option. Not cross training, not lighter workouts, but actual rest. Complete rest gives the body a chance to heal and to grow stronger.
“Off-season as necessary — absolutely!” said StanWiens. “I require my individually coached clients to take four weeks off every year after their final big race. This is perhaps the most important ‘cycle of training’ for them from the physical and mental side of things. Obviously, it’s a way to allow the body to fully recover from the many months of training, but it’s also a way to get them psyched up mentally to head into the next season. I want my athletes to be 200-percent ready to train every day, and I’ve found over the years that taking time off makes them hungry.”
Manuel Balesteri of Springfield, OR made it to his 58th birthday without even considering the marathon. Then, over the next six years, he ran 19 of them. Balesteri also ran six or so half-marathons and a number of 5Ks and 10Ks during those years. It’s safe to assume he didn’t subscribe to the theory of the off-season. “But in the last two years, I’ve had a bit of an epiphany,” said Balesteri. “After my last marathon, in San Francisco, I’ve decided to back off from the marathon. The training for the marathon is so structured and I’m tired of not progressing.”
That’s not to say that Balesteri has given up on running and competing all together. He’s just looking for something that keeps his interest more than the endless miles of marathon training. He’s looking for something…fun.
“My latest experiment is trying every event in the decathlon. So far I’ve been able to try everything except the pole vault,” said Balesteri. If you’re wondering how a 64-year old can compete in sports such as the 100-meter sprint, shot put, high jump, and even the hammer throw, well, it’s actually not as difficult as one might think. “The past two years, I’ve competed in the Oregon Track Club All-Comers meets in Eugene,” said Balesteri. The OTC All-Comers meets are open to all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Everything from 100-meter sprints to 5,000 meters and 3,000m steeplechases are run on the track. In the field events, they do indeed offer pole vault, long jump, triple jump, discus, javelin, and more.
“The difference between my years of marathon training and the past two years at the All-Comers meets is the fun I’m having,” said Balesteri. “The masters athletes at the meets, the old guys, they just have a wonderful camaraderie. It’s a blast!”
“I’ve realized that my abilities may lie elsewhere, not in the marathon. I’m actually competitive with my peers in the field events. I had become something of a one-trick pony,” said Balesteri.
“This is more enjoyable.”
StanWiens agrees that such contemplation during the rest period is vital. “I encourage them to do lots of reflection on the last season — what worked well, what didn’t, what could they have done better, what could we cut for next season, what races were helpful, which races weren’t worth redoing…things like that.”
Of course, a complete, permanent change of sports isn’t what most athletes are looking for in the off-season. Many just want to continue to chase: chase after PRs, chase after rivals, or chase after Boston. There’s nothing wrong with that. For those athletes, the off-season can provide the time to objectively judge last year’s efforts and to narrow in on next year’s goals.
“I do encourage my athletes to try new sports, workouts, and activities during the off-season when some may be frustrated with their past performances,” said Kainoa Pauole-Roth, a USAT triathlon coach and exercise physiologist. Pauole-Roth, the founder of the Pauole Sport Tri Team in Seattle, preaches to the benefits of the off-season. “I absolutely believe in the importance of the off-season for every athlete. The off-season is an excellent time to work on your weaknesses, and a great time to mix it up and do some cross training,” said Pauole-Roth. “Many of my athletes enjoy focusing on improving their cycling while heading out on the trails for a fun and challenging bike ride.”
While true rest can reap benefits, a period of cross training can also help an athlete refocus without the stress of daily training. Both marathon training and triathlon race preparation can be extremely time-consuming and mentally draining.
“Often, taking a step back from their structured training and incorporating something new, exciting and challenging helps athletes relax and have fun. Sometimes this is just what is needed to help athletes refocus and rejuvenate for the upcoming season,” said Pauole-Roth.
“The off-season is by far the hardest part of the season for my athletes,” said StanWiens. “Endurance athletes are very singularly focused, and so it often scares them as they are truly unsure of what to do with their time. I like them to focus on other things — time with family, hobbies that they’ve completely let go, getting their yards back in shape! It’s a good challenge and it often reaps really great rewards.”
Get past the artificial requirement of daily training. Get past the guilt. Get past the idea that rest and change is bad and wrong. Take a breath and look closely at your goals — not just your athletic goals, but how those athletic goals work into your personal goals, family goals and future goals. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. What about your sport makes you happy? Is it the training, the chase after PRs, the friendships? Can you do more of what makes you happy and less of what doesn’t?
“I will do marathons again in the future. I might even do one later this year with one of my daughters,” said Balesteri. “But my future marathons will be for fun. I won’t even wear a watch.”
Triathlon Team and Tri Coaching
Endurance Sport Training and Coaching