Off-Season Training

It’s December, you’ve had a long season of training and racing and your last race was in September. Since then you’ve taken a break, signed up for couch-potato-cata couple of races next year, and now you’re wondering what you should be doing with your training this month. As this is a transitional point in the year, there are plenty of options depending on when your first race is next year.

If you’ve done more than a couple seasons of racing triathlons, with some degree of consistency and structure in your training, you’ve hopefully realized that there are many different phases that your training goes through as the year evolves. Common terms used for these phases are: off-season, prep, base, build, peak, and race. When these phases start and how long they last is based on what length race you’re aiming for and your experience level.

Based on your first “A” race of the year, a race that is your primary focus, you count backwards to determine the start of each phase. If for example you’re doing a half Ironman race June 7, 2014, a schedule for an experienced athlete could look like this:

Start Date



January 5 Prep

3 weeks

January 26 Base 1

4 weeks

February 23 Base 2

4 weeks

March 23 Build 1

4 weeks

April 20 Build 2

4 weeks

May 18 Peak and Taper

3 weeks

June 8 Race Day

Again, this is an example for an experienced athlete. Variations on this schedule are many, including a shorter or longer Prep, adding a third Base, using a three week schedule for the Base and Build phases instead of four weeks, a two week Peak and Taper, etc. This schedule can also be used for an Ironman distance race, but is probably overkill for an Olympic distance triathlete, where it would likely be shorter, or possibly used as is for a strong athlete to incorporate lots of intensity into their plan with time for recovery. So, where are you in your schedule?

Using this schedule as an example, if you’re doing an early season half Ironman, say Oceanside in March then you should already be in your Base phase, while anyone doing the long course at Wildflower in May should be in the Prep phase. For everyone else, well you’re still in the off-season phase, so what should you be doing and thinking about?


Triathlon training typically starts in December or January and can run straight through into September and October for most athletes. There are a few outlier races after that, but most people call it quits before Ironman Hawaii is run in October, while some athletes switch over to training for marathon season before that.

Once you’ve entered your off-season, there are four things an athlete should be doing: unfocused training, injury assessment and recovery, a performance assessment of the year’s races and results, and goal planning for next year’s races.

Unfocused Training

Our good friend Geoff Gray, a well known local physical therapist and triathlete in his own right, gave a talk at a SB Tri Club meeting years ago, saying we should all be looking at 4-6 weeks of unfocused training to start the off-season. At that time most triathletes in the room had never heard of this concept, taking time off from their focused training to actually say, relax and enjoy life while not training so hard? What was that they wondered? Others were afraid of stopping or decreasing their training levels due to the loss of fitness.

Geoff was talking to us with his Physical Therapist’s hat on, knowing full well that after 9-10 months of hard training, our bodies are broken down, and we are physically and mentally tired, probably dealing with one or more injuries. He said we needed to break the same pattern of training we had been following, to allow our bodies to heal and recover, so we could properly prepare for next season. A lot of people in the room had been seeing Geoff (or Mike Swan, or Amanda, or Chrissie, or Andrea, or Kristin…) already to deal with their injuries, or would likely be seeing him in the near future. He was trying to warn of about this, with many looks of disbelief.

Since his talk I have promoted this alternate lifestyle, unfocused training, in the off-season. The thinking is that after a year (years?) of staring at the black line on the bottom of the pool, biking and running along the same routes, we needed a change. I promote mountain biking, fixed gear bike riding, hiking, skiing, snowboarding, etc., or even just riding or running your usual routes, but doing them backwards, anything to change things up. Try it, your body will thank you for it.

Let’s also not forget that this is the perfect time, with the cold and dark evenings, to head back into the gym, garage, or basement, for some strength training. We focus all year on sport specific exercising, i.e., swimming, biking, and running, that we stray away from doing weights, core training, yoga, Pilates, etc., due to lack of time, simply not making the time, or from being too tired from all the other training. This should also be your focus if the next topic, injury assessment, is something you’re dealing with, to rebuild those muscles that you haven’t been able to focus on due to injury.

Injury Assessment

Arguably the most important thing to do in the off-season is to address any lingering injuries that you have been training with. It would take a whole blog to discuss how to deal with injuries in a “smart” way, versus how most people tend to do it, so I just want to say that before you move into the next phase of your season, correct or look into correcting any injuries now, before you start back into more structured training. If you’re really injured, meaning needing surgery or special physical therapy, you actually need to postpone some or all of your training, accept that you are in fact an “injured athlete”, and that your priority is to get healthy before starting up your training again. This is probably the #2 mistake triathletes make, returning from injuries way too soon to begin training again.

Performance Assessment

How did you do in your races last year, did you meet your expectations? Had you set realistic goals prior to each race and then met those goals? Did you set goals before each race at all? For anyone that’s looking to improve their performance for next year, the only thing you have to do is look at last year’s races and then see how you can tweak your preparation next year. You should rate each of the three sports compared to whatever standard you choose, be it against your training times, your friends times, or compared to the athletes in your age group. Rate each on a 1-5 scale, be honest, and then see which of the three sports you scored the lowest on, as that should be your focus in the upcoming months.

I understand that this is not an easy thing for people to do, to give an honest assessment of themselves without finding fault or blame in someone or something else, we are after all human, but give it a try. You can also sit down with your training partners, members of your local tri club (another good reason to belong to a club, decades of training and racing experience there for the asking), or a coach if you can’t find the answers you’re looking for.

Goal Setting

Typical goals for the New Year include the obvious like I want to go faster next year or I want to move up in distance. Digging a little deeper you could say I want to take 15 minutes off my Olympic distance tri time, I want to break 2:30 at Wildflower, I want to run a 10k under 45 minutes, or I want to take 10 seconds off my 100m time in the pool. Each of these are reasonable, something to shoot for, but they’re just the start of what you should be thinking about.

Having done your performance assessment of last year’s races, you need to look at the specific areas where you did not meet your goals and where you rated yourself the lowest. Specifically, were you more endurance limited in your racing, i.e., not able to maintain form and pace for the whole race, and if so what were your “limiters?” Or was it speed you lacked say coming off the bike on the run, not matching up to your training pace? Or are you still learning how to be an efficient swimmer, biker, and runner? For beginners it’s typically all three of these, so stick with the basics, develop your skills while increasing your training volume (focus on time spent training, not on distance), and then add strength training as you work all the pieces into your schedule.

If you’re still new to triathlons then the training learning curve is huge and it’s easy to make big advances initially, only to stall or plateau after a while. You think you’re training harder and smarter, yet you’re not seeing any improvement. Talking to someone else about your racing goals and training plan really helps you to see the big picture, where maybe you’re stuck down in the details and can’t see what changes need to be made. Don’t start making plans for next year, setting new goals, until you really understand how you did this year, where your weaknesses lie, and how you’re going to address those weaknesses, which I’ll cover next time in the Prep phase.

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