XTERRA Couch to Trail – the Importance of Rest and Recovery

By Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance, 5x Age Group XTERRA World Champ 

Rest and recovery. Ironically, it is one of the most important aspects of training. Despite this, most athletes do not get enough nor do they rest effectively.

The primary principle of training is to elicit an adaptation response by shocking your body with rigorous activity. After swimming, biking and/or running like maniacs, our bodies begin to repair the cellular damage caused by the activity and in theory we become stronger and faster.  But when you continually tax the body without giving it adequate rest, it cannot repair itself efficiently and you do not receive the benefits of all that hard work (and sometimes suffering). But how much rest do we need and what types of recovery are best? 

Even more important, what will I do in the off-season if I can’t train relentlessly?

The human body was not designed to train hard and race year-round. Giving yourself a recovery day each week and a recovery week every several weeks will keep you going for a while, but not forever.  At least once a year—most likely in the late fall/early winter, when most have ended their respective triathlon seasons—you need to afford yourself a deeper sort of recovery.  

Just like training cycles, rest and recovery can be classified into micro and macro recovery intervals. During a workout you might take short micro recoveries between hard intervals in order to allow your body to replenish its energy stores so you can complete the next workout. We also have to make sure we have enough time between workouts and training blocks. These are small macro recovery periods.  And then there are bigger macro recovery periods. This final type of rest and recovery focuses on long term recovery and periods of unloading. This ranges anywhere from a full recovery week to several months of off-season restoration. 

At the end of a training season it is important to take several weeks, possibly even two months, of rest from structured hard training and competition. This doesn’t mean you should stop doing activity altogether (not that you would!) but rather, you train with lighter loads and smaller volume. The goal is to focus less on specific types of workouts or training specific energy systems and instead engage in activity simply for the pleasure of it. This is also a perfect time for cross training or taking part in events that are outside your normal specialty. Getting rid of accumulated training fatigue is an essential part of the annual training process and helps restore the body both physiologically and mentally.

The underlying purpose of the off-season for every triathlete is to set oneself up for success in the next triathlon season. Failing to recuperate in the late fall/early winter is just one of several ways in which age groupers miss opportunities to fulfill this purpose.

There are several things you can do during the off-season that will aid your performance for next season: take a break, do alternative sports (hello kickboxing!) or fitness activities, get stronger, work on your weakest triathlon discipline and get leaner. It makes sense to prioritize these steps in the order in which I just listed them. Now that you know just how important it is to take a real break from training and racing, let’s take a closer look at each.

1. Take a Break.  

Oh boy, this is probably THE hardest thing for most of us to do.  We’ve just spent the past 6-9 months training and racing like crazy, bathing our brains with endorphins on a daily basis and becoming a lean, mean fighting machine.  I know you’re thinking, “How in the world am I supposed to just “take a break” from that? It’s my world, I don’t know any different!”  

I get it, I really do.  But, this break doesn’t necessarily mean you have to sit on the couch and eat potato chips every day for several weeks (although if you choose to do this, and are successful, the more power to you!). 

So what can you do during this period of rest and recovery…without going stir crazy.  Your several-week break from triathlon training need not be a total break from exercise, but it can be. If you fear going batty, you can always go for a hike. But if you, like many triathletes, have a tendency to do too much, don’t fool yourself into thinking that a two-hour mountain-bike ride undertaken one week after your peak race counts as a “break.” (I’m talking to you Mimi Stockton.)  

The term off-season does not have to be taken literally. You are allowed to keep moving if you want.  And you probably should, to prevent excessive weight gain and loss of all that fitness you worked so hard to gain. Just be sure to decrease the volume and intensity, and mix things up!  

2. Mix It Up

This is the time of year to try something new or rekindle your love for a sport you used to play. I know many of you have been dying to bust out your tennis racquets or dust off those basketball shoes. Do it!  Consider exercise with motion in the frontal plane (side to side), since swimming, biking and running are all on the sagittal plane (forward and backward motion).

Examples include ice skating, cross-country skiing, tennis, and kickboxing. Give our three sports a break and enjoy an alternative form of exercise.  Replacing some or all of your triathlon workouts with something different will keep your fitness high while recharging the body and mind.  

What you do and how much you do for fitness outside of the triathlon disciplines after your training break is a personal decision. I recommend that you at least dabble in something, because variety is fun. But one thing you want to avoid is neglecting one or more of the disciplines for so long that you lose any hope of improving upon it next season.

3. Strength Train

Every triathlete knows that he or she should cross-train, but there are only so many hours in the week and at the end of the day, most triathletes decide that squeezing in another swim, bike or run will do them more good than hitting the gym. Often, during the base, build, and racing phases of your training plan, muscular strength tends to either go into a maintenance phase or is just forgotten by many athletes.

Now is the time to follow a progressive plan that builds your strength back up and reverses muscular imbalances. Strength training properly helps to prevent overuse injuries, which are generally caused by muscle imbalance. In the winter you can increase lifting volume and intensity and not worry how it’s affecting your training, whereas during the season if you smash yourself at the gym, you’ll pay for it on your next ride or run. 

As a coach I like to be realistic. I strongly encourage year-round strength training (and try to do it myself as an athlete), but within the race-focused training cycle, I usually prescribe a minimalist approach because there are important swim, bike and run workouts to contend with. 

The off-season, however, is another matter.  In the winter, when you are (or should be) swimming, cycling and running less, you have more time to strength train. I urge you to make use of this time, specifically by working hard to increase your raw strength in your major muscle groups, creating a reserve of power that will carry you through the rest of the year with a minimum of maintenance work. 

The strength-building phase of your off-season training plan can begin immediately after your break, or it can wait until you are done fooling around on the tennis or basketball courts or have had your fill of surfing.  It should then continue until you start your base training for the next racing season. 

4. Make Your Weakness a Strong Point

All too often age groupers deal with their weakness by avoiding it. This is understandable because it’s usually more fun to train in one’s strongest discipline than in one’s weakest. I admit, given the choice between mountain biking and swimming, the answer is a no brainer. For me, trails beat the pool any day.  But I know repeatedly making that choice is not a very good way to improve my swimming.

So how then do you work on your weakest discipline while decreasing volume and without burning out during the off-season?  Drills … drills … drills.  Focus on improving your efficiency in your disciplines by spending time on technique.  Include one-arm only, kick, catch-up and other drills for swimming.  On the bike, focus on single-leg or high-cadence drills.  For the run, consider getting an analysis done by a coach who can provide drills to correct specific issues with your current run gait.

Now I’m not saying you should train hardest in your weakest discipline all the time. Within the training cycle, it’s best to put an equal amount of effort into all three disciplines regardless of which is your weakest. Athletes who place too much emphasis on their weak discipline tend to lose some of the advantage of their strong discipline.  But during the off-season this reasoning doesn’t necessary apply.  It is acceptable, and perhaps even appropriate, to target one’s greatest weakness for a period of time. The best way to do this is simply to practice it daily.  Nothing makes a person a stronger swimmer, mountain biker or runner than swimming, mountain biking or running every day, or almost every day. You don’t have to think about it or even work terribly hard (most of the time). Just do it.

Remember though, it is the off-season.  If you work too hard in even one discipline you risk burning out before you even get to your first race of the new season. Therefore, keep the intensity moderate—roughly 70% of your maximum heart rate—in all but two of your weak discipline practice sessions each week, and make a concerted effort to focus on technique and drills for at least part of each workout.  You can occasionally throw in some challenging high-intensity workouts, but keep those to a minimum.  

5. Become a Lean Machine

Just as your training periodizes throughout the year, so do your nutritional needs.  Maintaining your race weight for an extended period is not healthy. Besides, it’s the off-season, right?  Isn’t this the time when I can kiss the kale and beets goodbye and hit the ice cream and cookies? And even put on a few pounds without worrying?

Well, the off-season is definitely the time to indulge and not be hyper concerned about what goes down the hatch.  It is natural to put on a few extra pounds in the off-season. In fact, some coaches and experts recommend it.  But you should be careful however.  Weight can add up quickly for those athletes who decide to eat whatever they want whenever they want.  A triathlete’s daily caloric needs can decrease by as much as 500-1,000 calories in the off-season to account for the drop in volume.  If you decide to eat the same amount as you did while training, well, you do the math!  During the off-season, most of your calories should come from carbohydrates and while overall calories and carbs are reduced during the offseason, the percentage of protein on the plate should increase. This increase just so happens to help with all the strength training you’re doing!  Also, healthy fats are always in season – avocado anyone?

If at the end of last race you decided to make one of your goals for the upcoming season to race at a lighter weight, then the off-season is the perfect time to shed those unwanted pounds.  Once you’ve satiated yourself with pizza and chocolate cake, it’s time to think about getting lean.  In some other endurance sports, it’s common to insert a short weight-loss period between the end of the off-season and the start of the base building.   While heavy training itself may induce weight loss, the fastest way to lose weight is to maintain a sizable caloric deficit.  Such deficits can sabotage heavy training, so they are not appropriate once the base building begins.  However, just before (4 weeks is ideal) this building begins is a perfect time to shed excess body fat by deliberately taking in less energy than your body uses.  This will not only make easing back into structured easier, but you’ll probably find that it will put you in the position to have the best races of your life. Combining “light and lean” with “strong and healthy” is what we all want and if you can bring these elements together you can create those peak moments you train so hard for.    

There you have it!  You’ve spent the season breaking down your house; now it’s time to repair it!  Pat yourself on the back for another solid year.  Enjoy your off-season with family and friends and take a moment to be grateful for all the amazing opportunities you had in 2017.   I’ll be on hiatus until the New Year, relaxing and making angels in the snow.  I might even bust out the ice skates.  And I’ll also be baking and eating lots of cookies. Cheers!  

The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by SheriAnne Little and four-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance.  Their new 12-week “Couch-to-XTERRA” training program is designed to do just that, get aspiring athletes off the couch, into training, and to the start line of an XTERRA.  Contact them at info@nextlevelendurance.net.