How Off-Season Triathlon Training Works

It's a lot easier to compete if you simply stay in shape during the off-season -- especially if you're a triathlete.
It's a lot easier to compete if you simply stay in shape during the off-season -- especially if you're a triathlete.

Playing any physical, competitive sport too intensely, for too long, is asking for trouble. After several months of training, dietary changes and actual competition, an athlete's body and mind need rest.

If that rest is denied, the athlete risks diminished performance, burnout and even injury. For that reason, serious athletes allow themselves an off-season to recharge, recuperate and rebuild even stronger for the next season of hardcore preparation and competition.


In the sport of triathlon, the "off-season" may be somewhat trickier to define than that of traditional sports such as baseball or football. Some of the factors adding to the confusion: Triathlons are held year-round, around the globe and triathlons come in a wide range of distances and difficulty levels. The time you need to recover from a season of sprint triathlons, a .47-mile (750-meter) swim, 12.4-mile (20-kilometer) bike ride and a 3.1-mile (5-kilometer) run, will likely be much less than the time it takes to recover from training for an Ironman triathlon. The Ironman competitions include a 2.4-mile (3.86-kilometer) swim, a 112-mile (180-kilometer) bike ride and a 26.2-mile (42.2-kilometer) run.

And some triathletes choose to compete in single-event races when they're not participating in triathlons. In other words, individual running, biking and swimming races serve almost as extended workouts compared to the grueling three-in-one challenge of a triathlon. So where does one competitive season end and another begin?

To answer that, let's first assume that training for a specific triathlon contest(s) consists of the following phases:

  • A base phase (for beginners), in which you establish basic competency and an adequate amount of fitness in each of the categories, swimming, bicycling and running
  • A speed and technique phase, in which you work to increase your efficiency in each event while increasing your capacity to go a longer distance in each
  • The race simulation phase, in which you do practice sessions that mimic the race in terms of distance and transitions from one event to another
  • A tapering phase, typically about two weeks before the event, where you ease back the throttle on training volume and intensity, in order to come into the actual event fresh and full of energy
  • And finally, the event itself

[source: Mora]

The off-season, it could be said, constitutes all times of the year not encompassed by the above description. But is it OK to stray far from fighting-trim when there are no races on the horizon? Keep reading to find out.


Off-season Triathlete Fitness

The off-season might be a good time to improve your swim stroke.
The off-season might be a good time to improve your swim stroke.

We've all seen prize fighters and other athletes swell to Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon proportions in the off-season -- sometimes so much so that they barely resemble the lean specimens we knew from fight night or game day.

Without a clear goal or the daily discipline of training, their off-season lifestyles can degrade those once-athletic physiques into out-of-shape messes. Such excess means the athletes will also have to work inordinately hard to get back into shape. For those of us recreational athletes without a high-priced training staff at our disposal, this holds particularly true. It would be much easier to simply stay in shape -- albeit at a lower training intensity than during one's competitive peak.


How do you do that? Well a person can start by determining his or her level of fitness and working to stay within a certain percentage of that level. Fitness works on a sliding scale rather than being an absolute measurement, but you can gauge it in a number of ways:

  • Body fat percentage
  • Resting heart rate and heart rate at a given level of exertion
  • Muscular strength - ability to perform resistance exercise
  • Aerobic capacity - how long can you perform endurance exercise and at what intensity
  • Physical capacity - how many miles can you run or laps can you swim before fatigue sets in

This is where it pays to consider yourself both a bit of a science experiment and a scientist. You'll want to carefully record and chart your observations about where you stand with these measurements, at least weekly. The reason is, armed with a few weeks' data, you can begin to identify trends that provide evidence of strong areas, weak areas and best courses of action.

Ideally, you want to maintain and perhaps even build upon a base level of fitness in the off-season. For a beginner, this may mean the ability to run at least a few miles per week. On the other end of the spectrum, a regular Ironman competitor might think nothing of doing a marathon's worth of running in a single training week.


Off-season Triathlon Training Tips

There are a few schools of thought when it comes to triathlon training when competition is not imminent.

One says focus on hammering your strengths. If you're a powerful biker or a swift runner, then train your hardest in one of those areas and pay just enough attention to the others so that you can get through them respectably. For most triathletes, the least-anticipated event is the swim.


But another school of thought says the best thing you can do to reduce your overall time is to refine your weakest-event's technique in the off-season, when you're not worrying about putting in heavy miles on the road or laps in the pool. For instance, retaining a reputable swim coach during the off-season is a wise investment, according to many experienced triathletes.

Here are a few other off-season training tips:

Conditions permitting, use the opportunity to practice in open water -- natural bodies of water that don't provide the navigational cues of lane separators or markers. (Hint: Use on-shore landmarks or buoys as visual reference points.)

Test-out and wear-in any new equipment for fit, feel and reliability. Surprises are the last thing you want on race day.

Do hill or power workouts, enjoy group runs and rides and look for ways to vary your training -- including different sports (such as cross-country skiing or in-line skating).

Work out with weights to increase your power and improve lean mass -- but continue to include your other training workouts, as weights are mostly an anaerobic activity and don't build aerobic endurance.

If you 're looking for more information about triathlon training in the off-season and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Chesney, Curt. "Using the Offseason to Improve." Sept. 26, 2008. (Sept. 5, 2010)
  • Karnazes, Dean. "Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner." Tarcher/Penguin, New York. 2006.
  • Mora, John. "Triathlon 101: Essentials for Multisport Success." Human Kinetics, Champaign, Ill. 1999.
  • Strauss, Rich. "Off Season Training." (Sept. 4, 2010)
  • Thom, Kara Douglass. "Becoming an Ironman: First Encounters with the Ultimate Endurance Event." Breakaway Books, Halcottsville, N.Y. 2001.