After an offseason break, we as cyclists are usually chomping at the bit to get going again. After several weeks or even months of little to no riding, the temptation can be to use all that stored up energy to go full bore into training again. The legs and the mind are fresh, and a full season of new races and ambitions lies ahead. If you’re like me you have a hard time sitting around. After an offseason break I’m usually raring to go back into hard training. This is one of the biggest challenges that endurance athletes face: over ambition. We seem to have the mindset that we must get our fitness back as quickly as possible and that more is better. But in the fall and early winter, less is usually more. Unless your aiming to peak in February (which you might) great care must be taken to ensure what I like to call “seasonal longevity.” The training that you do (or don’t do) in October or November can have major implications on your performances in June.
Let me explain. The season for most of us can run anywhere from February through September depending on where you live, that’s more than half of the year. If you plan to be able to perform at a high level throughout the season, it’s important to preserve this “seasonal longevity.” Several years ago, I used to wonder why I felt so tired by the time July or August came around. My performances were inconsistent at best. On my good days, the power numbers were solid. But more often than not I would struggle to execute an interval set; my legs often times felt like blocks of wood. If I examine my training, the problem was not that I wasn’t taking proper recovery during the season or doing too many intervals. The problem was that the previous fall, I had fallen into the “more is better” trap. Instead of taking a few weeks off the bike and then gradually working back into training, I trained all through the fall and winter. Not only that, but I was doing loads of intensity and more volume than I’d ever done. My thinking went along the lines of “If I train really hard while everyone else is sitting on the couch, I’m going to get so much stronger than them!” I was actually right, and in January I was destroying my teammates up the climbs—I was in another league. I had some solid performances early in the year, but by the time June came around I started to feel a sort of chronic fatigue. The rest of the year was a series of on/off performances. I’d have good days and bad days, but it was honestly a coin flip as to which I’d end up having each day. If you have a big summer of racing planned, it’s critical to take a dedicated offseason in the fall.
Along with fatigue, we can also end up causing ourselves to get injured or sick if we hop back into training to quickly. If you’ve been sitting on the couch for a month, you can’t just start training like you did in July. The body has been in repair mode and is not ready for full-fledged training yet. For example, we often hear of people getting knee injuries early in the season. A contributing factor to that could be an over-reaching early in the training year.
That being said, there are a lot of things you can do in the fall and winter to make sure that your body will be prepared for when the training really starts to ramp up, and to improve your seasonal longevity.
Gym work: aside from the performance benefits of doing dedicated gym work to supplement your cycling, hitting the weight room will also strengthen your bones and joints to prepare them for the stresses of a long season (like riding every day and crashing). This will also help to even out muscular imbalances which can lead to chronic injuries if not addressed. Not only that, but it will make you look and feel better too.
Keep the intensity down: Intervals right now are all the rage, and of course I like intervals. But early in the year there is no reason to be doing anything above tempo. If you have a solid aerobic base built, it does not take very long to bring the anaerobic system to peak capacity once high intensity training starts. For the first couple months of the training year, focus on training your aerobic system. The beneficial adaptations from aerobic training will build a solid foundation that will allow your peak to be even higher when the season rolls around.
Have Fun: There is also a huge mental component to preserving seasonal longevity. Towards the end of the season, the motivation to race and train can start to run low. Early in the training year, I’m a big believer in unstructured training. Don’t stick to a rigorous training plan. If you want to take a day off and go hiking or go ride rollercoasters, then do it! Dust off the mountain bike and explore new trails. Basically, just do whatever you feel like doing. This will ensure that your mind is prepared for the season, as well as your body.