Coach’s Column – Off-Season Recovery: What you need to know

Question: Now that it’s the off season, I’m thinking about what changes I can make to have a better race season next year and not just in terms of specific interval training.  I found that I am getting fatigued too quickly and taking too long to recover post-race or hard training days.  Do you have any suggestions? I have been a Cat 1/open cross country racer for several years and do some endurance races each season.

Answer: This is a great question and something that is really common. Many people make a steady progression for the first couple/few years of training and racing and then plateau or, worse, decline. You probably started with very open riding, then began adding some structure and more intensity, volume and racing. This is really well tolerated at first but eventually it begins to catch up with you and it’s not sustainable. Unfortunately, most people assume that in order to turn this around, they need to continue adding volume and intensity to their training. Instead, now that you have a couple years of base under you, you probably need more rest.

It’s really important to take at least one, two week break completely off the bike per year (stress on ‘at least’ here). And that means that you truly do not touch your bike for two weeks. You can do some light exercise off the bike but the emphasis should be on recovery. I recommend other modalities that are more restorative in nature; yoga, swimming and mellow hiking are all great examples. That said, if you have to choose between exercise and a nap, choose the nap! It’s time to focus on recovery.

Once you have had a solid break, you can get back on your bike to do some base training. But I recommend continuing with plenty of off-the-bike work through the remaining winter months. The bulk of your training should be at endurance pace or zone 2, where you can easily hold a conversation. After several weeks of zone 2, you can ramp up and include some zone 3 or tempo efforts. Tempo is great for base building as you utilize the same systems as threshold work (the intensity you do most XC racing at). But because tempo is a lower intensity, you can tolerate a larger volume of training without eliciting a significant stress response. As you get closer to race season, your training will also include threshold, VO2, and anaerobic efforts. But this year, I recommend you include more rest. Maybe ride five days instead of six per week or add a recovery ride where you would have done a longer/harder ride. With several years of riding in your legs, you have enough base to carry you through.

You don’t mention what your off-the-bike life is like but it is important to remember that we do not train in a vacuum. When you have periods of high stress with your family, your job, etc., and/or travel, you need to consider that and cut the volume and intensity of your training. Along the same lines, if you aren’t getting enough quality sleep, you need to modify your training to account for that as well. Use the two week break from your bike to make some other lifestyle modifications that will further improve your recovery this year. Some examples might include creating the habit of a big weekly cook so you have healthy food ready to go all week; starting a meditation practice (I recommend the app ‘Headspace’ to get started); or developing a daily stretching/ foam rolling routine. Integrating these regular practices when you begin hard training again will improve your ability to recover. Remember the catchphrase, ‘rest as hard as you train,’ and use that to make this your best season yet!

Sarah Kaufmann is a USAC Level II coach under the PLAN7 Endurance Coaching brand. She is a member of the Stan’s NoTubes Women’s Elite Mountain Bike Team and has been racing mountain bikes at the professional level since 2008.  Sarah is based in Salt Lake City, Utah.