Time for an Off-Season by max el-hag

The conversations I’ve had with athletes in the sport of fitness over the last several years seem to increasingly follow similar patterns. “I’m so burned out","I’m injured”, “I’ve had 6 tweaks during this training year”, "I don’t have the same fire I used to”, are just a few of the themes I hear from around the world of training for high level fitness athletes. I think this can be attributed to multiple elements, unfortunately, one of those seems to be poor training principles disguised as “the right way to do things”. With the completion of the Opens, right now can be an opportune moment to employ some off-season time in your annual training structure. In almost every sport, there is a distinct period of time where people step away from the stress of the grind from their daily routines in order to regroup and recharge. There are plenty of reasons to have an off-season that is a built in part of your training year, but in a sport where your physical capacity is the entirety of the sport, you must understand how to do it properly to ensure that it is in fact beneficial to your long-term success.

In the world of training there seems to be a massive trend toward a ‘macho’ (a-type/alpha) training culture that says things like “there is no such thing as overtraining”, “there are no such things as off days”, or “go hard or go home”. While this way of thinking can be good for teaching people short term mental toughness in a padded wall society, it can be extremely detrimental for athletes who have long passed their beginner stages of physical performance. An off-season helps to build a buffer to adapt to training. In order to recover from training, you need to have a certain number of internal things in place. I’ve heard people refer to this as a “recovery bank account”, a “physiological buffer”, or an “adaptation reserve”. This is a combination of many things including: hormones, neurotransmitters, emotional state, organ health, and other internal systems. If done properly, training year round is hard on your body and mind. It requires an intense amount of focus, will power, hormones, and imposes a good deal of skeletal muscle damage. At the conclusion of that period, you can think of yourself as having just survived a strenuous battle. To use this analogy, think about your body as the military having gone through the difficult battle. Your off-season would be the equivalent of resting your soldiers, repairing your naval fleet, and re-fueling your planes to ready for the next onslaught. In biological terms, this off-season allows you to rebuild your adrenal and anabolic hormones, recover some of your mechanical aches and pains, restore your dopamine balance, find some pleasure again in your external life, and spend some time with your loved ones. When you try to rush into your next training year prematurely, you are going to battle with a weakened army and eventually it will come back to bite you in the ass.

When you are dealing with a sport that requires physical output, you can’t allow the off-season to be a complete destruction of your physical work capacity. So, how do you take time off of training without allowing your body to completely deteriorate from all of your previous years’ training gains? This is generally the hardest part for most people to do, and is more of an art with each individual athlete than it is a science.

The off-season should be split into three distinct phases to get the best benefits out of the down time:

1. The first would be complete down time and removal from the gym. This would depend on the training age of the athlete and the deterioration the body went through during the training year. The more well trained the athlete, the more time they can take completely away from training. As well, the more damage the body has from training, the more time off can be afforded to the athlete to heal and repair. This phase of the off-season can range from 5 days to a month and is generally the most important.

2. The second distinct phase of your off-season is just some ‘physical play.’ The goal here is to ensure that the athlete is still keeping some physical capacity built, but is not bogged down by the stress of a progressive overloaded design structure, testing maxes, etc. In this phase athletes can get outside to enjoy the sun doing hiking/biking/etc, try out new skills/sports, take some extra off days to enjoy other aspects of their lives, etc. This aspect of training is primarily for the mind. It allows people to keep enough of their physical routines as to not lose touch with their physical capacity but not be obsessed with the structure of the their training. The goal here is to maintain as much physical capacity as possible without over emphasizing the importance of training. This means less maximal efforts, more submaximal volume, more easy aerobic work, less ‘benchmark’ workouts, and a general sense of re-establishing vigor to train for the upcoming year. The duration of this training phase is also highly individualized. The more well trained the athlete, the SHORTER this training cycle should be as there is less of a need for balance in one’s life if they are trying to achieve their absolute peak physical potential. For someone who has a life outside of training, this period of an off season should be a time of enjoyment, reflection, re-structuring of training goals, etc and one should not hastily jump into a new season or the likelihood of burnout/injury becomes exponentially larger as each year of training mounts. Remember if being an athlete is not your number one priority in life, this is the time to spend for yourself and with your loved ones outside the rat wheel of hard training and physical strain.

3. The third phase of your off-season should be a period of re-training. Before you start your training year you want to have some assessments and data to outline your priorities for the upcoming training year. The 2015 Open gave 6 data points for most people to use, but that is not an extensive enough body of tests to determine an entire year of training with the goal to be prepared for anything and everything. This third phase should be the starting point for you to collect more assessment data of strength maxes, specific gymnastics tests, multiple time domain mixed modal tests, and anything else you find necessary to be good at your sport. That said, going from time off into some ‘play’ and then directly into aggressive testing sets you up to have really bad outcomes on those tests if you transition directly. Instead, you should take some training time to get re-acclimated to the volume and intensity that you had before your off-season began. This re-training period is just to ensure that the athlete’s resilience to the tests is coming up, and your assessments are a more accurate representation of the athlete’s trained capacity versus a depressed version that has developed from off time.

Off-season training protocols are in place for every sport. It is difficult for some people to realize this because the sport of fitness is so related to the actual training process, but all sports follow similar patterns and the sport of fitness will trend in that direction over time. If the off-season protocals are not applied, you will continue to see people burned out from the sport after very short periods of time at the top, high injury rates amongst the elite, and a general loss of enthusiasm at the professional level. If you speak to most high-level athletes or people who have been high-level athletes, they understand that to get to the next level they must (or have) dedicate YEARS to their craft. As a result, they are not in a ‘rush’ to attain their desired outcome and are much more patient with themselves as they build their bodies into high level performance systems. Amateurs tend to be hasty and try to rush their process to mastery, which is just one reason why they so often fail to transcend into a high level athletic state. If you remember that you cannot rush the progress curve, and you remember that your body is not a machine, it is likely that you will actually get more out of yourself over the long term. Remember you are not just a body, you are a person and so you should take notice of your emotional state, your relationships, your thoughts, your feelings and the entire aspect of your being if you hope to stay consistent for years at a time to achieve your potential. The off-season is the time to find your life balance, to bring to the forefront of your psychology all of the things you put on the back burner to focus on the training year. As you do that, your body will become more resilient and ready for the upcoming training year. Remember to be patient and focus as aggressively on your progress as a person with as much focus as you do on your progress as an athlete. Create a structured off-season to get things in order to crush 2016!

~ Max

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Max El-Hag
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