At this point, road racing season has ended for pretty much everyone in the Northern Hemisphere, and we enter what is often called the ‘off-season.’ Depending on who you talk to, that can mean drastically different things. Many will hang their bikes up, put a padlock on them and refuse to touch them for a month to recharge. Others will dive straight into the weight room, big miles, and start prepping for the next season. The latter approach is something we see more and more nowadays, after much ado about Team Sky’s approach involving riding bikes year around a couple years ago. I’d like to break down how both of these may hurt you, and offer an alternative option, ‘fun season.’
The Strict Layoff
The strict layoff is largely borne out of the habits and methods of professional cyclists. After long race seasons, often with 70+ days of racing and always containing large stints away from home living out of a suitcase, riders need a break. They need a mental break, from the slog that is their job. Their job, unlike most of us, is to get on their bike nearly everyday and train or race. It sounds pretty great, but like every job it gets tiresome at times. Taking time off the bike, letting loose a bit (I’ve heard many stories of rampant binge drinking during the off-season), recupperating mentally and giving the body a break from pedaling can do these guys a lot of good.
This is not ideal for amateurs, because unlike professionals you don’t have the fitness accumulation they do. After their time off they will lose some training adatation, but the fatigue from the year will be gone and they will be ready to prepare for the next season. We can see this affect in later season races when guys who were forced to take time off due to injury are often flying and the guys who didn’t are starting to wane. The long season seriously wears on professional athletes. Additionally, the guys that make it to this level tend to be hyper-responders to training load, which is to say they can absorb a lot and get faster fast. If they take 2 months off the bike, they will be able to jump straight into 20 hr weeks and after 5 weeks be twice as fast as most amateurs ever will be.
(As a side note, when considering that these guys are the best at absorbing load, and that they are pretty worn out at the end of the season, it is pretty phenomenal the amount which they do!)
The Important Training Time
You just got finished with your season. Maybe you were starting to get really fast at the end there and you want to continue building on that till next season, or maybe you were slower than you wanted to be and really want a jump start on next year. TIME FOR SOME BRAKES. I know you read ‘My Time’ (Bradley Wiggins book), and heard about how training through the off-season prepped him for his year of winning everything. Think about his next year though, the Giro that wasn’t, fall out around the tour, and his general lack of winning races until 2 years later. I don’t know him personally, so I can’t say for certain, but this looks like something I have seen in myself and many athletes I coach before: burn out.
At its worst, people stop racing bikes altogether, usually people don’t push that far but their results start to fade, the intervals aren’t done with as much vigor, etc. Each person is different and has a different tolerance for work, but I see this in most people at ~6-9 months of continuous structured training. That same mental fatigue pro athletes feel, where training starts to feel like a job kicks in. Don’t fall into this trap, don’t burn out. Don’t make plans to go 97% all year long. There is, indeed, a reason it is called off-season.
I just said there is a reason it is called off-season, so you should just stay off the bike for all of october, right? Maybe, maybe not. For most amateur athletes the physical fatigue of a year is far less detrimental than the mental fatigue. Which is why I advocate the fun season. Put simply the approach is this: don’t ride until you want to ride, then ride however you want to ride for fun. You are not allowed think about fitness, form, any of that. Just think about having fun. Bike racing, bike riding, it is fun. Remember that, enjoy that.
If we only ride when we want to, how we want to, we don’t have the mental fatigue from hard structured workouts. This can take the form of cyclocross racing (as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously!), hard group rides, and I’ve even seen some people turn it into off-season backpacking rides. As long as it is fun, it is good. The added benefit of this is that while fitness falls off a little bit, it isn’t a drop off cliff. When you get back to structured riding, with the limited time you have to train, you aren’t going to be looking at a full season to get back where you were.
For masters racers, the fun season can be an especially great idea as, due to the nature of father time you will tend to lose fitness gains faster and gain them slower. Maintaining some fitness is pretty easy, it can be done with targeted efforts, or it can be done with some riding for fun. The latter is preferable as it eliminates most, if not all, of the mental fatigue of structured training.