Intense Rest

Whether you did a fall base period or a full cyclo-cross season, if you live in a cold climate January and February are the most difficult months to train. If it's not already something they focus on, I encourage my clients to take advantage of the cyclo-cross season as a way to maintain fitness through the New Year before they're forced off their bikes or indoors because of weather. Another way to utilize this time period between the end of the road or mountain bike season and beginning of winter is to try to do a fall build-up period. This allows them to work on a broad base of aerobic fitness at a time when racing won't interrupt training, as it does much of the rest of the year.

However they get to late December, I find it crucial that riders take a full, deep rest between phases. Some clients may be heading south or west to start racing early, while others who are winter-bound will move into a pre-season period of weight lifting, Nordic skiing, or other off-season fun. Still others, determined to be flying when the racing season starts in March and April, will put their nose to the grindstone of their windtrainers. Again, however they got here, and where ever they might be headed, this is the time where almost all of them will need a true break between phases.

Too many riders think that taking a break means simply abandoning structured training. The problem is unstructured training can be just as stressful and difficult to recover from as structured training. I'll ask what they plan to do on their break, and I'll here replies like "long mountain bike rides," or full days of skiing. These activities are fun, and certainly provide a mental break, but not a physical one. You need to rest with just as much structure, intensity, and dedication as the way you train. The mental break comes later.

For a minimum of ten days I ask all my clients to enter into a period of complete inactivity. That's right, no training of any kind! It might sound easy, but many of them simply can not do it. They may make it five or seven days, but then they can't help themselves. They're bouncing off the walls, gaining weight, and are often just plan bored. But that's exactly the point. Get out of shape. Gain a pound or two. Plan this part of the year as a programmed low, so that you'll be able to reach programmed highs later in the season.

Here's an extreme example of just how much time off you can get away with. I race with a rider who has an immense amount of talent and reaches incredibly high levels of fitness. In order to maintain that focus and intensity though, he needs to go to the other extreme in his off-season. He wrote to me recently and outlined his winter program, mentally and physically:

"These are the mental stages I go through:

- The first 2 weeks after the season I miss the training and racing and I get depressed.
- The next 2 weeks I start adjusting to not racing and training. I begin eating badly, hanging out at strip clubs and drinking.
- The next 8 weeks I continue my downward spiral of rapidly getting out of shape. I continue commuting to work by bike and I try to skate every weekend but I see my entire season's fitness erode away. At this point I contemplate quitting the sport completely. 
- The next two weeks I start to feel so guilty about my poor diet, weight gain and lack of fitness that I decide once and for all that I need to start training Jan. 1.

Healthy, huh?"

Now, I reprinted this note for humor's sake as much as anything else, but also to point out that this rider is one of the strongest regional Category 1 racers in the Northeast. If he can ride at this level with three months off, surely the ten days off I have to beg my clients to take can't be enough to lose all that precious form from the season before.

The bottom line is, you have to take as active, disciplined, and intense an approach to the time you take off as you do to your training. It takes real effort to take a serious break. Focus on all the other things you put off during the season that you could be doing now, and turn your energy and attention there. Unfinished projects, books you want to read, movies you haven't seen. If you're married, pay your spouse back for all those weekends you dragged him or her to industrial park criteriums and go somewhere nice for the weekend. Sleep late, take naps when you would normally train, and allow your hormonal systems to recover from all the recovering they had to do during the year.

Most importantly, and perhaps most challenging for many of you: take a break from coffee. If you keep yourself ramped up all day long on a daily basis with caffeine, you're squeezing the life out of yourself. To truly and deeply heal from all the damage you do on the bike during the season, try dropping your coffee habit for at least the time you're off the bike, and as long as you can push it after that. I find that this makes a bigger difference than people realize, and allows you to come back really refreshed and charged up for the long term training ahead.