|Picture this: It’s summer and races are frequent and fast. You’ve been training consistently since the fall and have been racing strong for the last several months. You have been feeling particularly strong and have had several good races in the last two to three months. You planned on racing strong all through the spring and summer months but recently you have noticed your performance has been a little flat and athletes you used to beat on a regular basis are beating you in recent races. You figure they must be training harder than you so you start to add some extra intensity and hard training to your normal routine only to find your performance continues to suffer. Finally, frustrated with the way things are going you decide to end your season and wait until next year only to repeat the process again and again. This all too familiar scenario is played out frequently for many endurance athletes. When you look at the racing season for sports such as running, cycling, and triathlons, it is easy to see why this happens. In most parts of the country it is not uncommon to have a racing season that lasts seven to nine months (or possibly longer in warmer areas). While it is possible to enter races throughout the competitive season, most athletes can really only stay at top fitness levels for approximately two or three months. Many will try to stretch that fitness out for another one or two months by continuing to race and train hard but find that their fitness levels and performance continue to worsen as in the scenario above.
S.O.S. (Save Our Season)
If you find yourself at the point where your race performance is suffering, what can you do to save your season? The secret is to take a mid-season recovery period with a week or two with reduced training followed by a progressive and intentional rebuilding of your fitness before getting back to the races. In total, this will mean one or two months away from racing but you will have the overall benefit of getting several more months of quality racing in before ending the season.
In order to make this work in your current season, it is important to recognize acute signs that you need a mid-season break. If you have had a couple of good months of racing but now your race or training performance starts to drop it may be time to take a break. Another possible sign that you need a break is if you are suffering from constant fatigue or muscle soreness that does not seem to improve with a day or two of rest. Many athletes know they need a break when they find that they are starting to become apathetic and unmotivated to race or train. This is not an exclusive list of signs so talk to your coach if you have any questions about how and when a mid-season break can work for you.
I have also found it to be very effective to help athletes avoid the mid-season slump by analyzing past seasons of racing and recognizing any patterns that occurred. In general, I have found that if a rider takes a planned break BEFORE they are extremely tired they often come back from the break incredibly strong. While it is difficult to look at every possible scenario, I’ll list a few that I have seen in racing cyclists. A common sequence of events for cyclists is to start racing in March, ride well in April, May, and maybe June only to feel horrible and burnt out in July. A good way for a rider like this to schedule their season is to only plan to race until the end of June and schedule a one month mid-season break in. This rider will then be able to come back strong in August, September, and October to finish out the road season.
For the road racing cyclist who also wants to also race a strong cyclocross season (especially here where I coach in New England where road races only start in late March or April) they may plan to race on the road in April, May, June, and July and plan to take a mid-season break in August or September. This will have them ready to start racing cyclocross in October. In warmer areas where racing starts early and the summer is extremely hot, a well-planned mid-season break can be just what an athlete needs to make it to the late season races with a high level of fitness.
What should you expect from a mid-season break? Typically, it will start with a week or two of reduced training including low intensity training and multiple days off. If you are taking a four to five week break from racing, the training will start to add a progressive amount of intensity similar to workouts completed during the base period of training (but progressing much more quickly). At the end of the break, these athletes will be ready to get back into racing and should start to feel strong again after two or three weeks of consistent racing. For riders taking an eight to nine week break from racing, they will have a similar build up but will have additional time to work on their aerobic fitness before adding more intensity. Again, these riders should expect for their “racing legs” to return after around three weeks of resuming their regular racing and training schedule.
If you think you may be a candidate for a mid-season break, talk to your coach about which would be ideal for you. In general, if you have a shorter racing season (such as March-September), the four to five week re-build period is probably sufficient. If you want to compete in a long season or are trying to race in different disciplines (such as road racing and cyclocross), an eight to nine week re-build period may be a better choice. Remember that even professional athletes plan on taking a break (or breaks) from competition during the course of a season to allow them to recover and have a steady progression of fitness from one season to the next. There is nothing that will slow down your overall development as an endurance athlete more than constantly trying to compete in a fatigued state.
David Peckinpaugh specializes maximizing the performance of road, cyclocross and mountain bike racers of all levels.
Rest and rebuild plans are available for Wenzel clients on Individual, SemiCustom or Custom training plans. Talk to your coach about setting one up for you if you are not going as well as you were a few weeks or months ago.