Take 5: The Annual Rest Period
Should riders take a break from training after one season before starting to train for the next? Most professional riders do. Some argue that anyone who doesn’t take a post-season break will more or less burst into flames and fall to Earth as a pile of ashes. Others suggest that if one does take a break, fitness will evaporate, fat will accumulate and one will never go fast again. I have been prescribing various forms of 2-5 week between-season breaks for 13 years and observing the results. In the seasons following breaks, riders under my direction have won events, turned pro, won medals at National and World Championships and set a variety of personal records, so the idea that break time is disastrous can be put to rest. Is a post-season break necessary for all riders? I have no proof one way or the other, but I have seen many riders who failed to take breaks lose motivation before the heart of the following racing season. I have started work with many no-break riders who had carried the same injury from year to year or peaked in the middle of what should be the training season in previous years. These experiences are uncommon among riders who take between-seasons breaks. While riders lose a bit of fitness during a break, in the next training cycle they rise to levels of fitness impossible without the break.
What Does a Break Look Like?
At Wenzel Coaching we use a variety of breaks. The model for a rider who has ridden a heavy racing schedule is either 3-4 weeks completely off the bike (mostly for professional riders with 50 or more race days in the previous season) or 4-5 weeks of light alternate-day exercise: nothing harder than Endurance pace (< 80% of maximum heart rate), and nothing longer than one half the length of the longest regular training ride at the peak training time of year. One of the sessions weekly is no harder than an easy walk. We recommend one bike session per week to maintain pedaling form, but the other sessions can riding or other modes of exercise. The exercise during the break should not feel like training. Rather it should feel like just being active, taking it easy and doing far less than one could.
Riders who have raced a shorter season can get away with a shorter break. If not sure how long a break to take, one can continue the break until there seems to be no further recovery, until one is hungry to train, and until any injuries have healed completely, and then continue the break for seven more days. If one feels more recovered after those seven days than before, one should take seven more. Many riders keep themselves slightly tired for so long that they don’t remember what it feels like to be 100% recovered. The extra week gives one a chance to be sure that recovery is complete and one is not continuing to feel better and better.
During the break, the emphasis should be on relaxation and fun, not competition, heart rates, power zones or precisely determined training volume. The break is a good time to ride with slower friends, parents, kids and significant others. Rather than slowing the racer down, these slower riders simply remind the racer of the appropriate pace for the time of year. The break is also a good time to help a beginner or to ride in new places, especially scenic places. Take time to smell the roses. If one is lucky enough to live in an area with fresh fruit on the trees, vines or road-side stands, it’s fine to stop for a fresh-picked snack on a break-time ride. Catch up on off-bike activities you used to love or have wanted to try: See some movies, or go back-packing, rock-climbing or kayaking. Do something different.
Post- or Pre-Season?
Should one take a “postseason” or a “preseason” break? I suggest both, one right after the other. The two breaks are very similar in terms of physical activity, but differ in their off-bike mental activities. The first few weeks after the last race are the post-season break. This is a good time for the “annual beer”. Don’t go crazy, but go ahead and socialize with non-riding friends, stay up late once or twice and don’t think about cycling any more than absolutely necessary. This last is very important. Many riders get lost in bike world to the detriment of their racing. It is important to success as a cyclist to reconnect occasionally with the rest of society and the world. Divorce and family discord are bad for recovery. Racers benefit by being reminded that there are people who think they are amazing simply for racing, whether or not they win, and even people who care about them whether or not they race. It also pays to remind one’s significant others that they are important. That can help later in the season when it comes time to take a setback in stride.
After two weeks or so of relaxation, it’s time to shift to a preseason mentality. In the preseason period, focus shifts to preparation for the following year. The few weeks of post season rest should have allowed one to regain perspective on the good and bad aspects of the whole past season. The preseason is the time to review the last year’s races and to commit to making the needed changes to training, tactics, equipment or nutrition. In the preseason, riders who are not going to work with a coach check the race calendar and organize the annual plan. Those who will consult a coach can talk about structuring training and what to emphasize in preparation for the following year. Those who’s whole plans will be written or supervised by a coach should make or renew the connection in the preseason so the coach can guide preparation from the beginning.
Benefits of a Break
The benefits derived from taking breaks vary for different riders. Most will get some combination of the following: full recovery of energy, emotional drive and enthusiasm for life and training; renewed motivation; healing of chronic injuries that have been maintained by training; recovery of perspective as one catches up on non-cycling world news and also remembers that there are things in life as important as race results; reconnection with the community of friends and relatives; restored emotional balance as one enjoys off-bike recreational and social activities; and recovery from exercise addiction as enforced rest exposes addiction if it exists. One consistent benefit of the annual break is having a precise starting point as one builds towards the next peak. Starting a training plan after a break helps build motivation for the training that’s coming and makes the arrival of the next fitness peak much more predictable. Riders who take a real break may worry about lost fitness, but most often they move to new, higher levels of fitness once they train up after the break.
Concerns Related to Breaks
Riders considering taking a break often worry that they will lose fitness. They will in at least one area but not in any permanent way. Fitness has many components each of which has its own time course of development during training and loss during rest. Components of fitness include at least: skills, muscle memory, aerobic power, efficiency and tolerance for high intensity (table 1). The last of these fades rapidly when not maintained with hard riding. When a rider doesn’t race or train hard, tolerance for intense work dissipates within a few weeks. A rider who takes a break or trains only base for a few months and then tries to join a hard club ride will often feel that he or she has made a terrible error as the rider has no snap, no speed and no ability to recover from short, hard efforts. If one’s goal is to thrash buddies on club rides through the non-racing season, then indeed taking breaks is an error. On the other hand, race-fitness and tolerance for intensity returns within a few weeks once high-intensity riding recommences, so intelligent and well informed racers simply understand that they won’t be hammering fit in midwinter and accept that as part of doing what needs to be done to be competitive in the real racing season.
Some riders will find that their legs hurt more and more as they ride less in the first few weeks of a break. Rest assured that this is a sign of the need for a break, not a sign that taking a break is the wrong thing to do. Legs that hurt from not exercising are not normal. The pain will clear in a few weeks as muscles heal. After the break, muscles will be more ready than ever for training.
The Break as Opportunity
For riders who need to lose weight, get surgery, visit the dentist, replace bike parts or earn money, the break is an ideal time to take care of business. During racing and training seasons, one must eat enough to fuel rides and to support recovery from training or training quality drops rapidly. On the other hand, if one goes hungry during the break and is not energetic enough for good training, so what? There is no serious training to be done. While most riders can lose ½ -1 pound per week while maintaining energy for training and racing, many can lose 1½-2 pounds per week when maintaining energy is not a concern. Thus the break is a good time to get a jump on weight loss.
Riders who have been putting off dental work or necessary surgeries should take care of them as early in the break as possible to allow recovery before serious training recommences. For riders who ride seriously enough to impair their off-bike money earning potential, the break is a good time to do some remunerative work and save up some money. The break is also a good time to be tying up contract talks for national class and professional riders or to be polishing resumes and finding new teams for masters and local elite riders.
The break is the optimal time to take care of any time-consuming bike repairs or upgrades, especially for those riders who have only one bike. Once the break is over, a rider should never take more than a day or two off the bike for the next 11 months. Some bike problems will unavoidably come up at inconvenient times, but at least starting with fresh parts and a thorough inspection at the beginning of training will improve chances of avoiding unscheduled down time due to bike problems.
When to Take a Break
Most riders schedule their breaks to start after the final local or team race of the year. Sometimes a rider will take the break early as an illness or injury forces them off the bike too late in the season to allow recovery and the return to form before the final races. Any rider to whom the idea of a break sounds really attractive is probably also ready. Riders in parts of the world with racing available year-round or nearly year-round may schedule their breaks by counting back from the first important races of the following year. I usually recommend at least five non-racing months between seasons, so that means riders who will start racing in February need to take a break in September. Those who will race later or earlier can schedule the break accordingly.
A Break for You?
An annual break has been part of the regular plan of most professional bike racers for many years. My experience as a coach suggests that breaks are certainly not detrimental and are probably beneficial for most riders of whatever caliber. The local rider or weekend warrior won’t need as long or as deep a break as the professional, but will still find that a few weeks of easier riding will provide new energy and motivation for training as he or she prepares for next season. If you have not taken a between-seasons break before, this would be as good a year as any to find out what one can do for you.
Table 1: Components of Fitness
|Component||Time to Build Initially||Loss in 1 month||Time to rebuild after one month break|
|Skills/muscle memory||Many Years||Minimal||n/a|
|Aerobic Capacity-VO2-max||A few months||Minimal||n/a|
|Aerobic Power (Power at LT)||2-5 years||10-25%||1-3 months|
|Tolerance for Maximal Intensity||3-6 weeks||Complete||3-6 weeks|
Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching have been helping riders schedule breaks as well as the rest of their annual training with good results since 1994. We are currently accepting new clients. Check us out on the web at www.WenzelCoaching.com or call 503-233-4346 for information.