The season is over. The war has been won or maybe lost. We all retreat to our homes and don't touch road bikes. We won't touch our weapons again until we polish them ready for the next battle. We go for long walks and back everything off completely; train with no intensity and eat heartily. We do everything we wouldn't usually do: We enjoy life like we've been locked away in a cell from the Spring until the end of Summer. That's right, isn't it?
Straight out of the book
The ubiquitous 'off-season' article tells us all about the need to do different sports, and yes that is a lovely thing to do...if you like different sports.
I find many of my cycling friends and riders like cycling. It's why it's their sport, their raison d'etre. My advice is if you want to do other sports then do it but if you don't then here is a little more insight into the reasons behind this conventional wisdom.
As a sport and recreational activity, much like swimming cycling is a non weight-bearing activity: there is no significant impact involved in the motion.
The problem arising from this fact is that the most important determinant of bone health and protection from brittle bone issues like osteoporosis is how much non weight-bearing activity we do. Our bones need to be put under compressive forces to maintain density and futureproof them from potential fractures and getting older. You can achieve desired effects from running, weight training, circuit training or hiking. The list is long and not exhaustive.
A secondary effect of training off-the-bike is working muscles in the opposite direction to how they do while pedaling a bike. Muscles that work eccentrically are worked concentrically returning balance across joints.
In a seated position pedaling as we do for extended periods, we are gradually moulding our bodies to that position. Hip flexors become short and tight, and the extended muscles of the lower back become exposed to weakness. While excellent for cycling it's not so good for joint and ligament health long term. This is also a reason to maintain core stabilisation and strength programmes all year round. Something we'll be sure to cover in detail in future blogs.
Implementing some form of weight bearing activity would be the one generalised advice I'd recommend the majority do if possible. Overall health should remain a priority no matter what. Apart from this the rest is entirely your choice and depends on your previous season's commitments and future goals.
Did we all just ride grand tours?
There is a certain wisdom in a World Tour Professional coming from 70 race days and a grand tour taking four weeks off the bike. Is there the need for an amateur who may only have raced 8-10 times in a season; a dedicated tester over shorter distance; or a sportive rider who had three target events across the whole season taking a lengthy break?
The answer, in my opinion, depends on the intensity and volume of racing. Professionals and Continental full-time riders don't have long periods off the bike so when their season ends the mental build-up of commitments, internal and external pressure comes to a tipping point. If you are an amateur and haven't raced to a point where cumulative fatigue is over-stressing your system and you genuinely like the organisation of structured training, then there is no need to stop. In all likelihood if you fall into this latter category it is because you are getting regular downtime away from training, as most amateurs do.
Just allow yourself a little slack on a day-to-day basis for a few weeks as to how strictly you follow the plan.
It's still recovery
The overall idea of seasonal adaptation is that we are recovering from what went before. And like all recovery periods, this is structured to match the load of the training stimulus, in this case, a more significant cycle incorporating a racing period. We wouldn't take a full week-long recovery if we did a short training block for whatever reason so why would we take an elongated break if our lives and work prevented us from a 'full season'? A pragmatic approach to where recovery ends and detraining might be starting will save you from losing your improvements. Make an honest judgement of how high your loading was throughout the season.
The principle of reversibility
The end of a season can be seen as the end of a very long training block. The recovery afterwards achieving supercompensation and a boost in level is as relevant as it normally would be. Extending that recovery period because it's the norm seems strange to me.
Detraining occurs as a result of a reduction in adaptations from training stimulus. The pattern of train-recover-supercompensate is broken by over recovery.
In the cardiovascular system VO2 maximum oxygen uptake is reduced and blood volume with it. Glycogen levels in the muscles return to normal baseline levels also meaning endurance and stamina are affected. Within your muscles, a reduction in capillary density and oxidative enzyme activities occurs, and a reversal of fibre cross-sectional area to previous levels takes place. Cleary this happens at a declining rate but why would we throw away what we worked for unnecessarily? It may result in 4-6 weeks of training to return levels, not to improve them.
Working backwards from your future goals to where you are now will help you decide whether that is time you are prepared to give. For a fully developed athlete that could well be valuable mental relaxation time and have no ill effect as they are already close to the ceiling of their abilities. For a developing rider that may be a step backwards unnecessarily.
New and developing athletes
Regardless of innate talent, every developing rider will have to build on the pillars of strength, speed and endurance to go up a level. With each year of development comes increased race distances and a higher standard of racing. Meeting those demands year-on-year means making the necessary improvements in those pillars.
If you view this as an expanding tank, we need to put more volume in year after year to reach potential. I'm not saying you abandon the adaptation period, just that you don't throw away the opportunity to build on your current level. Working sensibly with your coach on a long-term plan you will be able to ensure that potential is reached.
The same applies to riders of any age who are new to cycling. The aerobic system and musculoskeletal system is developed mostly over long periods both in bike hours and annual progression, so those initial years are essential to building a solid foundation.
So what am I saying you do? I'm not. I'm telling you to say what you are doing. Don't follow a textbook, make a plan. Your plan.
Only conform to what is seen as the norm if it works for you.
Sit down and review what went before; how you genuinely feel and what you want to achieve.
Minimap, your way BACK from your future targets, and between you and your coaches find the code to meet your targets and not overtrain or lose motivation.
Look after your overall physical and mental health but don't be afraid to do what you love. If you want just to Get Out And Ride