5 Keys To The Best Triathlon Off-Season

We are approaching winter in many parts of the United States and it has been uncharacteristically cold here in San Jose.  There is so much joy in this time of year with the holidays, lights, and spending quality time with family and friends.  December is also a month of reflection and for reviewing all we accomplished, or didn’t, during the previous 12 months.  It is a great time for the celebration of goals achieved and hope for the amazing future that will become manifest.

I recently had an inspiring experience that was filled with both reflection and hope.  Trinity Triathlon Club, based in the bay area of California, held its second annual celebration and yearly tri season kick off.  I was honored to be invited as the physical therapy sponsor for the team.  What I found so awesome about Trinity was the close knit environment, positive energy, inclusiveness, and commitment to creating a triathlon “family” versus an every man for himself attitude.  Unfortunately many triathlon clubs focus myopically on performance and forget a large majority of people want support, camaraderie, and a place to train and improve with like-minded people.   If you live around the San Jose area and you are looking for an awesome and inclusive triathlon club then you need to check out Trinity Triathlon Club. 

While at the Trinity event, I had many candid conversations about the triathlon “off-season” and what that means from a training standpoint.  There were many similarities in the questions regarding maintenance drills, recovery, and ways to improve performance.  Each athlete has their own goals and reasons for doing triathlons and I love that about this sport.  Some are in it for the exercise, some for the challenge, some for the team environment, and some do it just to say, “I am a triathlete.”

Although there are many unique aspects of an off-season, there are an equal number of commonalities.  I have compiled a list of triathlon off-season pursuits I believe are worth your time and energy.

The Sports “Off-Season”

Most athletes, professional and weekend warrior alike, get the most out of their training if they plan a yearly training schedule.  The idea being to train to peak for the key event or series of events throughout the year.  In the triathlon world, that potentially means multiple races per year that you want to be performing your best for.  To be at your best for each of the key events of your year you need planning and a training schedule.

I want to focus in on the often forgotten role of the “off-season”.  Typically, this is the part of the training year furthest away from your first key race.  The off-season begins after your last race of the year and ends as you start your Base cycle.  For most who race in the spring, summer, and fall, winter is the de-facto off-season time of year.

The Goals of a Productive Off-Season

From a strength and conditioning perspective, the off-season is a time for rest, recovery, cross-training, and body work.  It is important that after your last triathlon on the season you take 2 weeks off to let your body recover and heal.  Now, taking 2 weeks off does not just mean lying on the coach and sleeping all day.  In those two weeks it is important to sit and relax but it is also a good time to walk your neighborhood, do some housework, and perform other “active” tasks that are low key.  My point being the two week break does not have to be without movement to get the most out of the rest period.

The triathlon season can be grueling and the demands of three sports on your body can take its toll.  During the season, time does not allow much “body work” to be done.  By body work I mean doing maintenance to your body to keep it operating in peak condition.  You may have had a nagging pain during the year that you can finally take care of.  Maybe you have some back pain at work you can’t shake that can be addressed now that you have some time.  The off season is a perfect time to address your aches and pains.

Coming out of the off season you should feel rested, energized, and excited to begin the next year.  A productive off season restores and re-energizes your body and mind.  If you train during the off-season and don’t use the off season for its proper purposes you run the risk of starting the next triathlon year with diminished energy, passion, and drive.
This post is designed to help you get the most out of your triathlon off season.  Learn the 5 things every triathlete should do in the off season.

#1. Spend Time with Family

Training for a triathlon takes time.  If you or a loved one has ever trained for a triathlon you understand the time commitment and the sacrifice.  Juggling a full time job, a family, and triathlon training is quite a challenge.  Triathletes are warriors in the sense that they will find time to train wherever it is available morning, lunch, or after kids are down to sleep.  It is essential to build your day around your triathlon training or you run the risk of missing the training all together due to the demands of your commitments.  

The reality is that your family works just as hard as you do during the triathlon season.  Your husband or wife is pulling double duty in the morning while you pound out your 30 mile bike ride.  As you rush off to work after your run, shower, and shovel some food into your mouth your spouse is cleaning up and washing your workout clothes (for the 6th time this week!). 

Training for a triathlon involves the whole family! Let the off season be a time when you spend quality time with those that love you the most.  Sleep in and make a big breakfast, go on a hike, see a movie, take the kids to the museum, visit grandparents, go for a family bike ride into town to get an ice cream, snuggle up and watch a movie, or take a trip. 

Do whatever THEY want to do because come training season they sacrifice a great deal for YOU.

#2. Visit Your Medical Team

During your off season it is important you visit your medical team to assess and address all of your aches and pains.  Triathlon training is tough on the body as you are required to have skilled movement from head to toe.  Most triathletes will train through some form of pain during the season.  The off season is a great time to figure out exactly why you have pain and more importantly learn how to eradicate it.

Primary Care Physician

You should start by having your yearly physical from your physician.  The off season provides the time necessary for the appointment.  Your physician will most likely perform a blood test which will provide you valuable information on blood sugar, cholesterol, red blood cell count, and thyroid levels (if you ask or have family history).  This body data will pick up on any underlying metabolic or physiologic conditions that may impact your ability to perform at peak intensity.  Anemia is a common occurrence in triathletes, younger females especially, and can be assessed from your blood test.  This information will help shape your nutritional plan for the year. Having your skin on your hands, face, and upper back screened for any abnormalities is also important.  Triathletes have larger sun exposure than the typical population and therefore should pay particular attention to their skin health.  Skin cancer can be detected in the early stages and handled quickly.  Your primary care doctor can screen for any issues and refer to a dermatologist if necessary.

Physical Therapist

In addition to having your yearly medical physical it is important to visit a physical therapist to have a movement evaluation.  Figuring out why you have pain while swimming, on the bike, or with running necessitates the assessment of movement from a biomechanical perspective.  Additionally, if you don’t have pain, you can learn preventative measures to decrease your risk of tissue breakdown or injury. 

Specialty physical therapy centers exist to fully evaluate your running and cycling form using advanced movement tracking technology.  Your physical therapist will provide education on the cause and nature of your pain and provide an actionable plan to ensure you have a pain free season.  Your physical therapist is a great resource in the off season and during your season for questions on form, training, pains, and treatments.  Be sure to find a physical therapist that is knowledgeable about triathlons and the biomechanics associated with each of the three sports.

#3. Do Something Physical (Not Triathlon Related)

There are great benefits both physically and mentally to participating in something active apart from your usual triathlon training.  Although there is significant variation in the movements of swimming, biking, and running, those disciplines are also performed moving straight ahead.  In order to provide a novel stimulus to your muscles you should try playing pickup basketball games, playing soccer, or ice skating.  These sports use different motor patterns and therefore help activate muscles that miss out during triathlon season.  Our nervous system grows and improves through novel stimuli. 

Triathlon training is mostly an individual sport.  Clubs like Trinity in San Jose do a great job providing a team environment; however, when you race it is just you and your mind.  Team sports are a great way to be competitive but collaborative.  Being a part of a team is rewarding and foster great relationship.  You can exercise, play a game, and foster your competitive drive from a new angle.

Variability of training is an important aspect of all sports.  Just doing the same things over and over again provide diminishing results.  Not only do results diminish but the increase of injury rises.  Those who specialize in sport have a higher risk of injury compared to those that train for different sports during the year.  Use the off season to try something new.

#4. Strengthen Your Hips, Feet, and Back

Some of the most common injuries to afflict triathletes are knee pain, foot pain, and lower/upper back pain.

Hip Strengthening

The most common injury to triathletes and runners is patellofemoral pain or “runner’s knee”.  Of all the running injuries reported in a given year, the knee accounts for 50% of those injuries, with runner’s knee accounting for 50% of those cases.   One of the main reasons why knee pain develops with running and cycling is due to gluteus medius and maximus weakness.  The gluteal muscles perform a vital role in providing proper alignment and stability to the pelvis and lower extremity.  During running when the knee caves inward (valgus) toward the other knee or rotates in toward the opposite knee it changes the forces underneath the patella.  This change in contact pressure and force adds strain to the cartilage (chondromalcia) and creates pain.  Massage, rest, and ice can help to decrease your pain; however, it will not change your running form.  Changing your running form starts with hip strengthening. 
Hip strengthening exercises:

Use the off season to get your hips strong to improve your running form and decrease your risk of injury during the season.

Foot Strengthening

Anyone who has had plantar fasciitis knows how much foot pain can affect a training run or race.  Following injury to the knee, foot injuries are the next most common source of pain in runners and triathletes.  Every time our foot hits the ground with running or pushes the pedal in cycling it encounters a high amount of force.  Our feet are so important to our stability and ability to train and race.  The foot is a truly amazing structure that allows rigidity for power, flexibility for shock absorption, and proprioception for balance.  The anatomy of the foot is much like a suspension bridge in that the most contact to the ground comes from the heel and forefoot with an arch between them.  In order to sustain and hold the arch up, your foot has an extensive network of muscles and tendons.  The human foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

In order to keep the foot in peak condition it is necessary to keep the foot mobile and strong.  Strengthening the muscles of the foot will allow improved shock control, power, and decrease your risk of plantar fasciitis and other foot related running pains. Check out this article and video for specific toe, foot, and ankle exercises to keep your feet strong. Foot Strengthening Article

Back Strengthening

Lumbar spine and mid shoulder blade pain is very common during running, biking, and swimming.  This nagging pain can interrupt the best of training sessions and be a mental distraction on race day.  Addressing these pains in the offseason can provide a more pain free season.

Lumbar spine pain is the most common musculoskeletal reason people visit their doctor.  In the triathlon world, running and cycling are the main culprits.  Lower back pain with running can result from many different biomechanical faults.  Poor shock absorption, pelvic drop, and a lateral trunk are typical examples.   Poor shock absorption occurs when an athlete lacks hip flexion, knee flexion, ankle dorsiflexion and lands with an upright trunk.  This type of positioning drives loading rates higher and puts more load on the boney anatomy versus the muscle anatomy.  By learning to run with a slight forward trunk lean (8-10 degrees from vertical), increased hip and knee flexion (40-45 degrees of knee flexion in heel strikers), and the proper dorsiflexion and decrease lumbar spine pain.  Additionally, pelvic drop occurs secondary to a weak gluteus medius.  As noted before, hip strengthening will improve pelvic control.

Pain at the scapula is most commonly seen during cycling and swimming.  Long hours on the bike with force directed on the arms requires significant scapular strength and stability.  Proper scapular rotation and stabilization is needed for a strong pull during the swim stroke.

While on the bike, weakness in the middle and lower trapezius and latissimus dorsi will result in a rounded back and increased lumbar spine pressure.  During swimming this same weakness will result in anterior tipping of the shoulder complex and decreased glenohumeral stability.  This ultimately will rob your swim stroke of a powerful pull.

Improving lumbar spine and scapular strength can be accomplished by these exercises.

Use the off-season to develop your spine and scapular muscles for increased efficiency, decreased pain, and improved performance.

#5. Plan Your Yearly Triathlon Schedule

Goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bond have an increased likelihood of being achieved.  Take the time in the off season to plan your phases of training so that you peak for the big race or series of races.

The first thing you should do is figure out what races are most important to you.  Write down the dates of each race and if possible sign up for each race.  Once your race schedule is set you should figure out how much time you can spend per week on training.  This calculation needs to be realistic and attainable.  You have to consider work schedules, time with family, vacation times, and sleep.  Be sure that you are feeding the pillars of health that include physical, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional well-being. 

Once you have figured out the time you can spend per week on training you can begin to build your daily schedules.  Write down all your current time commitments that are essential and unchangeable.  After this is accomplished put in your triathlon training schedule at a time you are most likely to do it.  If you are a morning person, schedule morning training session.  If you perform best on an empty stomach workout before eating your lunch.  Just be sure to tailor your training to you not just a copycat of someone else’s program. You can online resources you can find to help you figure out triathlon training parameters.  These resources will help you control your volume, speed, and intensity so you do not burn out.  There are many book resources that help you plan your phases of training to improve different physical parameters.

  1. The Triathletes Training Bible  by Joel Friel
  2. The Well-Built Triathlete  by Matt Dixon
  3. Your Best Triathlon  by Joel Friel
  4. IronFit Triathlon Training for Women  by Melanie and Don Fink

To get you pumped up about the upcoming season you can also check out these books.

  1. You Are An Ironman  by Jacques Steinberg
  2. Iron War by Matt Fitzgerald
  3. A Life Without Limits by Chrissie Wellington
  4. Born to Run  by Christopher McDougall

Your Best Triathlon Season

To have the best triathlon season it is important to get the most out of your off- season.  Spend time with family, visit your medical team, do something active other than triathlon training, strengthen your feet, hips, and back, and plan your upcoming year.  Finally, find an inspiration for the year that keeps you motivated.  Good luck to you all!  “In that one moment of crossing the finish line, I think it was obvious that every emotion I’d felt and personal battle I’d fought in training really bubbled to the surface … In that moment, every time I’d dragged myself to the pool at 6 a.m. in the dark, every pedal stroke I took when my quads were screaming at me to stop, and every step I’d taken really came to fruition.”  Jenny Hansen

“The pain is temporary, the memories will last the rest of your life.”  John Collins

“The sky is not the limit….I am.”  T.F. Hodge If you live in the Bay Area and would like to speak with a physical therapist about triathlon training, an injury, or for information about scheduling an appointment please call 408-784-7167 or email kevin@compedgept.com

By Dr. Kevin Vandi DPT OCS CSCS

Dr. Vandi is the founder of Competitive EDGE Physical Therapy — with his background in physical therapy, orthopedics, and biomechanics, he is a highly educated, compassionate specialist. Using state-of-the-art motion analysis technology and data-driven methodologies, Kevin has assisted a wide range of clients, from post-surgery patients to youth and professional athletes. When he isn’t busy working or reading research, he spends his time with his wife Chrissy and their five wonderful children, often enjoying the outdoors and staying committed to an active lifestyle.

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