As the surfski racing year winds down the warm, the dry and long days of summer mutate to become the cold, wet, blunt instruments of winter. It's the off-season. A welcome break from the long hours of training, hard racing and many self-indulgent sacrifices athletes of all types make to pursue the fantasy that is sport. It's time to kick back, rest up and crack a few cold ones. Or is it?
I recently took the opportunity to ask a few top athletes and coaches that I respect about how they view the off season. Here are some of the insights they shared with me.
1. The numbers don't lie.
It's understandable to feel tired and a bit burnt out this time of year. That's your body turning on fuel light to let you know that yeah, you're pretty tired and it's time to get some long overdue rest.
While that might sound obvious, for many competitive athletes who have become acclimated to making steady progress, the temptation can be to not let off the gas peddle at all lest you loose ground. In my mind, the thought sometimes goes like this: "I worked so hard to get to this point, no way am I going to ease up now. Maybe if keep hammering I get a little bit faster?"
The very nature of the physiological response to conditioning makes this impossible. The tear down and rebuild cycle required to enable and sustain development mandates a cycle of stress and rest. It's true on a weekly, monthly and seasonal basis. Put another way, there are no peaks without valleys. Try to stay on the peak too long, and you'll fall off. And if you aren't seeing peaks, then you're on a plateau. Factor in the psychological demands of training and racing, and maintaining perspective on how you're actually doing is a slippery slope indeed.
A practical example would be that when I am in my surfski, my natural impulse is to GO AS FAST AS I CAN AS LONG AS I CAN! Like a dog chasing the ball, it's exactly the behavior the surfski is designed to reward.
But the numbers tell another story; one of diminishing returns. In the last two weeks, I've recorded a gradual fall-off in my 1000 meter times, and my heart rate numbers also indicate a season's worth of stress catching up to me. I am working ever harder and going slower.
"When I do go and hit a few hard sessions, I can only benefit from a training session as much as I am able to do it to its full potential. So even if you are only doing 3-4 sessions a week, if you smash the first one and don't recover enough to do the second or third one properly then it’s pointless. You have to learn to listen to your body. So when I start a session and I can feel that i am not getting out of it what the actual session is designed for, then I back off immediately and do something else. Similarly, I can feel when its time do some really hard intervals as opposed to an easy paddle." -Dawid Mocke
Another indicator that your in need of rest is when the "MORE!" button stops working. Like a lab rat with a bad cocaine habit, the more button is the one you push when you need to dig deep in a race to make a key move or stay within reach of a much faster competitor. When the more button stops responding, it's a clear sign that you're not adequately recovering between workouts. If you are not recovering, you're overtraining and it's time to think strategically about how your utilizing your time between workouts.
2. The great must first get good at rest.
The basics of rest are obvious. We need it in order to recover. No rest, no recovery. Know rest, know recovery. But it is also the word "rest" is easily misunderstood to mean "doing nothing". If you think of rest as a purposeful discipline, then it becomes possible to get good at it.
Good recovery is rooted in the fundamentals of sleep, nutrition, hydration and your mental well being. For us weekend-warrior-family-types with delusions of greatness (or my case, fastness), the mental wellbeing aspect is often to key to a good recovery.
The commitments to work, family and friends pile up fast. We're stretched thin, and ordinary days can become loaded down with too much "extra" as everything blends together and sets off a chain reaction that negatively impacts my sleep, nutrition and hydration regimens. By creating boundaries for each commitment, I am better able to prevent the hot mess of life-soup from boiling over and randomizing my life.
This principal is known as containment, and is founded in your personal ability to create boundaries in your life by letting your "yes mean YES", and "no mean NO". Containment facilitates focus, and focus allows you to "be where your feet are" in life to get the most out of every opportunity.
3. Every strength is a response to weakness.
The temptation in the off-season is to focus on improving your strengths, but it's actually the perfect time to work on your weaknesses as well. If you think of your season as one very long race, it's in your best interest to make sure you start your next season with a full tank and the fundamentals of being fast firmly ironed out.
The off-season presents a unique opportunity to examine and improve on these fundamentals that your season will be built on. To identify the fundamentals, I use a matrix from the business world called a SWOT analysis.
STRENGTHS: List and rank (on a scale of 1 to 5) each of your natural attributes. Examples of strengths: mental toughness, balance, power, endurance, speed, recovery etc.
WEAKNESSES: List and rank each of your natural weaknesses. Examples: Training, Discipline, Recovery, Balance, Speed, etc.
OPPORTUNITIES: List and rank each area where you believe you would benefit most from seeing improvement (based on the strengths and weaknesses listed above).
THREATS: List and rank those things that might impair, interfere or end your season. Example: Injury, Illness, Work or relocation to a North Korean labor camp.
At the end of the scoring, circle those items that have the most equity and liability. This is also a handy exercise to do with your coach or a training partner for more perspective. If used wisely, the SWOT analysis can be a fairly simple way to dimensionalize and better understand the areas that most need improvement without conflating them as you identify your key objectives for the next year.
It’s one thing to say you want to do well or win a certain race, its another thing entirely to put a systematic plan in place to do so. In the end, you may not succeed as you intended, but at least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you gave it your best shot and made progress attempting it.