Finding the first step: how to optimize training to start the season

This article is adapted from a piece I wrote for Athletics Weekly in September 2018.

When we think about conditioning, one time of year comes to mind: the preseason. As the season ends, the next year inevitably starts with a rest phase, followed by rigorous preseason training. As many sports are about to head into their training camps for the fall season, it is time to rethink our approach to the preseason.

Much of the planning in the preseason is based on tradition. Coaches do what they did as athletes, or what they see their competitors doing. Rather than just doing what others do, it helps to look at the topic from a fresh perspective to see if your athletes are doing what they need to in order to reach the next level. The process starts by asking a few questions about the offseason, which can set up the preseason.

Understanding the why

The first question a coach needs to understand is why their athlete needs a break. Athletes can require rest for a number of reasons, and understanding why an athlete needs a break is crucial in planning the offseason. For example, if an athlete has an injury that needs to be addressed, the length of their offseason may be significantly longer than for an athlete who simply needs time off for a mental reset.

Sometimes by asking this question you may find that some athletes do not need much of a break after all. If an athlete is healthy and motivated, why not take advantage of that and get back into training as soon as possible? The time you gain from jumping back into training and not losing any fitness can be used later in the year to take shorter breaks after intense training periods, where the athlete’s body might need the break to help adapt to the training demands better.

Finding the right amount of rest

While there are benefits to a rest phase, there are also down sides. Mainly, athletes detrain and lose their abilities after an extended period of time off. After you understand why an athlete needs a break, you can then determine how long they need for the break to accomplish what you want it to.

One key factor to consider in determining the length of the rest phase is detraining. If you take a break, you will lose form. How much is lost is highly individual, but two key trends stand out. First, younger athletes lose and gain form at a faster rate. Second, detraining is nonlinear (i.e. the difference between taking 3 and 4 weeks off is greater than the difference between 9 and 10 weeks).

Many other factors are also involved. For example an athlete that sits on the sofa for four weeks will detrain more than an athlete that pursues sportier activities in their free time. These are all important factors to consider in determining the length of time. Even if there is no additional detraining that would occur, coaches looking at longer breaks also need to consider the opportunity cost: the longer rest you take, the less time you’ll have to prepare your athletes. This can be weighed against the many benefits of taking a break.

In general the offseason is getting shorter for athletes, but that is not the case with all athletes. Former decathlon world record holder Ashton Eaton, for example, would often take a 10-week break from training and not even say a word to his coach Harry Marra during that time. The amount of focus he brought to training helped him reach incredible performances, but it was also mentally draining and he needed the time to refocus. While 10 weeks may seem like a long time, this worked for him for a couple of reasons. For one, at his experience level he would not lose form very quickly, and he could regain it easily too. And, he stayed active during the break. Eaton loves the outdoors and would do a number of outdoor activities that he did not have time for during the training season. This helped mitigate the effects of detraining and formed an individual solution for a top athlete.

Taking the right first step

Once training starts up again, the first weeks are crucial. When I interviewed Vern Gambetta for my book Training Talk: Conversations with a Dozen Master Coaches, he discussed how starting off training wrong can set you back.

Since the season is so far away, coaches and athletes feel the need to work harder as we talked about on this week’s GAINcast. But doing work for work’s sake doesn’t really help the athlete. Having throwers run stadium stairs until they vomit won’t help them become better throwers. Having them not throw will not help them become better throwers. Both decisions will just take away from the skills that made them good in the first place. As Vern put it in our interview:

“I call it dulling the knife. They started razor sharp and we just dulled it for three months. We took away the fine coordination they had.”

Throwing is a skill, jumping is a skill, and running is a skill. Skills need to be trained all year round. You can’t expect to have the touch of Lionel Messi if all you do is run intervals in training and hardly touch a ball six months a year. We can’t expect any different in our sport.

Like Eaton, shot put world champion Tom Walsh is another athlete that takes a longer off-season break. Normally he takes eight weeks off from his normal training routines, but already before that break is over he will begin a few workouts. By easing into training, he can hit the ground running and get in high quality work from Day 1 to continue to sharpen the knife, rather than dull it.

The key is that elite athletes need high quality work and sport-specific training throughout the year if they expect to improve their skills. What athletes do in the preseason can therefore have a big impact on the season to come.