Ah, the off-season. What a glorious time to heal up and reflect on your season whether it be racing, strength competitions or triathlons.
You may be thinking “What off-season?!”
No days off is a mindset that can FEEL inspirational, but if you are a “what off-season?!” type of athlete, we challenge you … if you have a race season and aren’t reducing intensity and efforts post-season, are you really giving your body what it needs to recover?
We aren’t meant to train (or live) like we are “in-season” all year around. Human beings thrive when we cycle through periods of focused, structured efforts with distinctive goals and periods of relaxed, less formal movement.
Your in-season and off-season should have different looks and feels. While there is no cookie cutter “perfect” off-season, what makes an off-season perfect for you is that it is completely dependent on your personal goals and health.
As you know by now, we like to look at the big picture and how not only nutrition, but other factors impact your overall health as an athlete and active human. The off season is a perfect time to focus on some of those big picture details that can help support your life, and set you up to begin in-season training from a place of optimal health.
In addition to sound nutrition, sleep, stress management, digestive health, living a value-minded life and having some fun are ways that you can support yourself in the off-season.
Let’s take a look at how some of these non-training and non-food related elements can impact your recovery and well-being.
Sleep is probably the very first thing that we often see sacrificed when active people are trying to balance training and the overall demands of busy lives.
The off season is a great time to focus on developing some better sleep habits that can support you, regardless of what phase of training or life you are pursuing. Sleep is genuinely the most underrated recovery modality out there. Your body uses sleep as a time to release hormones that aid in the repair of muscle and bone, as well as aids in glucose metabolism.
When you don’t get adequate sleep, your metabolic and endocrine status can be impaired (Halson, 2017). Sleep is one of the most important biological functions of the body. So, ensuring that you are getting adequate amounts of good, quality sleep is vital to your physical and mental health (Bird, 2013). There are many strategies for improving sleep, but one of our favorites is also the simplest: develop a sleep hygiene routine.
Sleep hygiene is simply developing a set of habits that can help to improve your sleep health. This could look like going to bed at the same time each evening, or ensuring you shut off electronics at least 1 hour prior to bed.
Stress is a part of life. Some forms of stress are good for us because they enable us to adapt and grow.
Think about the stress that lifting a weight applies to a muscle. The muscle adapts to the demands placed upon it and we grow strong. In-season training is one such stressor. Regular bouts of physical activity in varying intensity apply stress to our bodies. Our musculoskeletal, nervous and endocrine systems are all impacted. This is known as the training response; a basic principle of exercise physiology that simply states when a system is stressed, then allowed adequate time to rest and recover, it will adapt to tolerate greater stress in the future (Pearce, 2002).
Training causes release of cortisol, epinephrine, growth hormone, and prolactin, which are known as stress hormones- more on these in a moment (Pierce, 2002). These hormone levels decrease during recovery periods. However, other stressors, such as psychological and social stressors (think work, school, social obligation overload, anxiety …) can compound their effects.
Those forms of stress, also known as “life event stress”, are not beneficial for us. And, they can lead to a host of physiological and mental health challenges that can negatively impact our in-season training and performance, and our overall lives.
Stress affects your body on many levels- your hormones, your energy levels, your mood and ultimately performance (Perna, 1995). Stress can impact endocrine function, resulting in the release of cortisol and testosterone- two hormones that create what is known as the “fight or flight” response. This is a heightened state of stress and hormonal imbalance that results in impaired recovery. By learning to manage non-training types of stress (such as work, school, time management challenges …) during your off season, you are better equipped to navigate those challenges when you throw a training plan in the mix.
Stress management is a huge topic, but for active folks, finding strategies that integrate smoothly into your life can make a great difference.
One of the tools we use with clients is the concept of MITs (or, Most Important Tasks). This is a time management and prioritization technique that allows you to reflect and identify the top 3-5 things that you need to accomplish or devote time to, and give yourself grace around anything that does not fall into that list. These work great on a day-to-day basis, and taking the time to sit down and think about what you value and prioritize is actually a great mindfulness tool in and of itself.
Other wonderful stress management techniques to adopt in your off season include deep breathing or meditation, journaling, or mindful movement, such as leisurely walks or yoga and stretching. While these are things WE LOVE, you have to find things that you enjoy!
Gut health is another great topic to focus on in the off-season.
This is especially important if you notice gastrointestinal symptoms exacerbating in season. The off season is time to work on figuring this out! Managing your stress is a key component of gut health. Combining deep breathing around meal time is an excellent way to avoid GI distress with meals. And, just like regular bedtimes are important for great sleep, establishing regular meal times (as closely as you can get them) enables your body to engage your metabolism consistently. This is important for energy levels, optimal nutrient absorption and digestion and consistent blood glucose levels.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that caffeine can throw off two of the important bodily functions for optimal recovery that we have mentioned in this blog- sleep and gut health.
Caffeine can be a beneficial ergogenic aid for athletes when used properly. But, as busy people, we often tend to rely on caffeine to propel us through energy slumps (Guest, 2021). Unfortunately, when it comes to caffeine, you can in fact have too much of a good thing. Caffeine can interfere with your sleep patterns if consumed too close to bedtime or in excess. It can also irritate your gut, leading to some unpleasant GI symptoms.
The off season is hopefully a season of less demands on your time, so it’s a nice time to take an honest look at your caffeine consumption and see if this is an area that could possibly be impacting how your body feels and performs. Keeping track of your caffeine consumption and noting when you hit that threshold for the amount of caffeine that is deemed safe for healthy adults (400 mg per day, or about 4 cups of brewed coffee) is a simple way to identify if caffeine may be the culprit of some of your in-season gut woes (Caffeine, 2020).
Finally, the off season is for rest.
No, we don’t mean going from marathon runner to couch potato, but rather, reduce intensity and do more things that allow your mind and body to recover. Read a great book (or a few great books!), start a journal, adopt a yoga practice, finally start that strength training you’ve been wanting to do, or find a new hobby that gives you joy!
Balance in our interests and pursuits refreshes us mentally and physically. Then, when it’s time to get after it again, we are coming back to our sport refreshed and recovered, with some new tools in our toolbox to use when life or training throws a curveball.
We have a workbook for the offseason that we would love to share with you to help you get started on maximizing the downtime in your training schedule. You can find that free workbook here.
If you’re looking for some help in getting to optimal health in the off season, we have a few ways to support you:
Fuel for More Society.This is our monthly membership where members not only get a monthly email with tips, strategies and recipes, but also access to a monthly mastermind and Q&A. You can learn more here.
If you’re ready for more personalized help, you can always apply for our 1:1 nutrition coaching.
Perna, F. M., & McDowell, S. L. (1995). Role of psychological stress in cortisol recovery from exhaustive exercise among elite athletes. International journal of behavioral medicine, 2(1), 13–26. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327558ijbm0201_2
Bird, Stephen P. PhD, CSCS1,2. Sleep, Recovery, and Athletic Performance: A Brief Review and Recommendations. Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2013 – Volume 35 – Issue 5 – p 43-47
Guest, N.S., VanDusseldorp, T.A., Nelson, M.T. et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and exercise performance. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 18, 1 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-020-00383-4
Pearce, P. Z. (2002). A practical approach to the overtraining syndrome. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 1(3), 179–183. https://doi.org/10.1249/00149619-200206000-00009
Caffeine. The Nutrition Source. (2020, November 12). Retrieved October 18, 2022, from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/caffeine/
Halson, S. L. (2017, July). Sleep and athletes. Gatorade Sports Science Institute. Retrieved October 18, 2022, from https://www.gssiweb.org/en/sports-science-exchange/Article/sse-167-sleep-and-athletes