Professional athletes are used to train in cycles. For some, a training cycle could last up to 4 years, leading up to the Olympic Games. For some, it may be three-month blocks, which corresponds to the competitive season. We break down training cycles into mesocycles and microcycles to help us with the periodisation of training. As we know from physics and Newton’s third rule, for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction and after every competition there is a recovery period or off-season.
Recovery and periodisation textbooks teach us that the off-season is vital for athletes to recharge their batteries before exposing themselves to another training cycle in order to elicit maximum adaptation and increase performance. But what does this mean? Should (and do they?) professional or recreational athletes just put their feet up after their season is done and lounge by the pool, treating themselves to countless massages and rub-downs? Is this the time for hikes, meditation and aromatherapy? Well, yes and no.
You see, these recovery tools and strategies should already be part of your repertoire in the in-season, or for recreational athletes it should be a part of your routine, a way to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system that counters our “fight or flight” response when we are engaging in vigorous training.
What we need to ingrain in our training is the use of training blocks (or cycles, periods, call them what you will) when we place focus on one (or a maximum of two, non-contradicting) particular skills or physical qualities. This means that we should use the off-season to train qualities that will come in useful over the competitive period but which we don’t have time to focus on in the in-season or for recreational athletes when we are engaging in our favorite sports or activities on a regular basis. This could mean working on your mobility, agility, movement quality, or strength, something that you feel is missing from your repertoire. When working on a particular skill or quality, even in the off-season, however, we should still apply the basic rules of training: progressive overload and quality. This means that if we are working on mobility, there should be a measurable progression in our range of motion through the joints and progression of movement patterns we engage in. If we are training to be stronger, we should be increasing volume and/or intensity. Professional and recreational athletes alike are often scared that by placing their focus on one quality, they will lose another. However, it’s important to note that all physical qualities have something that is called a residual training effect (RTE).
In his insightful work on periodisation using his triphasic method, Cal Dietz provides a great overview on how long we actually get to keep our various motor abilities even when we stop training them. What may be interesting for both strength and endurance athletes alike is that maximum strength and aerobic endurance have an RTE of 30 +/- 5 days. Only at that point do these built-up qualities begin to deteriorate. That means we could take a month off our strength training protocol (after completing a block or program) and work on mobility, and come back to our training at the same level of strength, with the added benefit of the mobility work we have undertaken in that one month! How cool is that?