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The Joy of Losing Fitness: Why Endurance Athletes Need a Break

BY Matt Fitzgerald

Don’t underestimate the power of a real off-season — it will make you a better athlete next year.

Building fitness is a good thing, whereas losing fitness is a bad thing, right?

Not always. There are times when losing some fitness now helps you gain fitness later so that you come out ahead in the long run. One of those times is the early off-season period (in other words, right about now) when you’ve just completed your last big race of the year, your fitness level is at or near an all-time high, and you may be sorely tempted to “keep the momentum going”. Instead of giving in to this temptation, however, I advise you to do just the opposite — not by just accepting the need to give away some of that hard-earned fitness, but also by embracing the process and even enjoying it.

Losing Fitness for Next Year’s Gains

For less experienced athletes, this recommendation is counterintuitive. Most people come to endurance sports with some background in general fitness, where a “get fit, stay fit” mentality prevails. In a typical scenario, somebody decides they need to lose a few pounds, signs up for a gym membership, and starts working out. At first, they can’t handle a lot of exercise, so they don’t do a lot. But as they get fitter, they do more and more until they reach a point where they’re either seeing the results they want or they’ve run out of motivation to do more, so they lock into a routine and try to sustain it.

This approach works well for goals like losing weight and improving overall health. But endurance athletes need to train in a more progressive manner, building toward performance peaks that create the need for a period of rest. At these times — counterintuitive though it may be — the best move an athlete can make to ensure they’re even fitter for their next big race is to reduce their training load sharply and regenerate physically and mentally at the price of lost fitness.

Learning When It’s Time to Rest

This practice is the norm among elite endurance athletes. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, six-time Ironman world champion Mark Allen would put his swimming, cycling, and running on pause after competing in Kona in mid-October and wouldn’t start again until New Year’s Day. He remained active during this period by surfing almost every day, but still lost quite a bit of fitness. Far from setting back his triathlon ambitions, however, the break left Allen feeling fresh, motivated, and ready to take his performance to new heights the next season.

I’m not suggesting that every athlete should take two and a half months off from structured training and surf in the off-season, but you should dial back your training by a sufficient amount and for a long enough period of time that you come to feel deeply rested and hungry to start getting after it again. At a minimum, spend two weeks after your last “A” race of the season doing light exercise and enjoying activities like hiking, skiing, and yoga that you don’t have a lot of time for during the competitive season.

For even better results, follow this guidance cheerfully rather than grudgingly. In other words, truly embrace the process of losing fitness, as the more you enjoy it, the more you’ll get out of it. Two things help in this regard: understanding the benefits of losing fitness in the early off-season and reconnecting with your inner lazy person.

Believe in Your Off-Season

Training is always more effective when athletes understand why they’re doing it and buy into it instead of merely doing it. As the great basketball coach Billy Donovan once said, “Believe in your system and then sell it to your players.” Believing in intentional off-season fitness loss means understanding its long-term aim, which is ensuring that athletes are fitter for their next “A” race than they were for their last one. Athletes who try to hold onto 100% of their fitness through the off-season are very likely to burn out before their next “A” race. In contrast, an athlete who is just slightly fitter at the beginning of their next race build than they were at the beginning of their last one stands the best chance of peaking at a slightly higher level as well. And the best way to get to that point is to dial back your training in the off-season — giving away some of your fitness, but not too much — in exchange for a full physical and mental recharge.

This can be done without anxiety if you reconnect with your inner lazy person, especially in the first couple of weeks of the off-season when you are least active. Endurance athletes like to work hard, but there’s a part of every athlete that doesn’t. If you’re like most athletes, there have been times in your life when exercise wasn’t a high priority, and you were resistant to sweating and breathing hard. The early off-season period can be a lot of fun if you choose to indulge this part of yourself. Take pleasure in eating dessert more often, binge-watching your favorite television programs, and perhaps even gaining a couple of pounds. You’re not letting yourself go — you’re looking out for your long-term athletic interests by appearing to do the opposite for a short period of time. 

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Trainingpeaks Author Matt Fitzgerald
About Matt Fitzgerald

Matt Fitzgerald is a journalist, author, coach and runner specializing in the topics of health, fitness, nutrition, and endurance sports training (read more about Matt on his blog). Matt uses TrainingPeaks to train, coach and deliver pre-built training plans for runners including training plans built specifically to be used with a Garmin Forerunner. View Matt’s 80/20 running plans here and his 80/20 triathlon plans here.

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