The holidays can be a tough time for training. A combination of short cold days, holiday parties and cookies everywhere can make it difficult to stick to the training plan. It is not uncommon for athletes to gain a few pounds and lose a bit of fitness in December and January, which can actually be a good thing. Taking some time to reset, recover from the prior season and focus on other areas of life is healthy and important.
Good coaches should understand the value of downtime, while also recognizing their duty to empower their athletes to improve and reach new levels of fitness. To do this, it is important for coaches to help athletes navigate training after time off, especially after the holidays. The following are key principles that will enable athletes who enjoyed some impromptu downtime over the holidays to get back into training.
Accept Current Fitness Levels
After the holidays, athletes who took a few weeks off or gained a few pounds will not be able to maintain the same power numbers or paces as they did when they were at peak fitness. Adjusting intensity zones by assessing current fitness levels is important. Focus on metrics such as heart rate or rated perceived exertion rather than power or pace. This will prevent athletes from over-extending themselves. By making sure that training reflects actual fitness levels and not prior or desired levels, athletes will have a lower likelihood of injury and avoid the frustration of trying to chase former fitness benchmarks.
Focus on Rhythm Rather Than Training Load
Just as workout intensity needs to be scaled back after a long lay-off, so too does the overall training load. Rather than striving for a certain weekly volume or training stress goal, coaches should encourage athletes to emphasize the frequency. For example, a steady diet of short (60 minutes or less), relatively low-load sessions. This approach minimizes the re-engagement inertia that often accompanies a hiatus from training. It will also cultivate more structure with lower thresholds, to really ease the athlete into the implementation of an exercise routine. Incorporated thoughtfully, this enables athletes to redevelop training habits as they gradually assimilate exercise back into their lives.
Set Or Readjust Near-Term Goals
One of the main reasons people engage in endurance sport is to, quite simply, get better. Progress in athletics is analogous to progress in life, and humans are wired to crave it. If an athlete lost focus over the holidays, it is possible for him/her to feel as if the setback is larger than it actually is leaving them feeling frustrated or unhappy. Especially if near-term performance goals, such as a winter running race, had been set, he/she may feel as if his/her athletic life is in shambles. For athletes like this, recontextualizing athletic pursuits and adjusting racing and training goals is healthy and necessary.
A PR is not a requisite for race success. 100% adherence to a training plan is not realistic or even desirable (life happens and impromptu adjustments are inevitable). Reframing goals in light of these considerations is essential for getting back into a productive and enjoyable exercise routine.
Manage the New Year’s Resolution Mindset
Not everyone needs motivation to get back into training after the holidays. Some high-achieving athletes actually need to be reined in. It is not uncommon for people to be inspired by the “New Year, New Me” mentality and to attack training with overzealous excitement, doing too much too soon. Part of a coach’s job is to manage an athlete’s excitement to prevent injury and burnout. The motivation from a resolutioner’s mentality is fleeting. A coach should focus on helping athletes develop habits and discipline conducive to long-term success. In coaching certain athletes, this means being extra-firm in proctoring the training plan as prescribed (e.g., discouraging extra sessions). Also, try taking the perspective of optimistic realism as it relates to future training and racing goals.
It is common for athletes to feel uneasy after time off especially after holidays clouded by the fog of too much egg nog, wine and gingerbread cookies. To help athletes intelligently ease back into training, coaches should modify training. This means working with athletes on an individual basis to assess the situation, modify the plan, reset goals and perhaps reframe an athlete’s overall perspective on how training and racing fits into his/her life.