The offseason is still a season: your recovery season!
November through March is a great time to either do a triathlon south of the equator or get some much-needed recovery. It is a time to reflect on our accomplishments from the last season, set goals for next year, or perhaps nurse an overuse injury that we muscled through the last few weeks or months. Perhaps get that much-needed hammer toe surgery (or wait until next year).
These particular months also bring along a steady parade of holidays: Halloween (technically October, but close enough); Thanksgiving; Christmas; New Year’s and the Super Bowl, all of which supply all kinds of dietary temptations while we’re training less. This means the offseason can become the season of unwanted weight gain and muscle loss—which makes getting back into the racing groove a lot harder.
To top it off, the rumors are true: The older we get, the more muscle can atrophy and fat can accumulate. The good news is that the older we get, the more we just want to hang out with our dog. And the less we care about holiday parties, which helps us avoid the associated weight gain.
To help mitigate muscle loss without sacrificing your social life, use the season as a time to initiate or revitalize your strength training. Focus on a plan with fewer repetitions (reps) and higher weight. As endurance athletes, we already do a lot of high-rep activities. We run 180 steps per minute, swim 50 strokes per minute, and bike 85 revolutions per minute. Our slow-twitch or endurance muscle fibers are tapped out.
An “endurance” strength plan focuses on lifting weights for 2-3 sets of over 12 reps. This type of plan does not help with building muscle. We need to pay some attention to the fast-twitch power and strength fibers. A training plan that prescribes 3-6 sets of 6-10 reps will help build muscle. A plan with 2-6 sets of 3-5 reps will help build strength. Use a weight that challenges you, but also allows you to keep proper form. Power exercises like jumping, tabata squats, and plyometrics will also help develop the fast-twitch muscles. Focus on strength exercises 2-3 times per week.
Along with a consistent strength training plan, assess your protein intake. Carbohydrates are excellent at providing fuel needed for the long endurance activities. All athletes, whether they focus on endurance or strength, need to consume 20-40 grams of protein 3-5 times a day to help stimulate muscle protein synthesis, maintain muscle health, and help muscles repair from training or any injuries they are nursing. How often are you consuming high-protein foods? Most people skimp at breakfast and lunch and make up for it at dinner. This is not ideal for muscle health. We should spread our protein intake evenly throughout the day. Keep a log of your food intake for a couple days and see how well you are spacing out your protein.
See the chart below as a reference for protein amounts in common foods:
|FOOD||SERVING SIZE||PROTEIN GRAMS|
|Cottage Cheese||1 cup||28|
|Greek Yogurt||1 cup||22|
|Regular Yogurt||1 cup||13|
|Whole/Skim/Soy Milk||1 cup||8|
|Ultra-Filtered Milk||1 cup||12|
|Lean Meat (chicken, tuna, beef)||4 oz.||28-32|
|Egg Substitute/Egg Whites||1/2 cup||12|
|Peanut Butter||2 Tbsp.||8|
While maintaining muscle, we also want to avoid unnecessary fat accumulation. Too often, people assume weight gain is muscle if they are lifting weights. It takes about 10-12 weeks to grow a pound of muscle. It is a lot easier to “grow” fat. If you can get your body fat tested, do so. DEXA machines are the gold standard, but may not be easy to access. Members of the military can take advantage of “Bod Pods” at wellness centers. Some fitness centers, have a BIA (bioelectrical impedance analysis) body fat scales. See what your fitness center uses. I caution people about body fat scales that you only stand on or only grip the handles, as they are not very accurate. If none of these options are available, simply check your waist circumference measured at the navel. Your waist won’t get bigger if you are gaining muscle. Measure quarterly or every 3-4 months.
Most importantly, weigh yourself once a week, on the same scale, at the same time of day. Don’t fret about 1- to 2-pound fluctuations. Quite often that is due to hydration. If after a month you are 5 pounds heavier, take inventory of where that might be coming from. Come April, it is a lot easier to lose 5 pounds than 15 pounds. A 3- to 6-pound or 2-4 percent increase in body fat during the off season is normal and actually desirable. Staying at peak body composition year-round is not sustainable and increases your risk for getting sick or injured. Whew!!!
Controlling unwanted weight gain is not hard. Many athletes gain weight simply because they stopped training. They are understandably burnt out from racing. Unfortunately, if you don’t change your diet, you will see some unwanted weight gain. Use this as a time to train because you enjoy cycling, swimming and running. Put away your power meter, heart rate monitor and stop watch and just enjoy the activity. Get into trail running. If you live in a colder climate, try snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.
If you are still training, but your long runs went from 15 miles to 5 miles and your bike rides went from 50 milers to 20 milers, you won’t need as many calories. Couple this with the aforementioned holiday fanfare, and it is easy to overeat. Please don’t diet. Simply stay aware of your “extras,” quantify your treats, and avoid liquid calories. Eating or drinking something “every once in a while” often turns into every weekend this time of year.
Trisha Stavinoha (MAJ, US Army, Retired) just retired from 20 years as an Army dietitian and now consults for Cera Products, Inc. She was a member of the All Army sports program and still competes in triathlon, running, trail running and obstacle course events. For questions, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.