Podcast, Training

Q&A about off-season training | EP#418

 November 27, 2023

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Mikael Eriksson - That Triathlon Show

Mikael answers listener questions about the off-season.  

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • Overall thoughts about the off-season
  • What kind of training (if any) besides easy aerobic training to do during the off-season?
  • Can you incorporate races (e.g. trail or road running, Zwift races) into the off-season?
  • The difference between training in Z1 and Z1 (in a 5-zone system) and how to balance training in these zones
  • Weight training and VLaMax in the off-season
  • How to effectively reintroduce and progress intensity during the off-season after a season break

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02:30 -

Off-season Training Definition:

    • The off-season training period is defined as the time from the end of the previous season until the specific preparation phase for the upcoming race, typically 6 to 8 weeks before the event.
    • The more academic term for this is the "general preparation" phase, a significant part of the overall training cycle.

Base Training Concept:

    • The term "base training" should be reconsidered. It's not a seasonal activity but a continuous process built over months and years of consistent training.
    • The base is formed by the chronic workload and consistency across all workouts, not limited to low-intensity or long workouts.
    • The preferable terms are "off-season training" or "general preparation" to avoid the misconception that base training only happens during winter.

Individualised Off-season Training:

    • There is no universal or "best" way to train during the off-season; it depends on various factors such as age, training history, goals, fitness level, strengths and weaknesses, physiological profile, environment, and psychological factors.
    • While common good practices and mistakes exist, there's no one-size-fits-all formula for off-season training.

Consistency and Adaptation:

    • Consistency in good training practices over time is crucial for improvement.
    • The off-season is not a drastic overhaul of in-season training; many principles remain the same.
    • It's emphasised that good training is good training, irrespective of the season.

Off-season Training Misconceptions:

    • The off-season doesn't mean solely focusing on zone 1 and 2 training for extended periods.
    • The coach rarely structures off-season training this way.

Workouts to do in the off-season

06:58 -

  • I start by assessing two key factors: the demands of the athlete's goal event and their current profile concerning those demands. 
  • This involves conducting a gap analysis to identify areas that need improvement and breaking down these gaps into manageable building blocks.
  • Prioritisation is crucial, considering that addressing all aspects simultaneously isn't feasible. 
  • For instance, in cycling, if the goal is to achieve a one-hour bike split for an Olympic distance triathlon and the current time is one hour and five minutes, the gap is improving speed by 3.1 kilometres per hour. This becomes the focus.
  • Examining constituents of this speed gap involves assessing power and coefficient of drag area (CdA). 
  • Determining whether CdA or power is the primary limiter informs the training balance. For instance, a focus might shift to improving power output or refining aerodynamics.
  • Careful attention to potential measurement errors is essential. Unusual power readings relative to speed can indicate measurement issues requiring validation, such as comparing power meters or checking crank length settings.
  • Triathlon data abundance doesn't guarantee accuracy, emphasising the need for meticulous scrutiny. 
  • As David Lippman mentioned, incorrect data is often worse than having no data. If, for example, aerodynamics are satisfactory, attention turns to enhancing power.
  • Delving deeper, analysing the power duration curve aids in understanding limitations. 
  • Is the athlete limited by their power ceiling, indicating a need for increased overall volume and high-intensity work? Or is the issue an inability to sustain a high percentage of their power, suggesting a focus on endurance through volume and targeted workouts in zones three and four?
  • In essence, a thoughtful analysis of available data can guide training strategies, providing valuable insights into specific areas requiring improvement for achieving performance goals.

How to approach specific workouts based on the training phase

12:02 -

  • Maintaining a buffer in overall workload is crucial, especially during the off-season, to ensure adaptability rather than pushing to the limit constantly. 
  • While individual workouts may be intense, consider the sustainability of the training weeks and months. For example, intense sessions may be frequent during specific race preparation, but this doesn't necessarily apply to the off-season.
  • In the off-season, focus on the chronic workload, ensuring sustainable training weeks. Adhere to the principle of "if in doubt, leave it out," avoiding unnecessary intensity. 
  • Avoid the common mistake of trying to do too much simultaneously. Off-season training isn't about easy sessions but also not about sustained high-intensity efforts. 
  • Be smart about effort, balancing it to bridge gaps gradually.
  • Avoid the misconception that density (intensity frequency) is more critical than workload over time. Save high-intensity periods for closer to key races. 
  • Patience is key in the off-season, maintaining energy reserves in individual workouts and throughout the week. 
  • Focusing on one discipline at a time, based on identified gaps, can be effective. For instance, prioritise biking for a few weeks, then focus on the following identified gap, such as swim takeout speed.
  • If we conduct a thorough gap analysis, we must be receptive to the idea that our limitations, the gaps we need to address, aren't solely fitness-related. 
  • Take, for instance, a scenario where you're pushing 270 watts and maintaining a speed of 36.9 kilometres an hour on a relatively flat Olympic distance course. 
  • In this case, your primary constraint isn't power because that power level should yield a faster performance on a flat course. Instead, we need to scrutinise your overall efficiency and your coefficient of drag (CdA). 
  • This might entail dedicating more time to refining your bike position, seeking expert consultations, or venturing to the velodrome.
  • Another instance where we might need to focus on efficiency over fitness is if you exhibit robust bike power but run considerably slower than that biking strength. 
  • This discrepancy could indicate that your cardiovascular and metabolic fitness are solid, owing to your bike power. The emphasis then shifts to your run efficiency as a significant limitation and a gap that needs bridging. 
  • To address this, it becomes essential to investigate potential mobility restrictions that might impact running efficiency. You may also need to incorporate targeted general strength or weight training in the gym to enhance your running economy.
  • A personal example illustrates this point. Recently, I brought my GoPro to the pool for a video analysis of my swimming. 
  • The analysis revealed that my current limitation, slowing me down, is my inability to maintain a good body position with a two-beat kick. 
  • To rectify this, I've recognised the need to transition to a six-beat kick for improved efficiency. However, I lack the kicking fitness to sustain a strong six-beat kick for longer distances, even at a moderate intensity. 
  • The positive aspect is that it's only November, giving me ample time to address this issue. Consequently, my swimming focus for the next period involves building my swim fitness, centred explicitly on maintaining a six-beat kick. 
  • I'll gradually increase volume and interval distances while holding that six-beat kick. Once I can handle extended intervals of steady swimming, I'll progress to higher intensities.
  • Identifying and working on weaknesses is crucial, but be cautious not to overemphasise them.
  • Constantly focusing on weaknesses can lead to fatigue, especially if the gap is race-specific.
  • Avoid getting stuck in a continuous grind of similar training in the off-season.
  • While addressing weaknesses, incorporate variety in training to avoid excessive fatigue.
  • Not every gap is a weakness; some might be aspects you haven't worked on previously.
  • It's essential to distinguish between weaknesses that need improvement and new or untrained areas.
  • When working on weaknesses, focus on the minimal effective dose rather than excessive training.
  • The philosophy should be "how little can I do" rather than "how much."
  • Trying to force weaknesses into strengths through sheer effort may not be effective.
  • Consider a strategic approach, combining different methods to achieve overall improvement.

Base training for triathletes vs single sport athletes

23:15 -

  • For a single-sport athlete, I believe the process is quite similar. It involves conducting a gap analysis to identify areas for improvement, prioritising those aspects, and structuring a periodised training program. 
  • Single-sport athletes don't need to consider the impact of other sports on their main priority, unlike triathletes, who must balance multiple disciplines.
  • For instance, a triathlete emphasising swimming may reduce run and bike volumes to enhance their swim performance. This sport-specific prioritisation isn't as critical for a single-sport athlete.
  • Time-crunched triathletes must carefully assess if they do enough work in each discipline to achieve desired adaptations.
  • Occasionally, the training program needs to be rebalanced to provide a more substantial stimulus for specific disciplines. This isn't as common in single-sport athletes.
  • Race-specific training is high-intensity oriented for single-sport athletes, especially those focusing on specific track distances like 1500 to 5000 meters.
  • While triathletes should avoid excessive Zone 3 and Zone 4 training in the off-season, a runner targeting middle-distance races would emphasise high-intensity work during this period.
  • Athletes with different goal events need to be mindful of not overdoing one end of the intensity spectrum.
  • For instance, a single-sport athlete must balance high-intensity work in the off-season if that mirrors their race-specific training.

Incorporating races into the off-season

26:06 -

  • Off-season training is not just about long endurance efforts; it includes intensities based on athletes' needs and goals.
  • Athletes of various ages, especially those over 30, can benefit from working on their VO2 max during the off-season.
  • Trail running and Zwift races can be incorporated into the off-season.
  • Trail races, though great for endurance and muscular endurance, are generally too long to be VO2max focused.
  • Zwift races of 30 minutes or longer are more threshold-focused, while shorter races can target VO2 max.
  • Regardless of the physiological benefits, if a race is enjoyable, incorporating it into off-season training makes sense.
  • Races can add variety and fun to training, and recovery from the intensity is manageable before returning to the main training focus.
  • One exciting aspect of shorter races, especially those lasting an hour or less, is that they can serve as valuable mental and psychological training for triathletes. 
  • These races offer an opportunity to push oneself and experience different discomfort than longer races. 
  • However, whether this is beneficial depends on personal preferences. 
  • If you enjoy intense races like 5 or 10km road races and find them mentally invigorating, they can be a positive addition to your training.
  • It's crucial to recognise that forcing oneself to participate in mentally taxing but not enjoyable races may not be worth the cost. 
  • During the off-season, it's important not to mentally drain yourself, so if intense races are not your preference, it might be better to skip them or participate without pushing to the absolute limit.
  • When incorporating races into your schedule, you must account for the load and stress they introduce to your training program. 
  • This involves adjusting your training intensity and removing other high-intensity workouts to avoid exceeding your manageable workload. 
  • While races can be a valuable addition, it's advised not to let them significantly reduce the training volume you would typically maintain. 
  • Protecting your training volume is crucial, primarily if you aim to build a high chronic workload for base fitness during the off-season.

Base training intensity

33:47 -

  • The concept of "recovery training" is not valid from my perspective. Training and recovery are distinct activities, fundamentally opposed. 
  • While I may have used the term "recovery runs" or "recovery rides" in the past, I now aim for clarity in my communication. 
  • Presently, I no longer refer to such sessions as recovery. Instead, I distinguish between easy training and base training.
  • When discussing base training, I assume you're referring to steady endurance training or what is commonly known as zone two training, as opposed to zone one training. 
  • The combination of duration and intensity determines the training load. 
  • A high training load can result from extended durations, even with lower intensity, as evident in activities like ultra-marathons or long rides.
  • Understanding "base" in the context of base fitness involves a chronic workload over years, not weeks or months. It's not a metric on training platforms but an accumulated workload over an extended period. 
  • Building this base involves manipulating the duration and intensity of workouts. While duration is crucial, experimenting with intensity can find a balance suitable for each athlete.
  • In a five-zone training system, zones one and two are low-intensity training, but zone one is easy training, and zone two focuses more on steady endurance. 
  • For shorter sessions, like an hour, an easy endurance session might have an RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) of two to three, while a steady endurance session might have an RPE of 4-5.
  • For longer sessions, fatigue due to duration becomes a significant factor. Prescribing sessions based on RPE requires adjusting pace or power to accommodate the extended duration. 
  • In such cases, an RPE of 4-5 for a two-hour run, for instance, might result in a pace or power output equivalent to a 45 to 60-minute run with an RPE of 2-3. The slower pace compensates for the increased perceived effort over a more extended period.
  • Put another way, when prescribing a run within a specific heart rate range, the perceived effort (RPE) can vary based on the run's duration. 
  • For instance, if I instruct you to maintain a Zone Two heart rate for two hours without specifying the desired RPE, the RPE for this run would likely be higher compared to a one-hour run at the same heart rate (e.g., 130 to 140 beats per minute). 
  • The RPE can differ based on an athlete's fitness level. Some might rate a one-hour run at an RPE of three and a two-hour run at an RPE of five.
  • Understanding RPE is crucial, just as workload depends on duration and intensity. Regarding how session duration impacts RPE, it's essential to note that amateur athletes generally fatigue more quickly in swimming. 
  • For instance, maintaining an easy pace for 400 meters might feel significantly harder during the last 400 meters of a continuous 2000-meter swim. 
  • This reflects the challenge many amateur triathletes face in maintaining a consistent pace in swimming.
  • Running is the second discipline where fatigue sets in relatively quickly. 
  • While most amateur triathletes can sustain their running effort for an extended period, fatigue may emerge, particularly in the second hour of running. 
  • Muscles can begin to tire during this phase.
  • Cycling is the discipline where amateur triathletes can typically endure the longest without a significant increase in RPE. 
  • Understanding each discipline's fatigue characteristics is crucial for effective session planning and prescription.

Practical tips

40:12 -

  • There isn't a specific Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) that everyone should train at; it depends on your available training time and fitness level.
  • Balancing Zone 1 and Zone 2 endurance training is essential, but some individuals might be doing too much Zone 2 work, causing more fatigue. A more Zone 1 balanced approach could be beneficial.
  • Incorporating more Zone 2 work can be effective for time-restricted but very fit athletes, as they can recover better and stay within the intended training zones.
  • The time-crunched athlete model applies, where you train harder if you have less time, but this should be applied cautiously, particularly for less fit individuals.
  • It's crucial to understand that very fit athletes are time-limited, not capacity-limited, so their training approach can differ from less fit individuals.
  • Traditional base training models involving Zones 1 and 2 can be modified based on whether you incorporate more intense workouts like tempo, threshold, and VO2 max sessions.
  • Including more intense workouts alongside a slightly more Zone 1-focused approach might offer better overall benefits.
  • Overthinking training zones might not be necessary, especially for less advanced and less fit athletes, as Zone 1 and Zone 2 can blend.
  • Going easy enough is often sufficient; there's no need to overanalyse training zones, especially for less advanced athletes.

Off-season periodisation

44:07 -

  • VLamax is a marker for glycolytic or anaerobic capacity. The question revolves around the interplay between anaerobic and aerobic capacities and their impact on longer durations, like marathons or triathlons. 
  • In my experience, this reasoning both oversimplifies and overcomplicates matters.
  • On the oversimplification side, focusing solely on metabolism overlooks crucial factors influencing performance, such as exercise and running economy. 
  • For instance, weight training can significantly enhance exercise economy, outweighing potential drawbacks from increased anaerobic capacity. 
  • Strength training also aids injury prevention, fostering more consistent training – a key factor.
  • Conversely, overcomplicating occurs when we believe we can precisely fine-tune physiological markers for precise performance control. 
  • This isn't unique to VLamax but extends to markers like VO2 max or FTP. Debates on forums about optimal FTP training intensity illustrate this, with arguments over percentage values and measurement methods.
  • Focusing on pure performance demands might be more beneficial than getting bogged down in complex physiological analyses. 
  • Setting specific power goals, like improving from 250 to 270 watts, might prove more straightforward and practical than fixating on precise physiological markers and intricate training methodologies. 
  • Understanding physiology can aid in planning, but placing too much emphasis on it can introduce unnecessary complexity and potential errors in training approaches.
  • To address whether to periodise the off-season based on VLA max, my response is a firm no. Attempting to structure the off-season around VLA max assumes precise control over physiological markers and accurate predictions of their impact on performance. 
  • Such assumptions are rife with uncertainty. A more practical approach is to focus on performance demands rather than delving excessively into the complexities of manipulating physiological markers.
  • Regarding strength training, particularly with weights, my experience suggests that gains achieved in the gym can be lost rapidly. 
  • Cycling on and off strength training doesn't seem logical. Incorporating consistent, albeit modest, strength training each week is more effective. 
  • Rather than block periodising with intense phases followed by minimal or no training, a more sustainable approach is to start with two sessions per week in the off-season, building strength, and then reduce it to one session per week during the racing season to maintain gains. 
  • Abruptly stopping and restarting strength training risks losing hard-earned adaptations and may even increase the risk of injury when resuming after a break.
  • Consistency, even if it means incorporating a small amount of strength training each week, appears to be a more sensible approach than undergoing drastic changes between different periods of the season.

Reintroduce intensity after an off-season break

50:30 -

  • To effectively reintroduce and build intensity, we must acknowledge that we often overestimate short-term achievements and underestimate long-term progress. 
  • This principle applies to training as well. Consistency over the long term is crucial.
  • Avoid rushing and attempting high-intensity workouts in a short period.
  • Plan where you want to be in three months and work backwards.
  • Consistent training over a more extended period is the key.
  • Doing too much is the biggest threat to reaching objectives, leading to injury, illness, or excessive fatigue.
  • Start with minimal intensity in the first week and gradually increase.
  • Focus on manageable frequency and gradually build the volume of intensity.
  • In cycling and swimming, high-intensity intervals are acceptable early on.
  • In the running, start with controlled short intervals, gradually progressing to higher intensities.
  • Consider a progression to full VO2 sessions in four weeks. Example: 5x4 minutes with increasing intensity, incorporating variable power intervals like Ernestad 40/60s.
  • Don't limit yourself to a weekly microcycle; explore patterns that suit your recovery.
  • Experiment with a two-week cycle or other variations to find optimal targets.
  • A systematic approach is crucial in planning a training block for a specific target, like five by four minutes on the bike over a four-week period. 

Bike Training:

  • Plan the progression of bike sessions over the four weeks.
  • Consider the total work duration and interval duration in each session.
  • Gradually increase both the total work duration and interval duration.
  • Example progression: 8x30s, 10-11x45s, 12x1min, 9x90s, 8x2min, 6x3min, 5x4min.

Recoveries Between Intervals:

  • During the buildup phase, focus on hitting the intended intensity rather than worrying about short recovery times.
  • Only later, when accustomed to the workload, fine-tune the recovery durations.

Swim Training:

  • Progress similarly to biking but be mindful of maintaining form.
  • Consider intervals in the 90s to the 2-minute range for high-intensity work and adjust the reps accordingly.
  • Allow sufficient rest between intervals for quality swims.

Running Training:

  • Start conservatively, around threshold intensity, and build up time at that intensity.
  • Progress in running should be slower compared to other sports.
  • Consider shorter breaks from running during extended breaks to maintain tissue adaptations and prevent injury.
  • Consistency is critical for injury prevention in running.

General Principles:

  • Avoid sudden, massive jumps in intensity or volume.
  • Plan the progression to gradually reach the target workload.
  • Consider individual differences and adjust the plan accordingly.
  • Focus on consistency in running for injury prevention.
  • This approach provides a structured and gradual progression across all three disciplines while considering individual differences and the need for quality workouts.


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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