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When and why should triathletes take a break?

Feel guilty for wanting to take a break from triathlon? Don't, says pro Tom Bishop, as breaks are very important for health, happiness and recovery

When and why should triathletes take a break?

It’s getting to that time in the season when the race calendar is starting to quieten down. You may be in the final stages of preparation for your big goal race of the year, or perhaps you’ve hit your A-race already and you’re ending with a few smaller events.

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It could be that you never really got started, with cancellations and disruption due to the pandemic, but we all reach a point in the year when a break is needed and you know when it’s due. This isn’t just a few days off training. I mean a full rest and break from the sport – physically, mentally, and socially.

When do you know you need a break?

What are the signs to look out for? An obvious one is that you’ve finished all the races you have planned and there’s nothing until the new year. It makes sense to reset and then your coach, if you have one, can start a training plan from scratch without any interference from residual fatigue or injury.

A second sign to look out for is your level of motivation. If training isn’t enjoyable anymore and you’re losing inspiration to train then a break might be due. Motivation is a huge part of triathlon training and managing that is key to performing at your best.

A more subtle suggestion that a break might be needed is a longing for the winter months. This may sound weird but if you catch yourself looking forward to the autumn and winter and the training that comes with those months (usually more relaxed sessions based heavily on easy endurance) then you’re probably getting towards the end of your summer peak. The body is telling you it’s ready for a bit of downtime without the furious intensity in-season training brings.

Why do triathletes need to take a break?

Why take a break? It might seem counterintuitive to stop training when you’ve spent a whole year investing in fitness, but think rationally and ask yourself why do you train? For some it’s a health benefit, and that’s fine. But the chances are, for most people reading this, that you want to challenge yourself by competing in a triathlon.

The challenge or goal you’ve set yourself could range from completing your first ever sprint distance event to being competitive in your age-group, regionally, nationally, or even internationally. Whatever the aim, you or your coach would have planned a fitness peak for the event. The simple fact is that there’s only one place you can go from a peak and that’s back down, and that should be done on your terms.

Coming off your peak, or simply losing fitness, will help to keep you healthy and happy in the sport and shouldn’t be seen negatively. It’s impossible to keep building fitness day after day, week after week, month after month. There will be a point of plateau, then eventual fall. This is can happen in many ways, for example over-training, burn-out, or just ennui.

That’s why taking a break is so important for your long-term goals and fitness aspirations. No one is excluded from this and that includes the best athletes in the world. World-class athletes take world-class breaks. If you follow pro triathletes on social media, there will undoubtedly be scenes from a well-earned break. There’s a whole science behind recovery and time off. There’s also an excellent book written by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness called Peak Performance which discusses this topic in far greater detail and the wider context of life.

How to take a break

There’s no one way to break. It’s very individual and often life demands do get in the way. However, if you stick to these key principles then you can’t go too far wrong:

  • Don’t set a time on it. I’ve seen too many people limit themselves to a week or a fortnight off then force themselves back into training when they aren’t ready. You will know when you’re ready to return, your motivation will be high and you’ll be excited to get back at it. It might only take a week, or it could be six. Make sure you chat to your coach when you feel you’re ready to return to training.
  • Relax the diet! Endurance athletes don’t need to worry too much about a strict diet given the calorie deficit from training. However, it’s still important to eat healthily when training hard. During your time off, though, don’t feel guilty about that portion of cheesy chips or the empty family-size packet of chocolate buttons! Gaining an extra kilogram or two during your break is a good thing. The extra energy availability will keep your immunity high and help promote deep recovery.
  • Catch up on sleep. As a triathlete, you’re likely to be training early in the morning or later into the evening so sleep often is sacrificed. Take the time to have some lie-ins or early nights. Sleep is the best way to recover, and after intensive training for a season you’ll require some good quality rest and recovery.
  • Get an MOT. It could be worth investing in some physio treatment to address any niggles you may have picked up over the year. Treatment can be expensive but the off-season is a good time for it and you’ll be able to commit fully to the rehab programme while training is on hold. I’m personally using the time to fix a troublesome plantar fascia.
  • Switch off from triathlon. It can become all-consuming – I know, being a full-time pro myself. But I make sure that I immerse myself in things that have nothing to do with swimming, cycling, or running for a while. I even take a social media break as a lot of my feed is taken over by triathlon. It’s good to remember there’s a whole world out there that isn’t powered by watts, chlorine-scented, and dressed in Lycra. Spend some time with your friends and family. Say yes to a night out and nurse a hangover if you choose to drink. Travelling without all those extra bags feels so free and you don’t need to pick a hotel with easy training access and a 25m pool.
  • Get some jobs done. Taking a break doesn’t mean duvet days every day! By all means, chill out but it’s a good time to tackle those jobs you may have been putting off, and you’ll still get a dopamine hit from it. One of the tasks I always set myself in the off-season is to deep clean the racing bike and retire it for the winter. Then make sure the training bike is in full working order with a functioning set of mudguards and lights as the cold weather soon creeps up.

One final thing to finish with is a celebration! It doesn’t have to be a party, but celebrating your achievements is one of the best things you can do. Triathlon is a tough sport and you should be proud of what you’ve accomplished. You may not have achieved everything you set out for at the beginning of the year – I certainly didn’t! – but there would’ve been challenges you rose to along the way. Also don’t forget the achievements of your friends, family, and training partners. It’s important to look after your support bubble and celebrating the end of the season is a wonderful way to start your time-off.

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Top image credit: Ryan Bowd