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off-season training

Top Coaches Talk Off-Season Training

As the season’s change, so does your training. Pro-athletes and their coaches know the importance of maximizing the balance between peak performance and renewal. So how do the professionals change their approach when it comes to off-season training? From Formula One to winter sports, we asked a diverse range of coaches to share their insights and priorities for their quiet season.

ANTTI VIERULA

Physique Coach to Valtteri Bottas, racing car driver

When it comes to racing car drivers, Antti Vierula knows how to keep their fitness on track. The former Finnish Olympic track and field trainer is the physique coach for the professional racing driver (and Polar ambassador) Valtteri Bottas.

How important is mental renewal during the off-season?

This is very important, perhaps the most important. Racing car driving and the stress that it brings during the year is very consuming for the mind, so off-season is an essential break from that.

Is it still good to be goal orientated with off-season training? Or can this lead to burnout?

Yes, it is good, when there’s a well-planned training program. Both the coach and athlete want to see the result of hours of hard work. That’s why we perform different kinds of fitness tests prior to the season starting. So yes, we have targets during off-season training.

Does the off-season allow for more variety in the athlete’s training plans?

The off-season gives the opportunity to have a higher volume in training, and also more variety in training plans. For example, the off-season is a great time to improve weaknesses.

Do you recommend taking any time off during the off-season?

Yes, I recommend having two weeks of non-programmed time. Athletes can do some light training to stay active, but not necessarily any planned sessions. A holiday is needed not only for the body but for the mind as well.

Do you have any other tips for the off-season?

Rest well, train smart and remember to enjoy time off too!

MEGAN YOUNG

First Team High-Performance Director, NWSL Chicago Red Stars

With four of her players making it onto the USA’s winning World Cup women’s soccer team last year, Megan Young knows how to train champions. The strength and conditioning coach uses a multi-modal approach to maximize the performance of the Chicago Red Star’s first team.

What does the off-season mean to you?

What the off-season originally meant was ‘off from competition.’ So if you look at the quadrilinear cycles for athletes, there are competition periods and non-competition periods. So all ‘off’ meant was ‘I’m not actively competing’. So it doesn’t mean there’s no training, it just means there are no active, countable competitions. If you’re a triathlete, it means you’re not set out to hit a PR in a countable race, but maybe you’re trying a different bike, a different run, a different swim, that are all built into your plan, but off from any competition. From my work with professional athletes, off means ‘take a breath’. Personally, it’s a priority shift in what we’re training for.

What changes for you as a coach during the off-season?

For every individual, we would look at where they are on the spectrum. Are they healthy? Are they injured? For younger or less experienced players, the off-season should be a developmental season. What are the physical attributes they need to be able to be on the field next season? In comparison, a 10-year pro who’s maybe a little banged up and was able to play through every game – their first two weeks of off-season better look different. They need to get away, spend time with their partner. 

Do you recommend eating whatever you want during the off-season?

Every individual is different. Some soccer players (and some endurance athletes) will put on a little more body fat during the season just because of the amount of running they’re doing. Whereas some, get leaner during the season or build muscle. So it’s very positional. 

When it comes to food, there are so many fads out there. Whether it’s intermittent fasting, eating for your hormones, tracking your macros, there are many ways to dive into that. I prefer to start by asking ‘where are you at in terms of life’ and ‘where are you at in terms of need’. If you have a healthy body composition and you’re playing the way you want, then all we need is to maybe change some power or force production, asymmetrical profile, or maybe we just need to keep you healthy and have you move better and just keep you training, perhaps in a different way on the pitch or in the gym. Adding some loads, some resistance, layering, and stacking movements, to keep you efficient and taking in information and processing out in beautiful athletic movement. 

What do some of your players do to de-stress from the season?

The two things I recommend during the off-season are:

1) spend time with the people you care about most, whatever that is.

2) don’t come to your training facility. As soon as you do, you’re thinking about your practice. Literally changing that environment can have a huge shift for players. 

In the off-season, we can do different things. If you had been wanting to try a different form of recovery but didn’t want to add it in-season, now you can. As a coach, this means I don’t have to worry about the competition consequence of said recovery model.

VILLE RINTALA

Strength & Conditioning Coach to Rasmus Ristolainen, NHL hockey player

Finnish fitness coach Ville Rintala is renowned for his versatile training methods. He works with a range of professional ice hockey players and ringette champions, including the Buffalo Sabres defender, Rasmus Ristolainen.

Do you recommend taking time off from all sports during the off-season?

Absolutely not. However, I do urge athletes to listen to their bodies when it comes to their training load each week. I highly recommend playing sports during off-season training, especially trying and learning something new. For example, this could mean trying tennis or padel if you haven’t done it before. 

I’m all about movement, so I suggest you do basic conditioning by playing padel, or shooting hoops instead of long-distance running, cycling, or swimming (unless you enjoy those activities, of course). It’s often easiest to get athletes moving by getting them to play a game. We use Polar’s heart rate monitoring during these games to make sure we don’t go too hard. 

Sports also expose our bodies to new movements. If you think about on-season training, it’s typically all about the sport itself. When you give an ice hockey player a basketball and they have to run and jump and move in every possible direction, that adds a lot of movement and new adaptation for your body. This builds your performance.

Is it good to stay goal-orientated with off-season training? Or can this lead to burn out?

This depends on your goal. If you think about high-level athletes, they always have a goal. High-level athletes usually have an on-season performance coach, who can identify what areas the athlete needs to improve in. These are goals that an athlete would normally work on during the off-season.

For hockey players, my recommendation for the off-season is that they spend as little time on the ice as possible, and instead try new sports. You can’t train 24/7, 365 days a year on your sport. Every single person on this planet needs a vacation.

The goal-orientated training should be there, but I tend to set up micro-goals throughout the off-season, which leads up to the big goals. This way we don’t end up in a burnout.

Also, it’s important to have fun. I recommend doing games in your warm-ups, so you get relaxed and focused on the workout. This way, you’ll also stop yourself from always going 100% and ending up in burnout.

What’s the most important thing to keep in mind during the off-season?

To try to recover from the season and try to improve as an athlete in all aspects. 

Have fun with friends, play games, and try to improve your performance, nutrition, sleep, and mental state. 

Have a healthy off-season. Be mindful about avoiding any injuries, and develop yourself as an athlete. 

DO NOT overtrain. Calculate what you do and how much you are capable of doing. 

Which non-sport related activities would you recommend for athletes during the offseason?

Have fun with friends, spend some free time outside, in nature if possible (and if you enjoy it).

Take a vacation and travel. Discover new foods and possibilities to expand you as a human/athlete. 

SLEEP AND EAT PROPERLY!

OLLI OHTONEN

Cross-country skiing coach to Iivo Niskanen and Anita Korva

The former Finnish Olympic cross-country skier, Olli Ohtonen now trains some of the sports most powerful and stylish athletes. Iivo Niskanen is a two time Olympic gold medalist while Anita Korva is a promising young Finish skier.

Do you recommend taking any time off during the off-season?

For young athletes, it’s good to use the off-season for training, such as aerobic training. In some cases, this time is best spent doing specific training for your weaknesses.

For adult athletes who have trained for a long time, it might be good to have a week or two unplanned time. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to avoid sport-specific training. I often recommend a holiday for this time of the year to detach from the sport and to think of something totally different.

Is it still good to be goal orientated with off-season training? Or can this lead to burn out?

I suggest athletes have a vacation during the off-season for a change of headspace and to refresh their batteries for the long training and competition season ahead. However, if an athlete needs to do injury rehabilitation or prevention during the off-season, this needs to be highly goal-oriented.

How important is mental renewal during the off-season?

This is highly important, especially for professional adult athletes who have a lot of competitions and traveling during the season. If your mind is not ready for training season, it won’t be effective.

Do you have any other tips for the off-season?

Enjoy the off-season. It’s the time when you can train freely or select not to train. Remember to spend a lot of time with your family and friends, because this is not possible during the training and competition season.

MATT TUTTLE

Director of Sports Science and Physical Therapy with the NBA Denver Nuggets

Dr. Matt Tuttle has a unique insight into athlete care and workload variations within the NBA. As the lead sports scientist and physical therapist for the Denver Nuggets, he understands how important it is to have a strategy for both the on and off-seasons.

As a coach, what kind of factors do you take into consideration when setting goals or objectives during the off-season?

With our professional athletes, the number one priority after the season ends is just to recoup and rejuvenate. It’s more than ok to take some time off from sport. There’s this attitude from casual through to professional athletes that ‘if I take any time off I’m going to get worse.’ There’s enough research out there on the markers of tissue damage that indicates if you work out every day that means full recovery is probably never happening.

So, to take one to four weeks off after the season. Just do some light cross-training, allows your body to recover from a physical standpoint. Mental burnout is also a real thing. Take some time to just get back to baseline and just relax a little bit. Rest and recovery are crucial for athletes.

What does time off look like to you?

I think to review what you’ve done by looking at your training log and then ramping it down pretty significantly. Now, for a casual runner that is running five days a week, this could be bringing it down to one or two runs a week, or a day or two of cross-training. Or it may be lifting in the gym or going for a swim. It may be a hike.

Simply do other stuff to stimulate your system and your body. You can still exercise but your thresholds need to be lower, your tolerance needs to be lower. New activities are really good for the mind.

The triathlete side gets a little more challenging because they are so driven in all three disciplines. The volume of training is also so high so bringing that way down could include doing a couple of days of strength training on a low-intensity bike for a short duration (30-60 minutes in a zone 2 heart rate). You’re not going to lose your performance long term.

How long does it take during the off-season to heal overuse injuries?

In addition to a coach, an athlete should have a medical practitioner that they trust, whether that’s a PT, an athletic trainer, a chiropractor, a sports med physician, etc. Having somebody around them to help them through this.

Sometimes, working through pain helps to build some tolerance to stress. In the off-season, we have enough research that suggests in that first one to four weeks, it’s normal to have that achiness, that soreness. Your body is getting back to baseline. Especially in the triathlete world, the volume, intensity, and frequency that you are putting your body under, for what is the better part of six to nine months are unusual for the body.

So having some soreness at the start of the off-season is ok. I would encourage people to have it looked at but do not panic or worry that you haven’t done anything and now you’re getting sorer. It’s fine. Let your body heal, let it rejuvenate. Take care of it, slowly work back into your training, and be conscious of those sore spots.

How important is nutrition during the off-season? Can you eat whatever you want?

There’s really good research that says what we eat or drink can change inflammatory markers in the body. So I’m a big fan of thinking about what you eat in the off-season too. From what dieticians say, you should create eating habits that you’re comfortable with and that are healthy. It’s not about being on a rigorous diet all the time but doing something that feels comfortable.

So when the off-season happens, it’s not about a blowout, having lunch with fried food, fatty meats, alcohol. You’ll increase inflammatory markers immediately after the season when the body is trying to heal. Your optimal diet should still stay the same.

Now, can you have a cheat meal on a Friday or Saturday night when you’re not having to race in a week? Sure, but on a professional side, we don’t encourage our athletes to blow it out. Stay eating healthy. It’s still important for your body to recover. Don’t immediately drop off any supplements that your body has been taking either. Continue to be healthy. That’s fundamentally what I’m saying. 

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Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.

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