Off-Season Training for Endurance Athletes

By Eric Casper

The off-season… are you unfamiliar with that term? If so, keep reading, because you may need to reconsider your approach to the yearly training cycle.

Training should be cyclical in its structure and if performed correctly will begin to grow like a spiral, with each revolution around strength, endurance, speed, and power increasing from the previous cycle. Training should be broken into small cycles (weekly), medium-sized cycles (monthly), and larger ones (annually). This keeps an athlete mentally focused, but it is also the best way to improve hormonal release and regulation that controls your performance. Hormones attempt to regulate homeostasis in your body, and how you train affects changes in your homeostasis. Repeated, long, slow cardio/aerobic training is a stimulus for the natural release of the catecholamines and cortisol. These are hormones that break down proteins in your muscle in order to make more energy to support your long exercise durations. This is partially why you lose weight, but entirely the cause of a loss of fast twitch muscle fibers and power.

Strength training at sub-maximal efforts shifts hormonal regulation to be more anabolic and supportive of growth and protein synthesis. Muscle mass increases as well as power so that when you’re in-season you have the proteins needed to support your long aerobic sessions and races. But you won’t get better at hill sprints from long endurance rides. You improve at bike sprints by building sport specific strength, which can be hastened by including heavy squats for twelve weeks in the off-season. The hard work that you do in the gym is a catalyst for the body’s natural adaptation phase that occurs during recovery periods. Now, the “off-season”, is the time to put all that energy back into the heavy lifts and power moves to develop the strength that will propel you into the beginning of your season.

Question – “As an endurance athlete, winter is my off-season. Should I skip the endurance or cardio training, sit around, and binge on Mad Men episodes?”

No, the next the step in the training cycle focuses on work in the gym and developing power in your sport. Many of you have finished – or are close to finishing – the peak race of your season. A lot of time went into preparing for that race or series of races. Time was dedicated to covering long distances, developing slow twitch muscle fibers, and building your aerobic system. You may have squeezed a few days in the gym or did some yoga to help restore the body, but you likely lost some strength during the season.

Whether it is four weeks, eight weeks, or the full quarter, the approaching winter is a great time to get back to the basics. Start by doing a quick self-assessment: what are your strengths from the past season? What are the weaknesses that you would like to address? Do you have opportunities that aren’t available to you at other times in the year? Do you see any threats on the horizon that could jeopardize your success?

With this basic knowledge you can work with an Atlas trainer or coach to determine the best steps to grow as an athlete during the off-season.


Your first target should be to improve your overall strength especially in the key muscle groups used in your sport. If you are a runner, key muscles include the quads, glutes, calves, and core. As a swimmer, you may target the lats, delts, and core muscles as well as your legs. How much strength training have you really been doing? If none, we will start with lower volume at weight percentages significantly lower than maximum levels. Once someone has been strength training regularly again, the workouts transitions to lower volume but high exertion levels close to the maximum levels the body can handle. Lifts near maximal exertion will result in quicker strength gains.

Ancillary Strength

This is the training of those supporting muscles that keep you out of trouble during endurance training season. A strong balanced body staves off the repetitive use injuries. You can strength these in two different ways: complex moves using proper form require muscle recruitment from multiple areas in the body – deadlift would be a great example. You begin to use the body in unison instead of isolating muscles. Strength develops across the body and helps you when you are out competing in your sport. The other way is to work on supporting muscles either through focused work or in a new activity such as yoga that requires balance and coordination.

Power to Weight ratios 

Body weight is a key component to the success of your season. You may have had a busy endurance season and lost a lot of weight, but also a lot of muscle mass. Incorporating the above strength training strategies while reducing some of your long distance work should help restore the body to proper strength levels. However, this is also the time of year that is most challenging for maintaining lean levels or achieving them for the first time. Atlas has resources to help you during this time. We have nutritionists available to help guide you on the proper mix of calories, micronutrients, and macronutrients. Work with a personal trainer or take one of our group classes to help build strength and keep burning calories. We cycle our classes too to help give you training that matches your training needs.

Sport Specific Strength and Technique

You don’t want to abandon all the great progress you accomplished in the year. Take this time to have a coach look at your training and see how you can transition to more strength and speed work. That discussion will also factor in how much training you are doing during the week and the proper amount of rest you need following hard workouts. Finally, Atlas provides video analysis, indoor sport workouts (e.g. group spin sessions and swims), and provides drills and equipment recommendations to help you improve the technique in your sport.

The winter is coming and I always see it as the beginning of a new season and the chance to build on my hard work of the previous season. Take this chance to contact Jon, Eric, or Tim to sit down and discuss how Atlas Fitness can get your next season started on the right track.

  • Posted 11.20.14 By |
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