There are significant benefits—both physiological and psychological—to taking a break from riding bikes during the transition phase. (Don’t call it an offseason!).
Many endurance athletes mistakenly believe that detraining during an offseason will be the death of them. After all the hard work they’ve put in during the season, they reason: Why should I let all that fitness slip away, only to have to build it back up all over again?
Undoubtedly, there’s logic to this mindset. Two steps forward, one step back: Is that any way to create a champion? The problem is, physiology and psychology don’t always follow such logic.
“The relationship between training and fitness—and, therefore, performance—is not a straight line,” says Ryan Kohler, a physiologist and former director of the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performance Center. “The notion that ‘the harder you train, the stronger you get’ is a fallacy.”
That’s because, at the start of a season, after returning from an injury, or in a novice athlete, it takes very little training stress to see big gains in performance. The curve is steep. However, as your fitness improves, the arc begins to plateau—it then takes increasingly more training stress to see even incremental gains. This is simply a function of how structural and biochemical changes take place when we train.
There is a critical second aspect to this relationship. With increased training stress comes increased potential for injury. At some point, the two arcing lines meet—eventually no matter how hard you train, improvement stalls. But the risk of injury spikes.
Which brings us to the need for a long transition phase during which you spend little to no time on the bike. Often referred to as the offseason, this term has lost favor with many coaches since it implies doing nothing—turning off. But there are numerous things you should consider doing to help you maintain some fitness, rebuild stronger, correct imbalances, rehabilitate injuries, and mentally decompress.
An effective transition phase will last anywhere from a few weeks to a couple months, depending on athletic experience, genetics, and personal preference, as well as the time it might take to rehabilitate a specific injury. Climate conditions can also play a role in how long this phase lasts.
During an effective transition, several things happen. First, the body and mind rest and recover from the stresses of training and racing. Second, you get to work—just not on the bike. This work takes the form of things like Nordic skiing, weightlifting, mobility exercises, and various types of cross-training—all of which help reverse the muscle imbalances that develop from cycling. This, in turn, builds durability and reduces the risk of injury.
The transition phase is also the perfect time to focus on building core strength—something that you can then maintain during the season.
“Sure, during this transition, fitness and performance drop,” says Kohler, who now runs Rocky Mountain Devo Coaching and Physiology. “But at the same time, the potential for burnout gets pushed further away. And it means that if you do things right, next season you’ll be able to train at a higher level and, potentially, peak at a higher level once the racing begins.”
Exercises that provide impact to stimulate our skeletal system—weightlifting, hiking, running, skiing—help us maintain skeletal strength. Leading experts in the field of cycling biomechanics and medicine, including Dr. Andy Pruitt, have seen far too many cases of osteopenia and osteoporosis—two stages of the loss of bone mass or bone mineral density. These conditions become dangerous in the “chronic cyclist” who never does activities that place impact forces on bones.
Cycling is a quadriceps-dominant activity, and many cyclists are often heavily imbalanced—the strength of their quads is far greater than that of their hamstrings. Any activity that helps bring about better balance between these two major muscle groups has a host of benefits, again related to both performance and injury prevention.
Nordic skiing is one of the best activities for cyclists looking to build durability and improve imbalances. For starters, skate skiing builds hamstring strength. Because of the sideward movement that is involved, it also strengthens the gluteus medius. This muscle, which forms part of the sidewall of the upper buttocks, helps to stabilize the knee in a vertical track. This is critical to avoiding knee injuries while pedaling.
The transition phase is also the perfect time to focus on building core strength—something that you can then maintain during the season. Your sessions could involve staring at the floor as you do planks or staring at the ceiling as you perform crunches. Or it could involve more dynamic activities such as, yes, Nordic skiing.
A strong core of abdominal and lower back musculature has many critical benefits for cyclists. First, it decreases lateral movement (for example, while climbing out of the saddle), particularly when under power. Therefore, the energy you put into the pedals more efficiently propels you forward. Maintaining stability also reduces the risk of injuries to joints that like to track in one plane.
Finally, it is important to reiterate that some loss of fitness will occur during this phase, but that it will return very quickly once you get back on the bike. And the long-term benefits far outweigh the short-term drop in form.
“Remember, it takes just a little bit of stress to see big gains when you first return to the bike,” Kohler says. “With some easy riding and a steady increase in volume, you’ll see a rapid return of fitness, and you’ll have reduced the risk of injury, burnout, and a host of other things.”