2021! What a flippin' year. Looking back on it I can't quite believe what I've been up to. I represented the Great Britain Cycling Team in the MTB Marathon World Championships, raced in the MTB Marathon World Series at the Andalusia Bike Race, finished in the top 10 in two British Championships, and won the Glentress 7. On top of that, I produced my second film project with Wahoo, and I supported some awesome bike riders at Wardell Cycle Coaching to achieve their goals too. It was a highlights reel of events this year.
I'm going to share my honest offseason. I'm going to share highs and lows and I hope you can take some positives from what I share.
Post World Champs Blues
Racing the Marathon World Championships was a dream come true. I hadn't pulled on a GB Jersey since 2003. I missed out on selection for the 2003 Junior World Championships, and something I often regret is that I quit racing in 2006 before the 2007 World Championships were held in Fort William. I would never have imagined being back on the start line and racing in a World Championships.
The race itself was a disappointment and I came home without the result I feel I deserved following a mechanical issue. I was grateful to have been racing and I'm proud of myself for pushing on to finish with a broken bike. But I was still disappointed.
The journey home was long and lonely. I got the ferry from Elba back to mainland Italy on my own, drove my rental car to Pisa, visited the leaning tower, grabbed some lunch then boarded my flight to London which had been delayed by storms. I then had to drive home to Glasgow, stopping overnight in Manchester. When I got home I was exhausted. Competing in the Marathon World's was the final goal I had planned. Not just for the year, I actually didn't have anything planned after it. As I sat at home on my own I was content that I'd completed all I had set out to do in 2021, but I was now aimless.
It's a feeling I am now familiar with. I've experienced it a number of times so I can anticipate that the feeling is coming. It's something I try to prepare myself for and accept. I try to allow myself the time to manage the feeling of depression.
After the Marathon World Championships, the first thing I tried to do was to give myself a break. I took a few days off completely to recover from the race, the travelling and to catch up on sleep. I spent time with my friends and rode my bike for fun when I wanted to. I mixed things up and signed up for my re-accreditation on the velodrome, and signed up for a couple of group sessions. I read this blog which I related to and found helpful, and I read a few others about post-race blues too. I had at least 3 weeks where I didn't ride much before I settled into the next months of the offseason. The feeling of depression was still there, but I knew that it wouldn't last forever. After a few weeks, I began to have a lighter, happier mood, and my motivation began to return.
Some people say that 'you can't switch on if you don't switch off'. What I take this to mean is that it's difficult to be fully committed and motivated all of the time. It can be beneficial to take a break from regimented training and allow yourself time to enjoy things you don't do when training or racing. This means that your performance and fitness will drop. You lose fitness, gain weight and get slower. This is ok. In fact, it can be a good thing to do.
I listened to the Matt Stephens podcast with George Bennett where he said when training he embraces extremes. This really resonated with me. People often talk about balance and this can be misunderstood. For example, if you try to balance social commitments through intense periods of work or training, you will burn out. 'Work hard play hard' doesn't really work long term.
Sometimes embracing the extremes, like long work or training hours, will require long hours of sleep and high-quality, often extreme recovery. I guess it's about what you perceive balance to be. I have learned through experience that high levels of training and high levels of socialising does not work well. Maybe it's a case of balancing out the year with periods of time being 'on' or 'off'?
What I feel has helped me perform to a higher level in the last 18 months is that I train hard, and then I rest hard. I prioritise sleep, I prioritise recovery, and I prioritise nutrition. When I am 'on' with my training, I reduce alcohol, I try to sleep 7-8 hours a night, sometimes I nap if there is the opportunity to, and I pay close attention to what I am eating. I try to ensure that I hit my daily calorie, protein, water, fruit, veggies and carb goals. When I'm in an offseason and I don't have a race planned until next April, I allow myself some downtime and flexibility, although I try not to go over the top.
Between October and December this year my schedule was quite busy with work and social commitments. I enjoyed riding my bike without any specific aim other than to have fun. I spent time at home, we got dressed up for the Action Medical Research Champions in Cyclesport dinner, I took my bike on holiday to Mallorca while there to watch Katie race the Track Champions League, and I caught up with friends I hadn't seen for years in London. I stepped on the scales occasionally but I didn't pay too much attention to my weight, I enjoyed eating, I drank beer and wine. I kept wearing my Whoop and tracked my sleep. My sleep consistency wasn't very, well, consistent. I wasn't too concerned about my recovery score.
After enjoying the Track Champions League in London it was time to reintroduce some structure to training. I've considered what I want to ride and race in 2022 and I've set some goals. I expect to start racing in April, with my first peak of the year in July.
In December I gradually re-introduced structured training, aiming for 2 sessions in the gym a week and controlled bike riding at low-level endurance intensities. To begin structured training I completed a fitness test to set current training zones. This is something that a lot of people are anxious about doing, as after a break you'll find out how much fitness you've lost. It's important to realise that having current training zones is necessary and it's healthy to accept that you won't improve on every test. Testing is intended to help guide your decision making and align your expectations in training rides, it's not just for checking if you have improved.
Through December and into January my gym focus is primarily on technique and mobility, with relatively high rep lifts at a lower weight. On my base rides, I have three metrics in mind: perceived exertion, heart rate and power, in that order of importance. The goal of my base rides is to rebuild aerobic fitness, so I try to spend time riding at an effort of about 3 to 4 out of 10, my heart rate mostly between 120bpm - 140bpm, and my power between 195-265 watts. I usually average heart rate and power at the lower end of the range, sometimes lower. My normalised power is typically in the lower half of that range too. It's worth saying that these heart rate and power numbers are specific to me and my training zones.
Through December I averaged 12.5 hours a week riding time, with a gradual progression of either time or intensity planned from January to March. I don't deliberately add training volume and intensity at the same time, as this is a recipe for disaster and overtraining.
Honest Off-Season Numbers
I like to be open about my performance, and in my site bio, I share some of my peak performances. I thought it's only fair to share some of my honest off-season numbers too. So, here goes nothin'.
Off-Season Highs and Lows - 4th Oct to 31 Dec 2021
Heaviest Weight: 73.1kg (2021 low 64.9kg)
Highest Body Fat Percentage: 11.8% (2021 low 6.9%)
Highest Resting Heart Rate: 62bpm (2021 low 36 bpm)
Lowest HRV: 30ms (2021 high 186ms)
Lowest Whoop Recovery Score: 16% (2021 high 98%)
90 Day Modelled 'FTP': 326 watts (2021 high 381 watts)
Lowest CTL/Fitness Score: 65 (2021 high 120)
Average Weekly Training Hours: 10.5 hours (2021 weekly average 14.1 hours)
Lowest Weekly Training Hours: 4.5 hours (2021 high 24 hours)
I feel a little bit anxious about sharing these numbers, as it feels like I'm opening myself up for criticism or that people might laugh at me. However, I think that the reason I think people might laugh is that often we only share peaks and not lows. I'm confident that I'm not alone in allowing my fitness to drop at this time of year, and this is ok. This is the reality of how my offseason looks. Is it the best way to execute an offseason? Probably not. Could I be doing more? Probably. Could I be doing less? Definitely.
Essentially I have been prioritising the things I feel like I want and need to do. I've spent more time working, planning, socialising, and being more flexible with my lifestyle. I do wish I was racing cyclocross, and definitely have FOMO, but it wasn't to be this year.
Now I have begun training I feel motivated. I'm excited to ride and train, and I'm enjoying the process. I'm looking forwards to racing and I'm ready to tackle the challenges ahead. I've got work to do to get race fit, but that's ok. I have time to do it and I'm not worried. I still don't know 100% what my plans for the year are and which events I'll be at. I do know that I plan to be fit and competitive.
I hope that sharing my honest off-season brings value to some of you, and maybe it reassures you that it's ok to lose fitness, put on weight, and not feel motivated. I'd encourage you to be patient and trust the process. It might feel like two steps forwards and one step back, but that's ok.
Feel free to comment or ask questions if you have any. I'll do my best to answer them.
'til next time,
Over and out,