by Sarah Piampiano, professional Triathlete
As elite athletes, we are always trying to do whatever we can to find that extra edge, eking every last bit of power from our bodies. During race season, to perform at our best we strive to find a balance between being as lean as possible while maintaining power, strength and endurance.
But what about in the off season? What do we do then?
I've heard so many different philosophies on weight management - it is hard to know what is right. Some people believe carrying more weight in the off season helps build strength and power so that when you slim down as races ramp up, you retain your power, but go faster from the fewer pounds carried around.
Other people I have spoken with believe that trying to hit "race weight" while in-season can result in fatigue and contribute to burn out. They believe that preemptively losing weight in the off season - when training volumes are lower and your body can withstand the stress of dieting - is considered a healthier and more balanced approach. When the race season begins, the focus then turns to maintaining weight versus losing it.
To be honest I'm not sure to which theory I subscribe. I can see benefits and pitfalls of both and think finding which one works best for your body is inevitably the right option for you. In many ways it is just like a training plan - no one person in alike in how they respond to training loads and intensities and we have to be vigilant in learning and understanding what works best for us individually.
One thing is for certain though, when my race season is over I completely allow myself to recover mentally and physically. For me, for a few precious weeks, that means throwing all diets and restrictions out the door. I stay up late, I drink some tasty adult beverages, I eat my favorite foods, and I am at the whim of my friends' schedules (versus them frequently being at the mercy of mine). It is wonderful, and it is needed. I come back to training refreshed and ready to get back to work.
But...the time off also means adding a few pounds and seeing an increase in body fat percentage. This year while my weight gain was marginal, my body fat percentage went up 5%! It can be hard mentally to get your head around what happens to your body when you let yourself off the hook a little bit. However I feel so confident in the benefits of the time off, it is a small price to pay. I also find as soon as my training ramps up, the pounds quickly melt off.
This year I took 4 weeks off after Kona (the Ironman World Championships) and my dietary progression went something like this:
Week 1 -
Diet: Ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner; ice cream pit stops at every possible opportunity; pizza, burgers, sweet potato fries, and lots of beer.
Activity level: Non-existent and not even close to being able to think about training again.
Thought process: "Holy Sh*t I am on a break!! I am so excited to eat everything I haven't eaten in months! Let me shove it all into my mouth as quickly as possible and not chew because I might be dreaming so I need to eat everything in panic mode in case I wake up!!"
Week 2 -
Diet: Kind of over the ice cream for every meal, but still getting a triple scoop waffle cone and milkshake at my neighborhood creamery 3x per week. Pizza, burger and beer binge going strong.
Activity level: a few short runs and a bike ride with the boyf (where we may have averaged less than 10 mph), a flop or two in the pool.
Thought process: "Oh man, I'm totally not ready to train yet but my skin hurts from being stretched so much due to the swelling and bloating from eating all this crap! But it is still awesome and I love it, so I'm going to keep going! Yeah!!"
Week 3 -
Diet: Back to a semi-normal pattern - oatmeal for breakfast, implementing some salads and vegetables into mid-day meals and dinner. Pizza and burgers being phased out. I'm almost sick of eating ice cream and definitely feeling like I want to start getting back to eating clean.
Activity level: Same as week 2.
Thought process: "ughhh…I feel awful. I can't even look at myself in the mirror. I'm sick of eating like crap, but I'm not sure I'm ready to train yet. But man, I can't wait to feel ready to get back to work".
Week 4 -
Diet: Back to a normal in-season eating pattern, starting to go to bed at more normal hours, still drinking beers with my friends, and indulging a bit.
Activity level: swimming with some intensity, biking with a bit more seriousness, running light and easy.
Thought process: "OK - it's time to get this party started. I loved my time off but I am ready to get back to WORK! Let's Go!!"
While I fully recognize my approach may not be the best, at least for THIS year, having that time to completely shut down is what also helped get me back the eagerness and fire to begin another season.
So whether you keep on the pounds and shed them once the season begins, or you slim down over the winter and maintain, just make sure to give yourself a break for a few weeks at the end of every year.
Happy Holidays everyone and enjoy the off season!
About the Author
Sarah Piampiano was a dedicated athlete from a young age, winning the Maine State Cross-Country title as a Sophomore. She continued to be a 3-season athlete in college and began her career in finance after graduation. She competed in a triathlon in 2009, was hooked and didn't look back. In 2012 Sarah left the east coast, heading west where she could dedicate herself to her first professional season. This dedication, along with her natural talent, saw her win her first Ironman 70.3 race in New Orleans in the spring of 2012.