Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How to approach a winter holiday

I sit here, in the lounge of a comfy hotel in Val Thorens, nearing the end of my week long ski trip. At various times this week I have considered how to treat such a break within the framework of your annual training plan.

There are various approaches that you might be tempted to take, ranging from a 7 day all out binge of uncontrolled eating, regular drinking and lazing around, to a strict regime of continued exercise, healthy food and abstinence.

After consideration, I believe that the best solution lies somewhere in the middle. It is a fact of life that when you are in a ski resort you will be surrounded by rich, heavy food, comforting vin chaud and a lack of opportunity to conduct your normal training regime. Totally succumbing to these temptations will leave you vulnerable to put on weight, get ill, and feel wrecked when you arrive back home. Attempting to resist will make you feel like you haven't had a holiday and will impact on your continued motivation to train hard upon your return.

I will begin by answering the obvious questions that spring to mind when you consider a week off:

-  Will I lose fitness?

During a period of complete rest we know that your strength and vo2 max will both decline. However, the demands of skiing and likely to provide some stimulus to prevent this. For a lower body sport such as cycling, the leg strength demands of skiing are certainly enough to keep you ticking over in that regard. In addition, doing a hard run certainly leaves you out of breath and gives a bit of a leg burn. Assuming that you haven't fully trained your vo2 max or anaerobic systems at this time of year anyway, you won't lose anything significant from skiing for a week.

Which leaves us with your endurance capacity. Whilst the decline in your threshold power is very small after a week off, there is a reason that we don't take this sort of time off on a regular basis. Consistency is the key to developing these systems and as such this may be a concern. The way to approach it is to make sure that your week skiing forms the only sustained break in your training over a long period spanning your holiday.

Practically, this means putting in a big block of training beforehand, and planning for afterwards. The skill here is in deciding exactly how big these blocks are, and making sure you get the most out of them. For the block before, you want it to finish immediately before your break, and to be more based on debilitating endurance training than normal. That is, large volumes of tempo, sweet spot and threshold training that chronically fatigue you over several weeks.

The only caveat here is making sure you recover from the block in the first couple of days of your holiday. As this period includes a day of travel, you must be extra careful. Keeping hydrated and well fed, thus allowing your glycogen stores to refill, should be a priority in the 48 hours after your last session. At this point, you will be fully recovered from your big training block.

On the flip side, you want to be ready to attack your next period of training immediately upon your return. This means making sure you are feeling fresh - 10 pints and a burger on your last night are unlikely to do this. Doing the partying side of things on the previous evening is a much more sensible option. Maintaining hydration on the travel home will help to.

- Will I put on weight?

You will naturally gain some weight over the first couple of days as you allow your glycogen stores to fill following a hard training block, as well as becoming fully hydrated again. However, there is no reason to allow this weight gain to continue past this point. In fact, as you aren't training hard you can be much less strict with your nutrient timing, and not having to eat for recovery purposes allows you to run a decent calorie deficit, or at least plan to. The inevitable big meals and alcohol will then simply use up this calorie defecit and leave you in equilibrium. In practical terms, this means there is no need for a big breakfast or lunch, especially if you have a large dinner planned. Conversely, a big lunch on the slopes means you can forgo a sit down dinner in favour of a light snack.

- What can I do in terms of training?

If your hotel happens to have a well equipped gym with a decent bike or treadmill that you can use, I guess there is no harm in hopping on it. However, this post is designed without this in mind. To that end, you can use this week as an opportunity to work on those two old chestnuts that everybody needs to improve but often forgets to work on: core srtrength and flexibility. There is always down time on such a holiday, and rather than spending that hour watching tv or browsing the web, do 20 minutes of core drills followed by 20 minutes of thorough stretching. You will find that by the end of the week, you feel much looser and stronger than you did upon arrival, which can only be a good thing.

- What are the positive outcomes?

For me, this is key. In every situation that initially presents itself as disadvantageous, it is imperative that we flip it on its head and ask how we may benefit from it. In this situation, the opportunity to achieve a deeper level of recovery than you do by taking an easy day or two should be relished. Of course, to achieve this recovery you must first be fatigued, but we have covered that.

The mental recovery must also not be underestimated. Winter is long, and training is tough. Having a break from this should mean you are refreshed and ready to attack the next training block.

In addition, the ability to work on potential weaknesses such as flexibility and core strength is important.

In Summary:

- Plan a hard training block to finish immediately before your holiday

- Keep fed and hydrated over the first two days to recover fully from your previous efforts

- In the last couple of days, make sure you do what is neccessary to arrive home fresh and ready to train hard.

- In between, relax! 

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