Racing in the Off-Season

Racing in the Off-Season

With off-season races like the Cold Stroke Classic, Hano Hano, Neptunalia, and the Key West SUP Fest fast approaching I’m beginning to field a lot of questions about how to approach races in the off-season.  It seems like a good topic for a post.

Racing at any time of the year presents a great opportunity to learn so I’d highly recommend entering the odd off-season race rather than waiting till the spring racing season to start entering races.  But you’re going to have to have slightly different expectations for off-season races.

Those of you who have trained with me for a while know that I try to get paddlers to identify a few priority events that are the main focus for their season.  Then I ask them to identify a number of other races of lesser importance that can best be considered B-level events or “training races”.  There might even be a few races of still lower importance in a paddler’s schedule, like small weekly races than can best be considered “competitive workouts”.  All of these are worth doing and present awesome opportunities to learn things that make you a better racer and a better paddler, but they aren’t all worth peaking for.  You’ve got to decide which ones you really want to go for and which ones are simply fun, competitive learning opportunities. 

Obviously, off-season races are not going to be your priority events.  While you’ve been training in the off-season, most of the training has been on land and even if you’ve been on the water daily, the work has been more basic in nature rather than the higher intensity work that is essential for optimal race performance.  So the first thing you’ve got to do is adjust your expectations.  You’re not going to be able to perform quite the way you do in an important race mid-summer and you’re probably not going to feel as good.  It’s a fact that you’re going to have to accept.  Having said that, there’s no reason you can’t feel pretty good and perform surprisingly well.

Even though you’re not “race ready”, if you’ve been doing your off-season homework you’ve been training hard and building both strength and your aerobic base.  You’re quite possibly stronger and fitter in a low-level aerobic sense than you are in the competitive season.  While you won’t have the high-end aerobic and anaerobic fitness to support a really top level performance and won’t have spent the time on your board necessary to be technically in command of your stroke at high speeds, the work that you’ve been doing in your off-season should allow you to cover the typical 6 to 10 mile race distance aerobically at a pretty high percentage of your in-season pace. 

Where you’ll find you’re “rusty” is in the opening 10 minutes or so of your race where you’d normally go pretty hard.  You’ll feel a little rough technically and inefficient when you try to sprint or go really hard, and you’re high-end aerobic and anaerobic fitness is going to be missing compared to in-season races because you really haven’t been training it.  This is going to affect your sense of pacing both in the harder opening section of the race and once you’ve settled into the middle of your race as well.

So what should your race strategy be?

I don’t recommend coming up with a special race strategy for these off-season events.  The race distance hasn’t changed, just your race specific fitness.  And though that’s certainly less polished than it is mid-season, it shouldn’t affect your race strategy much.  Here’s how I recommend you approach your race:

  • Start off hard like you normally would, but pay extremely close attention to what your body is telling you.   We’ve talked at length in other posts about the importance of starting off hard for the first 10 minutes of any race in order to establish position that allows you to do the race with those of similar speed and ability.  In particular this allows you to get in the draft train you belong in, or perhaps even hitch a ride for a while in one that is a little faster than you. 

We’ve also identified the important of managing your lactic acid build up.  Going hard in the early stages of a race is only a good idea if you’ve got a good handle on your lactate production and have a good idea of how hard is too hard.  Once lactate gets too high you’re going to pay a huge price for it and slow down a lot.  It could ruin your race.  Racing in the off-season isn’t any different than in-season in this regard except that you’re going to have to pay even closer attention to what your body is telling you about your blood lactate accumulation.

When we’re racing in-season our anaerobic threshold is a little higher, our paddling efficiency at speed is better, and our ability to tolerate lactic acid is much higher.  Because we do a lot of high intensity work in-season, our bodies are really finely tuned to detecting increases in blood lactate and that allows us to have a really good idea of how hard is too hard or when we need to slow down a little to keep lactate levels manageable.   In the off-season, since we haven’t been training at high intensity we’re much less in touch with our lactate levels and it can be a little harder to gauge them.  You’re going to have to really listen to what your body is telling you and may have to back off a little sooner than you might in the summer.  I call this being “cautiously aggressive”.

  • When you feel lactate levels getting too high, settle into your traveling speed.  This should be something you’re much more familiar with.  Even though most of the water work you do in the off-season is only level 2 or 3, the adaptations that occur through this type of work greatly improve aerobic performance.  Plus all the land-based work you’ve been doing have been developing your aerobic ability as well.  When you settle into your traveling pace you should be able to maintain it comfortably for an extended period of time – certainly long enough for most of your blood lactate to clear, allowing you to go harder again for a while. 
  • Don’t underestimate your traveling speed.  Don’t be afraid to go harder than the level 2 or 3 you’ve been going in your workouts.  Again, your pace should be determined by production of lactic acid.  If you’re feeling like you’re gasping for air or that lactate is accumulating too fast then you’re going too hard.  Back off.  I’d initially back off a lot just to be safe, but then I’d slowly increase intensity again till I find a point that is hard but sustainable.  This is likely going to be in the level 4 heart rate range.  It’s no different than what you’re trying to do in season.  You’ll probably surprise yourself at how good you are at this point of the race.   
  • Draft.  As always, use what is around you to your advantage.  Whether it is a random bump from a motorboat, a nice downwind bump, or someone’s wash you can draft, make use of it. 

As we discussed in previous posts about race strategy, drafting allows us to rest when we need to.  This rest can be the time required to clear enough lactate to allow you to paddle unaffected by lactic acid issues.  It can also provide you with an opportunity to bide your time until it makes sense to go anaerobic again, like perhaps the sprint to the finish. 

  • Remember almost everyone else is in the same boat as you.   It’s not like you’re racing in off-season form against everyone else in mid-season form so there is no need to worry about how you’ll do against everyone else.  They’ll be dealing with the same issues as you.  In fact, they might be overly cautious about racing in the off-season and afraid to go to hard leaving you with a real advantage if you use the “cautiously aggressive” race strategy described above.
  • Have fun.  As always racing should be fun, but it can be even more fun in the off-season because you should be able to race without pressure.  While you’ve been training, you’ve been training for races months away.  You haven’t done the specific race preparation necessary for optimal performance yet.  This essentially means that this is a free race with little or no pressure.  Go out and go for it, have fun and learn.  What you learn in races now you can apply in races later on when you do have the benefit of race specific preparation and it can make a big difference.

Here are some other frequently asked questions I often get about off-season racing

Q.  Should I do more paddling and special training to be more prepared for off-season races? 

A.  You can, but remember, you can’t peak for every race.  If you’re on a well-organized and periodized program that is preparing you for optimal performance in specific races later in the year, doing special training to perform optimally in an off-season race can jeopardize performance in more important races later on.  Would you rather perform better at The Cold Stroke Classic or the Carolina Cup?   

Q.  How should I warm up for off-season races?

A.  I’d suggest you warm up exactly as you would for an in-season race.  It is as important as ever to have your aerobic system activated when you start your race so at minimum you want to make sure you’ve had at least 5 minutes of quality aerobic work just before the start.  And if you’re racing in really cold temperatures you’re going to want to warm up a little longer.  Don’t worry about getting tired by doing a little extra paddling before the race start.  With all the training you’ve been doing on land and water you’re not going to get tired from a good warm up.

Q.  Should I lighten the load in my training week leading into the race?

A.  You shouldn’t do anything differently than you would before a non-priority race in the racing season.  Before a B-level race I normally suggest dropping the Friday strength session and shortening the Friday paddle but doing the rest of the week in its entirety.  If you’re doing an isolated off-season race then I’d certainly follow that pattern.  However if you’re doing a bunch of off-season races then I might consider doing the Friday strength as posted in the program.  In my opinion it’s not worth missing a bunch of strength sessions for off-season races.

Don’t forget to do a post-race analysis after your race just like you normally would after a race in the summer.  Sometimes you don’t recognize lessons that are there to be learned in races until you take some time to reflect on the race afterward.  The most important thing you want out of any race is to learn what you can from it.  You don’t want to miss any opportunity to learn from these off-season races so take the post race analysis as seriously as the race itself.

Good luck and have fun! 

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