Ahhhhhh, it is finally “off-season” for the traditional triathlete. October signals the end of most North American triathlons and the end of a triathlete’s structured training. This time until January is usually filled with a random 5k, some sporadic strength training, and maybe a rare outdoor bike ride when the elements outside are prime. Then comes the first spin class session in January. You know it is going to HURT, the mental and physical struggle starts all over, and the regret sinks in……deep. So how do you set yourself up for one of the best triathlon seasons you have ever had? You must maintain fitness through that notoriously named “off-season” time frame. In this article, I will discuss how you can improve your strength, endurance, and stamina by going off-road to set yourself up for a better year of triathlon.
Time to get the wheels dirty!
Off-road riding provides new technical terrain challenges to improve bike-handling skills and shifting. At first, it can be pretty intimidating to “take the plunge” into chunky rocks, challenging climbs, and fast technical descents. When first starting, realize you will have to prime new core muscles you usually do not use while cycling on the pavement. To help with this, take your bike on flatter terrain in the beginning as you soon realize the resistance alone and different terrain causes more muscle recruitment. The arm-shoulder chain, core, and legs must work harder than pavement riding to keep the bike upright due to vibration on the fork  and terrain changes. Your leg muscles will have to acclimate to the new resistance, so tackling the higher, notorious climbs can be added once you feel your body is more acclimated to this new way of cycling.
We are lucky in the Midwest because gravel cycling rides and races are all around us and extremely HOT right now. Many triathletes are turning to gravel cycling to add to cross-training for their pavement rides, and here are some reasons why:
- Improves mental stamina
- Gravel miles take longer and require more effort than pavement miles.
- Allows you to travel to new areas where the 23-25cm tires cannot take you
- It provides a feeling of a new adventure.
- You have been in triathlon for years; you feel you need something new to give reprieve when the triathlon training gets mentally taxing.
- Meet other cyclists within a laid-back, welcoming community
- You WILL become a stronger cyclist.
- Technical bike handling and gear shifting skills are improved.
- Less or slower-moving traffic
Long-time professional triathlete Heather Jackson just announced her transition from the professional realm of triathlon to now, gravel cycling. In her most recent podcast with Ian Bozwell, “Breakfast With Boz,”  she mentioned how she encourages her triathlon friends to dabble into gravel cycling to help improve their strength while also realizing new endurance opportunities outside of triathlon. Per Heather, since taking up gravel cycling, her cycling effort during a triathlon is still difficult. Still, she feels better mentally since she is off the bike much faster during a triathlon than during a gravel race due to the speed difference. This mental boost sets her up better for the run because she is used to being on the bike much longer during a gravel race. With usually a higher rate of perceived exertion (RPE) on gravel due to the resistance, pavement rides seem less difficult than before. If you are interested in a weather-permitting weekly gravel ride, check out the Move Up Cycling Club, where we meet for a gravel ride at 11 am in Pleasant Hill and endurance-related topics discussed at local eateries after each Saturday.
Mountain biking is a new wild ride that takes technical riding to another level. The bike is heavier, the terrain more diverse, climbs more prominent, and thus provides increased power and strength without realizing it due to a new feeling of adventure and mental freedom. Following many of the points detailed under gravel cycling, mountain bike riding will improve your anaerobic threshold (i.e., that feeling when climbing a hill). Starting this new adventure will require a mental shift as it will cause you to produce more power and strength, but the absolute return on investment is worth the change.
Want to trek and ride your bike through streams, mud, sand, and other adventurous terrains? Then cyclocross is the off-road adventure for you! Many have used this event to promote their fitness with its ability to push an athlete’s anaerobic system  to a whole new level. Bike selection is unique because a cyclocross bike can also be used as gravel and usually vice versa, thus saving some dollars while exploring other off-road adventures. Move Up Endurance Coaching owner and coach Kent Woermann provides more insight into this world of grit with his article, “A Guide to Your First Cyclocross Race” .
Pack up your tent and go! If you thrive on camping, this is an excellent avenue for you! This style of off-road cycling provides a lot of adventure as you strap everything needed for a couple of days or more of cycling touring. The equipment required for this can be expensive, but the investment is worth it if you know you will wrack up many miles using it. If the slower touring approach is not your vibe, turn to bike pack racing. Bike packing races usually are ultra-endurance races that can take days to complete, but some shorter-distance races provide just enough challenge and adventure for someone needing a shorter distance. (i.e., Pony Express Gravel Grinder versus Cannonball 500 versus The Great Divide)
Some people scoff at the added expense of buying a new bike for off-road cycling, which is understandable, but many have a hybrid or cruiser sitting aside the time-trial or road bike. With ample trails and many that go across entire states, there is no excuse not to utilize them to improve your performance! Fine gravel trail systems allow for added resistance to the rider, requiring them to place more power onto the pedals without hitting them hard in the bank account.
Running on dirt?
Trail running and hiking have been around for years and have remained on the radar. Though this article focuses primarily on cycling, we have to add another event to the equation because though the longest distance of a triathlon, there are other sports we must incorporate in our training! Running on singletrack trails typically provides more climbs, descents, and diverse terrain to further increase your strength during running. There is a frequent misconception that leg muscles are more damaged from the concentric loading of hill climbing. The science shows us that eccentric loading  from running downhill elongates the muscle and causes more muscle damage and eventual hypertrophy—if you follow a proper post-workout nutrition protocol that Move Up Endurance Coaches can provide. The eccentric loading places more dominance within the glutes and hamstrings, a common weakness for many quad-dominant triathletes. Stabilizer muscles strengthen as they are used more as your feet and ankles mold to tree roots, rocks, and uneven surfaces. A shorter stride and straight back, do not lean over, will help provide more stability while navigating the woods. It also should go without saying your shoe selection will optimize your experience while out on the trails, so choose wisely, and see a local specialist for trail running shoes.
Lastly, ultra-gravel running races are springing up around the country, adding a new exciting avenue for endurance athletes. Yes, seriously, you run on back country roads while being mostly unsupported, just like its gravel cycling race “cousin” and adding more thrill of overcoming such a challenge. Athletes embark on miles on top of rock fragments, dirt, mud, and maybe a couple of large creek crossings. Running on gravel can provide an opportunity for a more peaceful run, hill work, and further resistance to improve your mental and physical stamina. Larger races are now promoting “Doubles” where you perform a 50k run on the first day, followed by a 100+ mile bike the next day, all on gravel. Think about it, one of the most extensive brick workouts you have ever performed! That is extensive, but this allows you to realize what is available beyond triathlon to change your routine to improve your performance.
The mental reprieve from the pavement and excitement of a new challenge brings new light to driven triathletes. Most of us love the social aspect of the sport and getting out of our comfort zone, so trying a new avenue allows us to meet new people and learn from them and more about our limitless selves. The fresh fall and winter air around you will enable you to continue to work on your performance in a low-pressure environment. The charismatic feel of the off-road community allows one to perform at their level of comfort. One may even witness a rider taking a break, bringing a PB & J sandwich out during a race, and consuming, yes, seriously. The feel and the vibe are different IF you allow it. A distinct feeling of calm comes from these other off-road avenues but allows fitness to transform into something more significant. You can push your efforts hard and get into the manic training specificity if you so choose to but be sure you are correctly allowing transition periods within your macrocycle. If you need help setting up your training blocks, please reach out;  we can help you.
Most endurance athletes love the feeling of new adventures and challenges to maintain their health and fitness. These off-road cycling and running adventures allow for newfound mental and physical stamina due to the increased resistance and technicality of the terrain. With the change in resistance and scenery by going off-road, athletes can keep their base miles, improve their fitness level, give their minds a break from the pavement, and set themselves up for one of their best triathlon seasons.
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: May 2021 – Volume 53 – Issue 5 – p 936-944 doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002565
- “Heather Jackson”. Breakfast With Boz. Spotify, October 11, 2022
- Patel H, Alkhawam H, Madanieh R, Shah N, Kosmas CE, Vittorio TJ. Aerobic vs anaerobic exercise training effects on the cardiovascular system. World J Cardiol. 2017 Feb 26;9(2):134-138. doi: 10.4330/wjc.v9.i2.134. PMID: 28289526; PMCID: PMC5329739.
- Woermann, Kent. (2022, September 22). A Guide to Your First Cyclocross Race. https://www.moveupcoaching.com/2022/09/22/a-guide-to-your-first-cyclocross-race/
- Move Up Endurance Coaching. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.moveupcoaching.com/ourcoaches/
- Bontemps B, Vercruyssen F, Gruet M, Louis J. Downhill Running: What Are The Effects and How Can We Adapt? A Narrative Review. Sports Med. 2020 Dec;50(12):2083-2110. doi: 10.1007/s40279-020-01355-z. PMID: 33037592; PMCID: PMC7674385.