Off-Season Fitness

The off-season is the time for a well-deserved break, yet it might be viewed as a chance to get ready for next season.  As each day passes you’ll lose the fitness that you worked so hard to get if you fail to do something to keep it.  There’s no need to go to extremes, though.  Looking at the off-season as part of your overall training cycle will keep you focused on maintaining the fitness level you need to get the job done.  Nutrition is part of that plan.

For a high-school athlete, a summer with no training is a missed opportunity that guarantees a hard return to the rigors of structured sports.  Just as during the season, it’ll help to set goals, such as reducing body fat, adding muscle mass, maintaining aerobic fitness, improving speed, and developing techniques specific to your sport.  Any attempt to alter body composition must be planned over a significant time period, making it absolutely necessary to start a program weeks before the season opens.  It isn’t safe to increase or decrease a body component in a short time.  Because of this, be careful to avoid fads and misinformation from the non-credentialed sources that pop up on the internet and from friends of friends’ friends.

Since you’re on your own during the off-season, or are hangin’ with the guys at best, you’ll be separated from the atmosphere that lends itself to motivation and drive.  If you’re totally idle, you’re detraining, and that’ll reverse the training-induced physiological adaptations you need to excel at your sport.  You’ll lose strength, power, endurance, and aerobic power and capacity.  Within days or only a few weeks you’ll see these qualities diminish.  If you‘re a runner, fifteen days’ inactivity will award you with a 25% decrease in performance.  (Houston et al. 1979)  If you’re a strength-trained athlete, strength or power will decline almost immediately after the cessation of training.  (Kraemer. 2002)  Since you’re on your own, you’re also unlikely to train as you would under supervision, and the results will show it.  (Mazzetti. 2000)  It came as a surprise, however, when researchers announced that if frequency of training is reduced by two thirds, endurance capacity can be maintained for as long as three months.  (Hickson. 1982)  (Neufer. 1987)  So, now you have some slack time.

Simple things like walking, taking the stairs instead of the escalator, and even stretching contribute to your fitness plan.  And there’s nothing wrong with cross-training.  But there are some things you can’t do all at once, like lose weight and increase muscle mass.  These need to be tackled separately, mostly because the body isn’t very adept at doing both at the same time.  Lose the weight, and then build the muscle.

The off-season doesn’t mean you can eat what you want.  The high-calorie energy bars that got you through the season won’t do you any good if you don’t burn ‘em.  You still need to keep an eye on calories in and calories out, as well as on hydration.  Your nutrition goals will include maintaining the physique that is suited to your sport, so balancing energy needs is important.  This is an individual venture that requires a different carbohydrate to protein ratio from that during the active season, particularly if your off-season training sessions are of shorter duration.  Once you find your competition weight, stick to it, even if you have to monitor yourself a few times a week to find any changes you didn’t cause on purpose.  (Smith. 1984)  If you’re trying to lose weight, be watchful not to over-restrict your eating.  Sports dietitians are available to help you with this.  It might be worth your while to sit down with a pencil and paper and figure out how many calories you need to train and how many you need for normal body functions, and work from there.  If you’re trying to drop a few pounds, keep in mind that you need about 30 calories of energy per kilogram of lean body mass to keep you going.  Otherwise you risk metabolic and hormonal insult, and if you’re a girl, you need to watch for menstrual disorders.

When it comes to protein intake, the total amount is not as important as the timing.  Consuming protein before and right after a session will enhance protein synthesis and net protein balance.  1.2–1.6 grams per kilogram of body mass will serve you well in both endurance and strength.   If you lay off completely for a few weeks, you can lower those numbers to 0.8–1.0.  (Colombani. 2011)

Different activities have different fuel needs, so carbohydrate intake is not one-size-fits-all.  For light training, you need about 5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body mass, while heavier, prolonged, or strenuous work that demands optimal synthesis of glycogen might call for 7–10 grams per kilogram.  You’ll need the higher amounts for events that last longer than one hour.  You should be able to fine tune intake according to your specific needs.  (Burke. 2011)

The off-season needn’t be a season off.  A serious athlete will take care of business so that getting back into the groove is not a monumental feat.  In light of this, it’s O.K. to have a cheat day once in a while, where you can eat pizza on a Friday night, or a bowl of ice cream, or a chocolate éclair after a meal.  But don’t do all these at the same time.  Nine to thirteen servings of fruits and vegetables a day, even during the off-season, will supply nutrient density to help offset prandial sins.  That sounds like a lot, but really isn’t.  Besides, eating this much produce can displace the potential to eat empty calories during the off-season.

Staying properly hydrated is a matter of common sense, but that faculty is ignored too often.  Losing 2% of body weight to sweat impairs performance on the field or in the gym.  More than that risks serious after effects that may include hospitalization. On the other hand, overhydration will dilute electrolytes and backfire.  Don’t drink at rates that are greater than sweat losses.  You might actually gain weight during the competition period.  Get hydrated before an event with 8-16 ounces of fluid a couple of hours prior.  Drink ½-1 cup every fifteen to twenty minutes, if you can, during an event.  Afterwards, replace any fluids you have lost at a rate of about two cups for every pound of body weight lost.  If you’re not exercising regularly, you still need three liters—or more—of water a day, some of which comes from food.  Use it or lose it.

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