Sprinting during off-season

Why You Should Sprint During Off-Season Endurance Training

Something is wrong with my body. I don’t have a diagnosis yet, but I think I might be iron deficient. Other possibilities are burnout, a low-grade viral infection, low blood pressure, stress, and vitamin D deficiency. What I know for certain is that I feel terrible when I exercise, and particularly when I run.

I began to suspect something was amiss a couple of weeks ago, when I gave a subjective rating of “Poor” to a string of runs recorded in my online training log. I wasn’t yet performing much below standard at that point, but I didn’t feel as good as I normally do when running. The following week, though, I was forced to abandon consecutive high-intensity interval runs—something I hadn’t done in as long as I can remember, perhaps never. Both times my body just didn’t have it.

Things went south from there. Although I continued to feel fine at rest, I decided that I needed to take a break from intense exercise while I tried to figure out what was going on. My plan for my next easy run was to coast along at a pace that felt comfortable, no matter how slow it was. That pace turned out to be 8:40 per mile, or well over a minute per mile slower than my usual pace in easy runs. What’s more, my heart rate hovered around 160 bpm at that pace, whereas typically it’s in the low 130’s at 7:00 per mile. Time to panic!

Not really. I’m very slow to panic. But it was time to course correct, and specifically to eliminate all high-intensity efforts from my training and to reduce my run frequency from every day to every other day (while continuing to do some form of exercise twice daily, not including the two-mile walk I do with my wife each morning) until I’d identified and addressed the cause of my indisposition. In other words, I went into a kind of holding pattern in my training, similar to when I shift into maintenance mode after completing a big race and before starting to ramp up for the next one

Coincidentally, the very next day after I made this decision, I stumbled across a study newly published in Frontiers in Physiology that was highly relevant to my situation. An international research team led by Nicki Winfield Almquist of Inland Norway University of Applied Science investigated the effects of including a single session of sprint intervals in the off-season training of elite male cyclists. Sixteen cyclists were separated into two groups. For a period of three weeks immediately following the conclusion of a competitive season, both groups reduced their overall training volume by 60 percent, but whereas one group did all of their cycling at low intensity, the other group swapped out one weekly easy ride for a session that included three sets of three 30-second sprints.

Almquist’s team was interested not only in how the sprints would affect the cyclists’ fitness but also in how it would affect them psychologically, as mental recovery is a major objective of off-season training. If the sprints benefited the athletes’ fitness at the cost of compromising the recharging of their emotional batteries, then using the method in off-season training would not be advisable. But that’s not what happened. Testing conduced at the conclusion of the three-week intervention revealed that the sprint group performed better in sprints, as would be expected, and also exhibited smaller declines in 20-minute time trial performance and fractional utilization of VO2max compared to the control group while recording similar scores in a standardized Athlete Burnout Questionnaire.

One thing I noticed during the first bike ride I did after deciding to switch into maintenance-training mode was that I didn’t feel any worse climbing up the lone hill in my neighborhood than I did noodling around on the flats. Thus, after reading this study, I decided to insert some 30-second hill sprints into my next ride. Granted, this wasn’t exactly the use that Almquist et al had in mind for the method, but I survived the sprints just fine and, if nothing else, doing them made me feel a bit better about my situation—that I was doing one more thing to limit its impact on my fitness.

The next time you find yourself in maintenance training mode, try throwing some sprints into the mix. Again, the cyclists in the study I described did just nine, 30-second sprints once a week. Far from interfering with your need to get away from hardcore workout suffering for a few weeks, these sprints may in fact become something you look forward to on Tuesdays (or whenever you choose to do them), much as I am looking forward to my next sprint set.

By the way: You will no doubt be infinitely relieved to hear that, since I started writing this post a few days ago, I’ve begun to feel better, and I think I’ve identified the culprit behind my bad patch, but that’s a topic for another day. . .