Triathlon great Chrissie Wellington stresses the importance of taking time away from training and competition

Many athletes – myself included – are creatures of habit. We love routine and structure and we crave control, without sometimes realising that the desire for control is actually controlling us.

We are sometimes fearful of taking a break from this routine, worrying over lost fitness and added waistline insulation and dreading the endorphin cold-turkey. But as I make clear in my latest book – To the finish line: a world champion triathlete’s guide to your perfect race – it is not the training sessions themselves that will make you fitter – it’s the recovery, the adaptation and regeneration from the stress caused by those activities.

Mental break

It is not just about physical recovery, it’s mental rejuvenation too. We need to be unplugged in order to come back firing on all cylinders and this means taking an ‘off season’.

The aim of the off season is to recharge, not only your physical but also your mental batteries – leaving you invigorated, motivated and ready to give 100% to 2018, and beyond.

Often the fitter we become and more experienced we are, the greater our end-of-season recovery needs. It’s like an interval session: the intense effort must be followed by a proportional period of recovery/rest.

I know it can be psychologically difficult and we have to suppress self-destructive feelings of guilt or laziness, but know that this is not wasted time: it’s a vital bedrock to success and longevity.

Risks from too little rest

I used to take around four to six weeks as an ‘off season’ after the Ironman World Championship in October. But it is really up to the individual.

So much depends on your training volume, level of fitness, injury status, and your state of mind.

One thing’s for sure, though, there are much greater risks from having too little rest than a bit too much.

As well as drastically reducing the volume and intensity of the training you do, I would also spend time honestly evaluating the previous season while it’s still fresh in your mind: the good and bad; the highlights and the lowlights; your strengths and weaknesses.

Don’t just focus on training and races – but also think about wider lifestyle issues, like how much sleep you’ve been getting, the state of your relationships, what stresses you may have had in your life, how you feel at work.

Keep it light

In terms of exercise, I would have a few weeks of very light swimming and hiking – making it fun, unstructured and (for me) non-triathlon focused. I didn’t keep a log and left the gadgets at home.

It’s a good time to see a physio and get a biomechanical assessment, to help highlight strengths and weaknesses, and start to introduce some strength and conditioning exercises. Triathletes – or any athlete – might even want to get a bike fit.

Think ahead

You can start to think about next goals, again sitting down with your coach, friends and family to make sure their views are taken into account. After all, none of us get to the finish line alone, and significant others should be involved in our journey from the outset.

What changes would you have liked to make? What weaknesses do you want to address? What places do you hope to visit? What would you like to achieve? And when you wonder: “Will I ever get fit again?” Trust that the answer is yes. In fact, not only will you get fit again, the obligatory off-season will make you refreshed, stronger and much more resilient.

New year, new you?

Life is so much richer and more fulfilling if we can follow our passions and when we are able to find and pursue sports or careers that make us smile, that challenge us, that widen our circle of friends, that make our hearts sing. We might not always know what these passions are, and that’s when we need to summon up the courage to explore, to venture, to take a leap of faith … to set a goal.

I’d always recommend that people have a target, and one that excites and energises them, but that is also slightly scary too – something that they may not even think they can do.

January is the ideal time for any athlete to set goals for the year ahead. Think carefully about what you want to achieve and go for it. What’s stopping you?

» Chrissie Wellington won the Ironman triathlon world title in Hawaii four times from 2007-2011 and holds the women’s world record for the distance. In 2009 she was voted Sunday Times sportswoman of the year and in 2010 was awarded an MBE. She won 13 Ironman titles from 13 races and is the author of To the Finish Line: A World Champion Triathlete’s Guide to Your Perfect Race (published by Constable, £18.99)

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