Coach Tip Tuesday: Maintenance Phase is Flexible...and Important
As we head right into the holiday season, it’s a good time to talk about training during this time of year and how to manage expectations.
If you have a goal race in December or January, then how you need to handle training throughout the holiday season is different from the folks who are done with their racing for the season and who are in Maintenance Phase. Choosing to schedule a goal race in December or January means that the athlete will need to maintain a higher volume of training throughout this very busy time of year.
This is one of the most quintessential examples of how saying yes always means saying no to something else; it is very, very important to understand that this means that training will need to be one of the top priorities during this time and that other things (such as holiday parties or gatherings) will need to be sacrificed. After all, time is a zero-based budget and there are only 24 hours in a day. Choose to add in Peak Phase to this busy time of year, and you need to eliminate something else to make room for it.
Every year, at least one or two of the athletes I coach on Performance Coaching do choose to schedule a goal race in December or January. However, the majority of the athletes I have worked with over the years do not, which means that they are in Maintenance Phase.
Simply put, Maintenance Phase is one phase of training (a “mesocycle” or a bigger portion of a training contained within a “macrocycle” (or the training year)) that is used both as an important break from other training cycles and as a way to resensitize the body to the volume and intensity that is required to make gains during the main season. Over the course of a well-planned and executed training year, the body adapts to the stimulus (workouts) that it is doing. As it does that, it takes more and more stimulus to elicit adaptations and gains; in essence, The Law of Diminishing Returns starts to apply. In addition to slower gains, this means that athletes are at increased risk for injury since it takes more volume and intensity to overload the system to stimulate adaptations. Properly timed and managed recovery weeks can help mitigate that risk, but in order to make continued progress over the course of several seasons or one’s time as an athlete, Maintenance Phase is necessary.
Maintenance Phase is a flexible time of year and an important one. Without the “pressure” of a goal race looming over them, most athletes (quite rightly) feel less pressure during this phase of training. This is a time of year when fitness activities do not need to be quite so specific and there is more freedom to do things for enjoyment, rather than specific or measured purpose. Many athletes choose to spend this time of year doing activities that they are unable to do during the main season due to the specificity and demand that that time of year necessitates.
However, it’s important to note that flexibility doesn’t mean that this is an unimportant phase of training. One of the most important tenets of Maintenance Phase is that the athlete keeps moving (just at a lower volume and intensity than they were moving during the main season). A tempting tactic that many athletes end up deploying (sometimes unintentionally) during this time of year is to take a complete break from all training.
While a certain amount of regression in fitness along with changes in body composition are expected (and honestly, desired!) during this time, consistent movement is necessary. Without it, athletes will essentially be starting from scratch for the next season. Believe me, that is much more work (not to mention frustration!) than maintaining some level of consistency in the off-season.
Due to this flexibility (or maybe even a bit of burnout from the previous season), this is a time of year when many athletes take a break from coaching and/or structured training. I totally understand the pull toward this line of thinking, but I’m here to share that I’ve also seen this strategy backfire. A training plan written by an experienced coach can be an invaluable tool during this time of year, especially when it comes to hitting that “Goldilocks Sweet Spot” of off-loading some fatigue and fitness from the previous season while maintaining enough fitness and skill to make progress in the coming season(s). Get this recipe wrong, and you may experience extended burnout and/or too much regression from where your fitness was.
It is so important to take a break at this time of year and it’s important to keep moving so you stay healthy, maintain fitness, and give yourself a strong foundation from which to build in future seasons. Don’t make the all-too common mistake of thinking that Maintenance Phase doesn’t matter because it’s “less” than the training you do in the main season or because it doesn’t end in a goal race. It’s the training you need to do so that you can train later. Indeed, Maintenance Phase might just be the most important phase of them all; a house built on a strong foundation is the one that lasts the longest. :)
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.