If you’re an NHL hockey player, the stereotypical off-season involves not much hockey at all. Professional hockey players are known to hit the golf course, and the committed ones dabble in the weight room, during the late spring and summer months after their 80-plus game season.
According to a CBC story earlier this year, NHL stars spend their off-season traveling, volunteering, spending time with family, among other non-hockey-related activities. CBC’s take on the NHL off-season, however, doesn’t mention the part where players try to stay fit and build, or at least maintain, strength and fitness over the summer months.
The idea behind an off season in any sport is to give the body, and perhaps more importantly the brain, a rest from the intensity of competition, and a full-stop rest from the sport itself. This helps the professional athlete survive season after season after season in what he/she hopes is a long professional career.
Andy Edwards, who now owns Dragon CrossFit in Cardiff, Wales, used to play professional rugby for Bath Rugby in England, and then for Ebbw Vale in Wales. Edwards explained his competitive season ran from September until April or May each year, with a three-month break during the summer where he didn’t touch a rugby ball, let alone play a game. It was important to get that down time to reset the body, not just physically, but especially emotionally.
“In the off-season, we were encouraged to keep ourselves fit, but take some time out away from the sport as during the season, it’s a very gruelling time,” Edwards said.
But what does an off-season look like when your sport IS fitness?
When you’re a Regionals or Games-level CrossFit athlete, is it possible to get away from your sport at all?
Edwards understands the dilemma for the CrossFit athlete. The off-season is usually a time to tackle personal weaknesses. Spending three months hitting a golf course and going the gym just three days a week to maintain some semblance of fitness likely won’t help a professional CrossFit athlete come October.
“With the way the sport is developing with people becoming stronger and stronger, I think now the majority of Games athletes are developing that base (in the off-season), as it separates the good from the elite,” Edwards said.
Instead of forcing athletes to take a ton of time off, Edwards emphasizes weekly recovery procedures.
“I like to help athletes avoid burnout (by encouraging them) to recover better. If they have a rest or recovery day, I strongly recommend taking it away from the gym,” he said. He also tries to encourage his athletes to stick to CrossFit’s mantra that tells us to regularly play new sports.
Despite an unwillingness among many Regionals and Games CrossFit athletes to truly take an off-season, five-time Games athlete Valerie Voboril, has found a way to embrace a true off-season. At the age of 36, she knows taking the down time increases her ability to have longevity in the sport she loves.
Generally, after Voboril competes at the Games, she takes a down-time from August until November.
“I totally believe in an off-season…Meaning I do whatever type of workout I feel like doing, without any particular agenda other than to have fun,” Voboril said. Her off-season also involves playing new sports.
Interestingly enough, last year was the first year she chose not to to take this down time after the Games. In hindsight, she calls this decision to skip an off season a mistake—one that didn’t bode well for her at Regionals in May.
“This year at Regionals I felt mentally burnt out, especially on Friday. I physically felt great, but mentally was struggling with my “why,” and was having a difficult time staying present and enjoying myself,” Voboril said. “I had created so much mental stress, pressure and expectations. I wasn’t staying true to myself or my “why.”
Voboril remembered her “why” on Saturday, “after much reflection, tears and advice,” she said. She remembered she had a responsibility to herself just to have fun and do her best.
Ben Bergeron, who coaches many perennial Games athletes, like Becca Voigt, Chris Spealler and Michele Letendre also believes in at least some time off after the Games.
“My Games athletes take a full week completely off. No working out of any kind,” Bergeron said. “Then the entire month of August is essentially “off.” Meaning no set programming. Just single sessions of moving and (doing) what you want and enjoy.”
After taking August “off,” the fall, September and October, is focused on strength training.
“So it’s a break from the mental toughness and physical wear and tear of volume and metcons,” he explained.
In November and December, the intensity and volume start to pick up, until January arrives, which Bergeron considers the official start of the six-month Games season.
Bergeron believes CrossFit as a sport is still figuring out what the ideal year-long training schedule should be for high-level athletes. But he doesn’t believe CrossFit is the only sport trying to figure this out.
“The programming, treatment, coaching, training and overall protocol for all sports is constantly evolving,” he explained. Bergeron said he thinks as the sport grows in the next five years, athletes will become more focused on the necessary puzzle pieces for longevity as professional athletes.
“In five years, the athletes will be more focused on recovery, having a team supporting them, and the hours outside the gym,” Bergeron said.
As the curtains fall on what is believed by many to be the most physically demanding CrossFit Games to date, recovery management and the benefits of an "off season" for CrossFit Games athletes looks to be more important than ever for both mental and physical priming. In an ever growing competitive circuit that now includes alternative competitions like GRID, The East Coast Championships, Wodapalooza, Granite Games and a host of others, management of downtime and an "off season" is inevitably going to become more of an issue as the sport develops. If you haven't yet planned competition recovery and down-time with your coach, perhaps now is the time to do it.
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