Aside from the handful of athletes racing late season Ironman distance triathlons, for most of us the off season is here; it's time to review your season and make plans for improving your training and racing for next season. Maybe you've already made plans for all your "A" races, now's the time for an honest assessment of what kind of athlete you are, and how you want to progress next year. Which of the following categories we each fit in can determine how we want to spend our off season time and money preparing for next year.

Group 1 – Newbie, beginner, mostly racing sprint or short course races, or 1-2 Olympic distance tris, no or very little off season training or development
Group 2 – Been racing a few to a lot of years, raced a few long course races, mid pack and above finisher, looking for improvement, training all year long in two or more of the three sports
Group 3 – Whomever is left, veterans, long and short distance racers, at or near the top of your age group finishers, aspiring elite or pro triathletes, looking for improvement

For the Group 1 athletes, looking to spend hundreds to thousands of dollars, start with your bike. If you've got a decent road bike that has or is adaptable with a clip-on aerobar, or a Tri bike, then you're good. Else consider a mid-priced bike, buying as much frame as you can afford, knowing you can upgrade the rest of the components over time. If you’ve never had a proper bike fitting, or are buying a bike, this is a great time to have someone make sure you’re riding the correct size frame and that the handlebars, seat, and pedals are set up correctly, for comfort and to avoid injury.

But don’t concentrate on just the bike, as the focus to improving your times should really be on more training of your skill sets. Better to spend money on a swim analysis, with videotaping, and instructions on areas of your swim to focus on, then blindly doing laps in the pool, listening to well-intentioned friends offering advice. Secondly consider joining a Masters swim group, via a punch card or on a monthly basis, and connect with the Coach to let them know you want help with your stroke and will be there regularly to work on it.

Get out and ride your existing bike more, working on your aerobic base by doing long steady distance rides (LSD), HR zone 2, with a weekly or bi-weekly shorter hill workout to build strength. Do the same for your run alternating your focus from week to week to keep it fresh, recovering from one sport while focusing on the other. These kinds of workouts cross over and benefit all three sports. And if you're not using one already, I highly recommend a good heart rate monitor (HRM), with or without GPS, and learn how to use it and HR zones in your training.

If you’re serious about improving, then adding strength training to your schedule is an absolute must. This can be as simple as working out at home with a fitness ball and dumbbells, body weight exercises, or whatever home equipment you have. Stepping up and joining a gym or one of the local fitness groups that provides focused core strength training would be the next step, for the entire off season, and/or into next season as your development continues. Going hand-in-hand with all this, don’t forget to stretch or do some yoga. All the extra bodywork that strengthens your muscles also makes them short and tight, so stretching and yoga help to relax and lengthen them, making us flexible so we don’t get tied up in knots.

Things not to spend money on just yet are expensive race wheels, power meters, ultra expensive bicycle frames and components, aero helmets, etc.

Group 2 athletes, make sure you've got a proper sized bicycle, road or Tri, and have gotten a proper time trial fit by a bike fitter who works with triathletes. Aerobars for longer distance racing are a must, as well as time spent riding in them, alone, not in packs, so your body can adapt to this position. A used or less expensive set of race wheels should be considered, especially as you move closer to the front of your AG.

The same lessons that applied to the Group 1 athletes with regard to swimming, video analysis, coaching, still apply, as well as a revisit on the videotaping to validate work you've already been doing. If swimming is your weak link, improving your swim and getting out of the water with faster athletes will help push you along on the bike as well. With no races in sight for months, focusing on your swimming technique, without the usual very tired legs from hours of biking and running, large improvements can be made, ingraining the proper swim technique into our muscle memory.

Strength training should now be a part of your regular plan. Non-sport specific training, i.e., not swimming, biking, or running, compliment all three sports, building strength independently of each sport. When you do go out and swim/bike/run, now you can focus on form and your training effort, already having developed the strength needed to step up the workouts.

For your running dollars, if you've been running in the same brand and/or model of running shoe for a while, head to your local running store and talk to a knowledgeable salesperson about your running. Bring your old shoes, and see if you're actually using the correct type of shoe to match your build and running style (cushioned, neutral, stable, motion control), as maybe it's a time to switch. Talk or think about orthotics, do you need their correction, and if they're suitable to your particular shoe?

With money still in hand, bike set up the way you want, a HRM with GPS is an excellent pacing tool on the run, which really helps you stay in the correct HR zone. You need to focus on running slow on your slow days, fast on your fast days, learning to train “by” HR and pace, not just “with” HR and pace. A power meter, admittedly an expensive option, can also be an excellent tool to improve your focus on your bike training days, just be prepared to learn how to use it and the information that it provides, else it's really just an expensive bicycle computer with very fancy displays. The addition of power to your training rides is a great way to focus your training, optimizing the time spent in the saddle.

As far as personalized coaching, time spent talking to others, local Tri Club members, reading books and going online, can provide a lot of information, which can be hard to sort and organize. Having said that, there’s nothing like going out and experimenting to see what works, what doesn’t work, to provide a sense of personal accomplishment. If you’ve tried this, are still struggling, and have money available, a personal coach can help develop an appropriate training plan to help you reach your short and long term goals.

Group 3, on top of your game, wanting more, having covered all the items already mentioned, now what? If you've got a large bag of money to spend, a top of the line Tri bike from any one of the manufacturers, verifying first that they can be adjusted to fit you, not you to it, is the ultimate statement when you show up for a race or group ride. Show up on a P4 or Shiv and you'd better be the real deal. Athletes riding round tube bikes with 7-8 speeds better not be passing you on the bike, else be prepared to wear the "poser" label. You are the people that should actually be considering the components that manufacturers claim shave seconds over a 40k time trial. The rest of us? Fancy components are nice, if you've covered all the other bases, else you too can wear the poser label, so bring a thick skin.

If you're really ready to push your athletic envelope, decided that following someone else’s training plan, or pulling one off-line isn’t working, then a personal coach, a second set of eyes, seeing the whole racing season, developing a schedule and a training regime which builds over the course of one or more years, is a good investment. Not only can a coach save you time by avoiding mistakes, they can help with injury assessment, recovery techniques, and provide emotional support on the inevitable bad days, which we all have. Realize though that having a coach makes you accountable, which some people really like or need, another reason to get up at 5AM for a morning Masters swim workout.

One final note for all groups of athletes, something that no amount of money is going to help you with, is just getting out the door and actually doing the training. A swim coach, a fancy new bike, or new running shoes will not help if we don't go out and actually use them. If time management is an issue for you, that should be your number one focus to improving your racing, making the best of what little time you do have to train. Focusing on quality workouts every day goes a long way towards getting fitter and stronger. Do what it takes to make that a reality, sprinkle in a few dollars here and there to help the process move along, and next year could be your best year yet.

Fred Maggiore, USAT Level I Coach